It’s not without irony that the home to America’s newest ultra-light “automobile,” the Elio, is the Shreveport, La., plant that until 2010 manufactured the GM Humvee (bastion for men with ED everywhere). Now, a new generation of cars (more about their three-wheel classification in a minute) that make the Smart Car and Prius resemble bloated luxury liners-cars like the Tata Nano and the new Elio–that have an inverse relationship to the gas prices they are designed to offset has been introduced. But not only do these two new cars sport tiny fuel consumption and Lilliputian parameters, but their price tag is also designed to actively compete in a young, urban market: $4,000 for the Nano (expected sometime in 2014) and $6,800 for the first of the Elios, slated to roll out in early 2014 from Shreveport.
The big chill
Small problems like fires that engulfed its occupants aside, Tata’s product has failed to stimulate the interest of India’s primarily male car buying demographic (the author can’t see why). America may be an entirely different story. But some serious questions remain: Will low horsepower/torque cars ever really catch on in a culture built around speed and size or be safe to compete for road space with trucks and the like? Can Elio’s three-wheel design that maximizes mpg and elicits slick maneuverability from its chassis get past some of the more rigid states’ motorcycle license requirements (the company has yet to issue a statement on this, other than “check with your DMV”)?
Side by side
The Tata Nano will likely revamp its horsepower rating before deploying in the U.S. domestic market. Even so, it won’t come in much above 50. This gives the homemade, small guy Elio with 70 horsepower significantly more oomph in the market. But not to come up short, the Tata comes standard with a luxurious four wheels instead of three, and though this may mitigate the tricycle jokes, it also addresses America’s lack of motorcycle-licensed drivers in states that count anything with less than four as a motorcycle. Although not all will face this problem, the question remains as to how to legally classify the Elio. Further, the Elio’s functionality does not extend to placing passengers next to the driver, as in a traditional car. Instead, the passenger sits behind the driver, along the axis of the chassis. While no different than a motorcycle in theory, the same functional views aren’t readily available.
The Elio’s real advantage comes with the in-line, three-cylinder engine, which coordinates nicely with its three-wheel design. The three-cylinder motor hasn’t been called up from the reserves since the Geo Metro, the VW Polo or the Subaru Justy for the U.S. market, though none of them produced more than 95 base horsepower. A few manufacturers ventured into two stroke terrain, creating lines of mosquito foggers that masqueraded as cars like the Saab GT750 and 96. But the three cylinder has now returned with more valves and more compression in the Ford Fiesta, sporting an impression 123 horsepower, but has yet to win EPA approval and official mileage estimates. Direct injection for the Elio would be a nice touch to improve economy and responsiveness but would likely bump the final price tag up at least $1,000-though this would make it real competition for the Ford Fiesta (which will MSRP close to $15,000). The Elio’s variant is a double overhead cam (with injection not disclosed yet), likely eliciting more power from the tiny 1-liter block than the Nano’s single overhead cam two cylinder, which becomes significantly more anemic under load. Further enhancing the Elio’s more versatile application for America’s aggressive roadways is the 8-gallon petrol tank, almost doubling the Nano’s 15-liter tank. The Elio also will give buyers an option in transmissions, while the Fiesta will almost certainly come off the boat with only an automatic transmission.
However they cut and paste these composite wonders, be it with three wheels or four, two cylinders or three, 2014 is shaping up to be the year of the sub-$12k and +65 mpg standard petrol nonhybrid car. Would you ride in one or buy one, or is infrastructure going to have to change to accommodate these little guys, and/or must gas go up before Americans will return to the three-banger with any enthusiasm?
Hannah L. Coffey is an ASE tech and divides her already-fractured time between teaching at UTC and working/writing about Subarus, Volvos and diesel Mercedes power trains. You can grill her about the latest quirk of your aging machine, what [she thinks] you should buy or whatever else strikes your fancy on her blog or by email. When in doubt, you should always seek the advice of a certified mechanic in your area. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.