This afternoon, was kind enough to bring a prototype of its three-wheeled car to Road & Track's New York City office for a test drive. It went great—right up until the left front fender fell off in the middle of Manhattan traffic.
If you were watching of the test drive, you got to see it all unfold in person.
But if you only watch the video—and especially if you only watch the final 30 seconds, where the carnage ensues—you're only getting a small part of the story.
One of the little secrets of automotive journalism is that cars break all the time. Whether it's due to abuse by ham-fisted journalists, the rigors of track testing, unforeseen bugs in early examples of a brand-new car, or just plain old fashioned mechanical defects, it happens. We drive these cars in the real world, on the same roads and in the same traffic that you commute in. Shit happens.
That's especially true for prototypes. And the Elio that we drove was most assuredly a prototype.
It drove like one. While it had a semi-complete interior and was powered by the same 3-cylinder engine Elio hopes to put into production, the little red three-wheeler we drove was built as a test vehicle. The Elio spokesperson who briefed me on the car likened it to an air-cooled Volkswagen: The shift linkage was wonky, the exhaust system creaked and rattled, and the engine mapping wasn't production-car smooth. Also, there was a noticeable aroma of gasoline throughout our drive.
And, as you saw in the last few moments of the video, some of the bodywork had rattled itself loose.
From the driver's seat, I can't tell you much more than what you see in the video. The car's pod fenders, mounted to the exposed front suspension A-arms, rattled over every bump and pothole we traversed. At some point, the left fender rattled itself loose, and when we hit a bump traveling west on 57th street in midtown Manhattan, the mounts let go entirely. The fender pitched forward, got pulled under the rotating front tire, and dragged along the road.
It was not my proudest moment on video.
With the fender jammed under the left-front tire, I wasn't able to steer the car to get it over to the curb. So brave cameraman Chris Perkins and I cut the video, hopped out, rolled the car backward to free the fender, and limped our way back to our meeting point.
Building a new car from the ground up is hard. Even huge automakers like Toyota and General Motors frequently run into bugs, problems, engineering shortsights, or unforeseen malfunctions. For a startup like Elio, it's infinitely more challenging—particularly with a design that seeks to revolutionize the automotive landscape by using .
So, yes. Prototypes break. That's why engineers build them. Perkins and I knew getting into the car that something could go wrong. Among all the things that can break on a car, this one was pretty low-stakes—especially since, when it happened, we were only doing about 14 mph on a straight stretch of road, in a place where traffic essentially never exceeds that speed.
When we returned to our meeting point, the Elio folks were extremely gracious and completely understanding. They informed me that this prototype's fenders are removable to allow them to roll the car through narrow doorways for display purposes, and that the production design will use different fender mounts.
Elio's got a hard road ahead. The company hopes to put this three-wheeler into production in 2017, at a start price of $6800, promising 84 mpg and a vehicle that's easy to maintain and fun to drive.
Those are ambitious goals for any automaker, let alone a brand-new startup. I still find it exciting to see an American company trying to offer a completely novel, high-efficiency alternative to the bloated, conventional, oftentimes boring vehicles that clog our streets—while still using the internal combustion engine and manual transmissions that we so dearly love.
Anyway, I think it looks way more badass with open wheels.