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Elio: 48886 Early Adopter Deposits. Battle Won or Only Just Begun?

Chris Haining January 12, 2016 All Things Hoon 16 Comments

I love to support the underdog. I’m all about encouraging new start-ups, ventures no matter how brave or opportune, if it increases the diversity of our wonderful wheeled world.

One we’ve all been watching, and which is back in the news having put in an appearance at the NAIAS Is the Elio, by Elio Motors. This has been an interesting project to follow, and has been beset by its fair share of challenges, but, we’re assured, it will go into production within our lifetime.

So that leaves one final obstacle: Will the Elio find that long-term audience that its makers believe is out there?

According to the Elio Motors website (as of 14:26 January 12th) 48886 people have already placed deposits to be among the first to enjoy Elio ownership. That means 48886 with the means to lay down a substantial amount of money without an absolute guarantee that they’ll ever see it back.

The way I see it these people cannot possibly be part of one of the main demographics that Mr Elio has built his marketing case around; namely those who need a reliable, economical, inexpensive form of daily transportation that has hitherto not existed.

If the car wasn’t intended to appeal to those on a tight budget, the target price would surely have been set somewhat higher, so we assume that low-cost was a primary objective. However, surely if you can afford to place a large deposit on a new, inexpensive car with an uncertain delivery date, you don’t need said car, you merely want it.

If you have genuine need for an inexpensive mode of transportation, you’ll go out and buy one right now, that you can gaze at in three dimensions rather than on paper. And the chances are you won’t spend as much as $6800.

And, in my tragic experience, the greater need a customer has for sensible, low-cost transportation, the more likely they are to instead buy something wholly unsuitable. I need only point you in the direction of the swelling ranks of twelve-year old Range Rovers and Mercedes ML s you see parked outside rented properties in depressed areas.

Speaking as a member of the general public, we don’t tend to like having our financial inadequacies laid bare. A danger of the way the Elio is being marketed is that the driver could well end up stereotyped as being a bit brassic. I worry that the stigma attached to the Elio could end up worse than that which certain other utra-economy cars still suffer from.

So, this $6800 new car will not help the really impoverished, and irrespectively of how affordably priced it can be made to be, it is patently ill-suited to the role of family transportation. So the less well-off are largely excluded. And if somebody of moderate means is desperate for a car with a warranty, I would ask whether the other compromises of the Elio don’t suggest that this might not be the car for them.

What about the commuter market? Well, yes. There is a case for a commuter vehicle which does away with all the excess, empty chairs which are lugged around on the daily crawl to and fro of the office. And the economy can’t be sniffed at, either.

But the Elio  occupies more than half the road space of an average four-seater car, so in terms of actual roadspace occupancy per person, the concept is a little inefficient. The Elio isn’t much narrower than any other car, so there’s no chance of lane-splitting, so you’re stuck in the same traffic jams as anybody else, except you’re static in a much smaller, less airy cabin than anybody else. Plus there’s no option to get a couple of colleagues to come along and share the ride, so no qualifying for HOV lanes.

And are there really that many commuters out there who would want to give up their cosy Camry’s or prestigious Porsches in favour of a car forever associated with economy? The only people I can imagine migrating from four wheels to three would be early adopters, keen to be among the first to own something new and different, perhaps hoping it will develop the image of “I’m doing my bit” smugness that the Prius initially carried.

So this seems a more likely audience than than the cash-strapped, and one which doesn’t really need the car to be priced as low as $6800. For all its uniqueness, if the car was promoted as an alternative to a regular car, rather than the equivalent of one, I’ll bet you could double that figure and it would find homes.

Further sales are being talked about from motorcyclists who yearn for a little more shelter without having to suffer the appalling buzkill of having to drive a car. Unfortunately I suspect that those folk will need to look somewhere else, because this is a car. It has front wheel drive, 55 hp and can’t come close to offering the pure thrills of bikemanship.

Until somebody sells a Grinall Scorpion with a roof, that ain’t ever going to happen.

Aha! A gap in the market! So, why doesn’t Elio take that marketing route instead?

Not anywhere on the impressively glossy website do I see the Elio being marketed as being fun. There are all kinds of bold, worthy claims about safety, economy, innovation and environmental responsibility, but none that suggest that this might be a car you buy just for the hell of it.

Which, ironically, is the category describing every one of the 48886 people who have signed up for one so far. Not people who need it, but people who want it.

With a design as novel and individual as this, the wantability factor ought to be off the scale. Elio need to be capitalizing on the one--one jet fighter seating layout. They should be talking about simplifying and adding lightness.

They should start a one-make race championship with it. Imagine how close the racing could be. They should give it a cool name, maybe put it in a few music videos and computer games. Get some endorsement. Make it relevant. Make the Elio into something that a 16 year old buys as their first car because it’s so damn cool. This car could be the enclosed, entry-level Polaris Slingshot that your Mom wants you to drive. Surely that’s the market right there?

I can’t imagine that a low, light semi open-wheeled car with a wide track and 55hp can be anything but an absolute hoot to drive; if a 60hp Ford Ka is a giggle and a half, these things must be hilarious. I really want to try one. I’d love one, and I’m not diabolically hard up nor is the environment my #1 concern.

If they get the marketing right and sell this as an awesome $6800 toy the Elio could do really well. Finding a market position is one thing, increasing awareness enough to make a car fashionable is another. If they can make the Elio iconic; capture the imagination in such a way as the Elio becomes the must have driving accessory of the decade, the sky’s the limit.

Will they get it right? Can they?

Your predictions, below, please.

(Images stolen from all over the internet. Google “Elio” and they appear.)

  • “…so no qualifying for HOV lanes.”

    Here in Washington, if it’s licensed as a motorcycle it qualifies for the HOV lanes even when solo.

    • And this car will likely be the end of that loophole.

      • If the throngs of Corbins, Messerschmitts, HMVs, and the like which even now clog our HOV lanes haven’t done so, then there’s little to fear from the Elio.

        • Sjalabais

          Micro car owners of the world, unite!

          • We’re already united, or at least loosely affiliated. That is to say I waved at the Corbin guy when I last saw him about three years ago. I think he waved back.

        • Fair point.

  • I want them to succeed because it’s an innovative product being designed and built in the US. I also want them to succeed because I’d totally rock one of these (or something like it) for a commuter.

    That said, being anything close to a “real” vehicle manufacturer takes endless operational, organizational and infrastructure work. Getting a functioning design is like, 15% of the gig. Getting good ones out the door is a whole different ball game, one that innovative status-quo-destroying types tend to be terrible at.

  • Lokki

    As Chris points out, possible justifications for purchase are the key to sales.

    The first justification – great gas mileage – is a harder sell with gas under $2 a gallon and likely to stay that way for some years.

    The second – great price – is always problematic because as Yugo, Hyundai Excel, and Tata Nano owners have learned, great price and good value are not synonymous. The better value for $6800 is probably a used car.

    The third justification – cool factor – always starts out strong for something like this, but things like not having air conditioning and handling performance in the snow, tearcto chip away at the fun of ownership, even if there are no quality surprises.

    So, I predict that the Elio, if it ever does hit the streets will have less than 10,000 sales before the company folds.

    • Alan Cesar

      “Yugo (not in decades), Hyundai Excel (see Yugo), and Tata Nano owners (not on this continent)”

      Memory among car enthusiasts is long, but short in the general market. Hyundai survived its bad reputation and came out a solid car company based on selling inexpensive cars that were good value. If the Elio can provide good value–namely, a safe, economical car with a warranty–then it can survive on those merits.

      The Smart car is a better comparison, I think. It isn’t doing nearly as well as the initial hype, but it’s surviving in spite of having two seats, not being exceptionally cheap, not getting exceptionally good fuel mileage, and its primary selling point–that you could park it in tiny spots–isn’t really a big deal in the U.S.

      • Sjalabais

        The Smart is an excellent reference. It has always struck me as an oddity in the market, even here in Jurop. An ex-colleague had one, and he was so annoyed by its gigantic drop in value when new, it’s surprisingly high fuel consumption, and its many issues. Then he went and bought a Mini.

        Imho Chris did an excellent job of listing the shortcomings of the Elio. If the car still has almost 50k depositors, is it feasible to speculate that that number even is correct?

        • longrooffan

          came here to make the Smart reference as well but I’d love to see one in Miami Beach with no A/C.

      • longrooffan

        came here to make the Smart reference as well.

  • Rover 1

    How much are nearly new Ford Fiestas, Honda Fits or Fiat 500s all of which are shorter, (so take up less space), and may still be under warranty.? And seat more and carry more luggage. And are just as economical.

    • Alan Cesar

      Unless you’re looking at a super stripped-out model, nearly new Fiestas, et. al. are still quite a bit more money. This 2014 Fiesta has 40,000 miles and is still $9,000. If you want one with more options or lower mileage, the price very quickly creeps up to and past $11,000. If you want one in the Elio price range, you’re looking at a 2011 car with 70,000 miles. That’s not gonna have a warranty.

  • Kiefmo

    I want one because I enjoy being different. The 84mpg is just a bonus, ’cause if I really cared about mileage, I wouldn’t drive a car that uses the most expensive fuel, and does so at a rate of no better than 25mpg (though currently much worse, as the return line between injectors 1 and 2 is wrong-sized and puking the stinky stuff all over the pavement). I’ll put on a skinny LRR rear tire to reduce rear traction and neutralize the handling in curves while maximizing the straight-line empeegees!

  • Cool_Cadillac_Cat

    If I had the garage (or street) space, I’d consider one. It’d offset the ’98 5.9L Grand Cherokee I still really like driving, and enjoy even more off-road.

    When I was “new” car shopping about…wait, six years ago, WAT?…here was my pared-down list of rides I was very seriously looking for:

    1990-1991 Dodge Ram pickup, 4×4, extended cab, automatic, and the kicker, a 12V Cummins
    2006 Jaaaaaag XJ Super V8 (seriously, I’m not kidding about this one)
    At the time, an upcoming diesel Honda Fit, which never happened
    Post-electrical nightmare/pre-still many monies V12 Mercedes, a 140, coupe or sedan (or as a bonus, convertible)
    1994-1996 Cadillac D-body (Fleetwood Bro, yo), preferably a six-door ‘family car’, which I could Camino (but keep the middle seats/doors) at a later time (while odd, yes, I’m serious)
    1966 Imperial convertible – only 514 made, and they were nicer than the Caddies and Lincolns of the time, but I’d still consider DD’ing one…after putting disc front brakes on it

    Wound up with a 2005 RWD Cadillac STS, V8, mostly loaded (lacking Brembos and 18″ wheels, but I’m fine with this on a dedicated commuter car). Sure, I get about 20 MPG on my 60 mi. RT commute, but it’s nice, comfy, can haul ass when I want to, and with 144K miles on it, I figure I’m halfway through its life with me.

    However, were the Elio to come to market, while gasoline has dipped below $1/gallon (87 octane, and I don’t remember where), it’ll come back. It’d give me the garage space to work on the Jeep for a while, during which time, I’ll save for a Hellkitty Grand Cherokee (used, of course).

    I’d be happy to have a near-beater commuter car which is effectively disposable as it gets near 200K miles on it.

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