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3 wheels, 2 seats and 1 mission

Paul Elio is offering commuters a cheaper option to drive to work with his three-wheeled vehicle. The Elio will sell for $6,800 and will get an estimated 84 mpg. The vehicle is classified as a motorcycle. AP

Paul Elio is offering commuters a cheaper option to drive to work with his three-wheeled vehicle. The Elio will sell for $6,800 and will get an estimated 84 mpg. The vehicle is classified as a motorcycle. AP

Your next commuter car could have two seats, three wheels and get 84 miles to the gallon.

Elio Motors wants to revolutionize roads with its tiny car, which is the same length as a Honda Fit but half the weight. With a starting price of $6,800, it's also less than half the cost.

Phoenix-based Elio plans to start making the cars next fall at a former GM plant in Shreveport, La. Already, more than 27,000 people have reserved one. Elio hopes to make 250,000 cars a year by 2016. That's close to what Mazda sells in the U.S.

Because it has three wheels — two in front and one in the rear — the Elio is actually classified as a motorcycle by the government. But Elio Motors founder Paul Elio says the vehicle has the safety features of a car, like anti-lock brakes, front and side air bags and a steel cage that surrounds the occupants. Drivers won't be required to wear helmets or have motorcycle licenses.

The Elio's two seats sit front and back instead of side by side, so the driver is positioned in the center with the passenger directly behind. That arrangement, plus the low seating position — the Elio is just 54 inches tall — and the lack of power steering take a little getting used to.

But after a couple of spins around the block, it felt like any other small car. That's partly because its two front wheels stick out a foot on both sides, aiding balance and preventing the vehicle from tipping. The Elio has a three-cylinder, 0.9-liter engine and a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour. It gets an estimated 84 mpg on the highway and 49 mpg in the city.

Elio keeps the costs down in several ways. The car only has one door, on the left side, which shaves a few hundred dollars off the manufacturing costs. Having three wheels also makes it cheaper. It will be offered in just two configurations — with a manual or automatic transmission — and it has standard air conditioning, power windows and door locks and an AM/FM radio. More features, such as navigation or blind-spot detection, can be ordered through Elio's suppliers.

"If it really gets 84 mpg and doesn't drive terribly, it would justify the compromises you're making in size and comfort," said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Elio will also save money by selling the cars directly through its own stores and not through franchised dealers. Elio plans stores in 60 major metropolitan areas. They'll be serviced by car repair chain Pep Boys.

Elio has also applied for a $185 million advanced-vehicle development loan from the Department of Energy.

Paul Elio said so far, reservation holders are older, more affluent buyers who will use the Elio as a second or third car for commuting.

"It's an 'and' purchase for a lot of folks," he said. "So keep your SUV or your minivan or your large sedan, and when you're driving back and forth to work all by yourself, take the Elio. At this price point and this mileage, that works financially for folks."

Eventually, though, he believes the car will appeal to students as well as used-car drivers who want something newer and more reliable.

3 wheels, 2 seats and 1 mission 08/20/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 2:45pm]

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