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Elio Motor plans to build its three-wheel vehicle in Shreveport, La. (Douglas Collier/The ShreveportTimes-Associated Press/AP Photo)
Elio Motor plans to build its three-wheel vehicle in Shreveport, La. (Douglas Collier/The ShreveportTimes-Associated Press/AP Photo)

The Green Highway

Going down the three-wheeled road Add to ...

Are you ready for a three-wheeler? Not the tricycle you rode as a kid, or an old Harley-Davidson pie wagon, but a three-wheeled car for daily use that promises tremendous fuel economy.

I’m asking the question because last week a startup company called Elio Motors announced a deal with a real estate developer to take over an old GM plant near Shreveport, La. Together they are promising to begin production next year of a three-wheel car with two seats, airbags, power windows, air conditioning, “possible” five-star safety and a $6,800 (U.S.) price tag.

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I think there is zero chance they can deliver anything like that at the price but exaggerated claims are sometimes made when fund-raising. Elio once applied for a $260-million grant from the U.S. Energy Department but wasn’t able to raise the private capital required to qualify. This one sounds like vapourware, but there is progress being made in a number of places on three-wheelers.

There’s nothing new about this. Mercedes-Benz incessantly claims to be the “inventor” of the automobile on the basis of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1886, which was a three-wheeler. Early Morgan sports cars were of the three-wheel variety as was the well-known but little-regarded Reliant Robin built in the U.K. off and on for nearly 30 years. The Reliant has one wheel in front and two in the rear – the delta design that is notoriously unstable. The Robin was a tippy little car.

A more stable design places two wheels at the front and one at the rear, which gives greater cornering ability; nearly all new three-wheelers, including the Elio, have gone this route. The best one I saw was the Carver, which was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 2007. This three-wheeler claimed to have the comfort and stability of a normal car along with the dynamic cornering of a motorcycle. It did it by tilting using automatic balancing technology. The Carver could tilt up to 45 degrees while turning based on how much cornering force was being applied to it.

I didn’t get to drive it, but I can tell you that you had to be a gymnast to climb into the thing. It was extremely low and tight and promised a top speed of 185 km/h. It also started at €30,000 (about $39,000 Canadian) each. The company lasted two years before going bankrupt, but I loved the idea of automatic tilting.

In Quebec, there are two companies – one large and one small – that are in the forefront of three-wheeler technology. The Can-Am roadster is the three-wheeled motorcycle that Bombardier Recreational Products introduced in 2007. It has a single drive wheel in the rear and two wheels in front, a similar layout to a snowmobile – surprise, surprise.

The Can-Am has traction and stability control and anti-lock brakes and can reach more than 160 km/h. I’ve driven this one and found it difficult to adjust to because it’s a motorcycle that doesn’t lean. I think something like Carver’s automatic tilting technology has to be worked into three-wheelers whether they’re enclosed like cars or open like the Can-Am. The Can-Am costs between $19,000 and $25,000 in Canada.

The other Quebec firm doing three-wheelers is Campagna Motors, which has built the T-Rex in small quantities for about 15 years. These are the ultimate high performance trikes with nearly 200 horsepower and a 230 km/h top speed. The company has two models around the $65,000 price level and, like BRP, is clearly on the motorcycle side, not the car side, of three-wheel development.

While it’s possible Elio will surprise me, some major auto makers have taken a serious look at the development of three-wheel cars and appear to have decided against it.

Volkswagen has long promoted the one-litre car – that is a car that will travel 100 km on one litre of fuel. It had a three-wheeled concept car called the GX3 (you can guess what the 3 means) but, in 2006, announced it wouldn’t build a three-wheeler because of concerns about future lawsuits resulting from the vehicle’s design.

Since then, the one-litre car has gone through several iterations and the latest is the Volkswagen XL1, a diesel plug-in hybrid prototype. The XL1 can achieve a combined fuel consumption of 0.9 litres/100 km, according to VW.

The car is tapered and the rear wheels (assuming there are two) never show in the “tease” photographs the company has released. At the very least, the rear wheels must be close together to allow a streamlined body. Still, I can’t tell from looking at the photos if there are four wheels or three. If the answer is four, I’m not too hopeful about anyone’s three-wheeled car, especially Elio’s.

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