August 15, 2018

Trikes Versus Bikes

can-am spyder

©Motorcyclist

Can-Am Spyder

The Spyder is still pretty motorcycle-like since the rider’s seating position and controls are familiar to a motorcycle rider.

In the US, vehicles with three wheels are officially considered to be “motorcycles” even though they may be completely un-motorcycle-like. A motorcycle with a sidecar can certainly be seen as a motorcycle even though it doesn’t handle like one. A three-wheeler like the Can-Am Spyder is still pretty motorcycle-like since the rider’s seating position and controls are familiar to a motorcycle rider. Then there’s the Polaris Slingshot, which has two side-by-side seats and a steering wheel—and here the divergence from motorcycles is complete.

Still further from motorcycles—though legally in the category—is the Elio, a three-wheel car. It has two wheels in front and front-wheel drive, with a single un-driven rear wheel. It has two seats, with the driver in front, passenger in the rear. It also has a full body enclosing everything except the front wheels.

The Elio is not fully developed and not yet for sale. Elio Motors was founded in 2008, and after many delays early Elio buyers might see their vehicles in 2016. Since the Elio—legal issues aside—is definitely a three-wheeled car, why write about it in this magazine? Because our experience as motorcyclists can tell us some interesting things about the Elio, a “motorcycle” that’s not a motorcycle.

Polaris Slingshot

©Motorcyclist

Polaris Slingshot

The Slingshot with its two side-by-side seats and a steering wheel.

In looking at promotional information on the Elio, a couple of numbers jump out at you. First, the highway mileage is projected to be 84 mpg (the website hedges by saying “up to” 84 mpg). Second, the price: targeted at $6,800.

This is where our experience as motorcyclists comes in. The Elio will have a 900cc in-line three-cylinder engine driving its front wheels. Compare that engine to the Yamaha FZ-09’s 847cc triple. The twin-cam, four-valve FZ makes an honest 107 hp. Fuelly.com gives us an average user-reported mileage of around 43 mpg. Since that number is the average of city and highway, let’s guess that the highway mileage is 55 mpg.

The Elio mill is a single-cam, two-valve design and will have a lower state of tune (I’d guess 70 hp) so it won’t be as thirsty. Two-mode variable valve timing will help. But then it will be hauling 1,600 pounds versus the FZ’s 760—assuming both vehicles are carrying two people and some cargo. That’s an 840-pound difference. The Elio is basically carrying two extra FZ-09s!

The Elio should be a bit better aerodynamically than any true motorcycle—faired or un-faired—but only a bit better because the Elio’s front wheels are out in the airstream with wheel fairings but not blended with the body. With better aerodynamics, but massively greater weight, I would guess that a highway mileage figure of 60 mpg might be possible. It will probably be closer to the FZ’s 55 mpg. But 84 mpg as automotive highway mileage is commonly measured? Not on this planet.


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And then there’s the price. The FZ-09 is right at $8,200, and we can assume since Yamaha has been in business quite a while that it makes a profit building a relatively simple machine. In contrast, the Elio specifications show a fully enclosed body with rollover and side-beam protection, airbags, safety glass windows, two automotive seats and belts, and a five-star automotive crash rating. The luxuries include a stereo, electrically operated windows, heating, and air conditioning. Will this sell for $6,800 and make the company a profit? Only on planet Elio.

An acquaintance of mine has put a deposit on an Elio, and I’ve told him that he’s going to get a great deal at the contracted, guaranteed price, which almost certainly won’t hold. A company can control the sales price by losing money—Tesla reportedly still loses $4,000 per car sold—but a company can’t get 84 mpg out of a setup that will most likely give 55 mpg.

I’m all for efficient, high-mileage, innovative transportation, and I hope the Elio makes it to market; however, I just wonder how it’s gone about selling the idea to people who generally aren’t quite as knowledgeable as the motorcyclist who knows something about 900cc triples, how they perform, and what they cost.

James Parker designed his first original motorcycle in 1971; his most recent design is the Mission R electric superbike. In between, he worked on multiple other motorcycle projects, including 30 years spent evolving the RADD front suspension system used on the Yamaha GTS1000 and various other prototypes.

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