The near production-ready Elio.

L.A. Auto Show-goers are getting a first look at the production version of the unusual 3-wheel hyper-miler planned by Detroit start-up Elio Motors.

The company is finally testing a version of the two-seater — which is expected to get around 84 miles per gallon – using its own, unique engine. And it plans to launch production at an old General Motors plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, by the fourth quarter of 2016. But there is a catch.

Founder and CEO Paul Elio told his company has so far locked down only $75 million in funding, a quarter of what it needs to start its assembly line. It thinks it has commitments to bring that up to $100 million, but must yet find the rest of the funding.

“I think we have legitimate options” to raise the cash, Elio said, adding that “the timeline (for launch) is always in jeopardy. Anything that goes wrong will move that (back) slightly.”

The 3-cylinder Elio engine is just 0.9 liters and makes 60 hp and 55 lb-ft torque.

The eponymously named Elio Motors emerged from some high-minded efforts over the last decade to spur development of vehicles that could deliver ultra-high mileage and super-low emissions. While several similar projects have collapsed, the three-wheeler has defied ongoing forecasts of its imminent failure.

From a legal standpoint, it is actually a motorcycle, albeit one on three wheels and with a wheelbase about as long as a Honda Accord. It features an enclosed cabin in which two passengers will set tandem style.

It won’t be fast, needing nearly 10 seconds to hit 60, and with a top speed of only a bit over 100 mph. It is likely to be on the noisy side. But it is expected to deliver about 50% better mileage – at a targeted 84 mpg – than the latest-generation Toyota Prius, and with only a gasoline engine under its long, narrow hood.

An admittedly low-tech cabin.

(Live from LA! Click Here for full coverage of the 2015 LA Auto Show.)

The significant milestone marked with the L.A. Auto Show preview is that the P5 prototype of the Elio is now using an engine of the company’s own design. It originally planned to use a powertrain developed for the old Geo Metro sold in the 1990s by Chevrolet. That engine proved unable to meet Elio’s goals and it was forced to find an alternative.

But it scrubbed an outside search because the price suppliers proposed “would have blown our budget,” said CEO Elio. Besides, there was “an emotional” desire to develop the company’s own powertrain since it would be “the heart of the vehicle.”

(Honda planning to share Clarity hydrogen car platform with new battery-car, PHEV models. Click Here for more.)

With a still-soft target for getting the car into production, Elio has nonetheless collected deposits from 47,000 potential buyers. Some have opted for a non-refundable program, others are playing it safe. The average deposit, he said, is $423. That’s a significant chunk considering the final price tag will be just $6,800 – barely half of what a rock-bottom Korean minicar costs today.

Though legally a motorcycle, Paul Elio promises to meet tougher automobile safety rules.

The plan is to produce the Elio at a plant in Shreveport, Louisiana that the company bought for a bargain following GM’s 2009 bankruptcy. It is already fully tooled, minimizing a potentially huge capital investment.

But even with the company largely using off-the-shelf parts for the rest of the 3-wheeler, it will need $300 million to get going, said the founder. It has raised $75 million, and it has a funding effort going that looks likely to generate another $25 million.

The company feels it has a good shot at getting some more cash through the ATVM, or Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing, program launched by the Obama Administration to encourage alternative vehicle development. The effort was put on hold due to some high-profile failures, such as the collapse of plug-in hybrid maker Fisker Automotive. But it has quietly started back up.

Meanwhile, Elio is wrapping up a transition from privately-held to public company, and the CEO says he’s optimistic that will option up new lines of cash.

“I think there’s some opportunity” for Elio Motors to make it, said Joe Phillippi, a veteran analyst with AutoTrends Consulting, though he cautioned that those opportunities are “modest.”

Elio will have to move fast to take his company to the next level. It now has a virtually complete vehicle all but ready to go. It has some wiggle-room on timing but can’t let things slip for too long.

(Volvo Concept 26 imagines a world of hands-free motoring. Click Here to see what that means.)

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