VW's Amazing 261-MPG XLI: The Best Plug-In Hybrid Americans Can't Buy

By · February 22, 2013

Volkswagen XL1

The XL1 looks like a show car, but it's headed for 1,000-units-per-year production, albeit for Europe only. (VW photo)

Think of the two-seat, 261-mpg Volkswagen XL1 plug-in hybrid, which looks and performs like an early Honda Insight on steroids, as the ultra-green car that Americans just can’t have. “There’s no chance of it ever going on sale here,” VW spokesman Mark Gillies told me.

Why the hell not? I’m sure a lot of us would jump at the chance to buy a car with economy like that. After all, the EPA rates the Nissan LEAF at only 99 mpg. VW says it will produce as many as 1,000 XL1s annually, but most likely sell them only in Europe. My guess is the XL1’s diesel engine is what dooms it for the American market—we’re consistently lukewarm to diesels, even when they offer extraordinary fuel economy.

The price, estimated in some places at $50,000, is probably also a barrier—it’s a lot for a two-seater. But Gillies says the car is likely to be lease-only, initially only in Germany and Austria.

Carbon Fiber Construction

And, make no mistake, the XL1 is extraordinary, in almost every way. Like the BMW i3 and i8, it reduces weight with carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, but unlike BMW it’s kept pretty quiet about it. The car weighs just 1,753 pounds, which really suits the drivetrain—a tiny 800-cc, two-cylinder TDI diesel with just 47 horsepower, coupled to a 27 horsepower electric motor. The five-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack provides enough range for 31 miles of electric driving.

Gillies adds that the XL1 has “all sorts of special features, such as optimized low friction bearings and low rolling-resistance tires that also help to eke out every last mile per gallon.”

Volkswagen XL1 from the rear

Yes, the rear window is gone, but there are cameras to compensate. (VW photo)

This car is very small, 12 feet long and at 3.7 feet high, more than five inches lower than a Porsche Boxster. It’s narrow, even though the production car abandons the tandem seating arrangement of the 2002 and 2009 L1 prototypes. A vestige of that is the passenger seat being somewhat offset to the rear.

Art Deco Aerodynamics

The swoopy shape, complete with rear fender skirts, is incredibly aerodynamic, with a Cd of 0.19, better than a Prius. Deleting the rear window and protruding side mirrors adds to the Art Deco look—a visibility nightmare is hopefully averted with a pair of rear-vision cameras. If that wasn't enough, there are also futuristic upswept gullwing doors—the kind that usually get dropped before production begins. Cross a 1930s Czechoslovakian Tatra with the aforementioned 1999 Honda Insight and you have the overall look.

The XL1, to be hand-built at the Osnabrück, Germany factory that also produces the Boxster and Golf convertible, grows out of Volkswagen’s “one-liter car” project, which first produced a concept car in 2002. The idea gradually grew to include a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, because a tiny diesel motor alone would ensure a very slow car, indeed. As it is, the XL1 is pretty slow—zero to 60 takes 11.5 seconds, with a top speed of 99 mph. In electric mode, speed is limited to 50 mph. I love the cruising range with a 2.6-gallon tank—700 miles. Your gas card will get dusty.

The XL1 is also very low-emission, producing 21 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, which is very important for the highly regulated European market.

Pokey, but a Good Daily Driver

Car and Driver drove the XL1, in Qatar of all places, and described it as “an acceptable daily driver,” with accurate steering (no power assistance) and good brakes. But it’s no speed demon—“The XL1 looks racy, but its ultimate performance is leisurely,” the magazine said.

The XL1 fulfills the promise of the one-liter car, in every way but one. VW Group Chairman Martin Winterkorn said in 2011 that the XL1 would be available in 2013 “at an affordable price.” We'll see about that part.

Don't Forget the e-Golf

Volkswagen e-Golf

The VW e-Golf offers 109 miles of battery cruising. (VW photo)

The XL1 will be a star of the upcoming Geneva Motor Show, but VW will also showcase a higher-volume car, the e-Golf, a battery version of one of its most popular models. Featured are a 115-horsepower electric motor, a 26.5-kilowatt-hour li-ion battery, and 109 miles of range. Markets for the e-Golf are not yet settled.

I love battery cars, but the e-Golf looks like the more vanilla of the two offerings.


· · 5 years ago

I said many time to start selling a high technology economical car of 15 000$ to 30 000$ that make alway 231 mpg or more.

This car is overbuilt and costly and few will buy it, anyone will save ton of money by buying a 15 000$ car instead that do fewer mpg but have more space and the 35 000 saved will permit to go 2 week vacation for 15 years.

If you just add the right updated technology in a normal light car body then the price drop. This car should cost 20 000$ max.

Postpone any expenditure toward any car manufacturers till they start selling a high mpg high technology car that only cost 20 000$ or less.

· · 5 years ago

Yes, the XL1 is anything but vanilla!

I would call it a medium quick car - almost nobody *needs* to accelerate as quickly as most cars can. The electric motor will provide instant torque right at the beginning, which is where people will notice it. >20s to go from 0-60mph is slow...

The XL1 will be a halo car for plugin hybrids, just like the Model S is for EV's; and it will set the standard for fuel efficiency. To be able to drive over 500 miles on 10L of diesel (or less?) will be a revelation. The tank is just 10L - so a fillup will cost $10-12? That will save a LOT of money compared to an average car - about $14,000 per 100K miles, at today's fuel prices?

Bring 'em on, VW!


· · 5 years ago

Lets see, XLI $50,000 Aptera $25,000, Electric range, XLI not stated, Aptera 200 miles, Hybrid range, XLI 261 Aptera 851. Both have gull wing doors, probably not in the XLI, included in the Aptera production model. Acceleration, XLI 0-60 11.5 sec., Aptera less than 10 sec., I'll take the Aptera!

· · 5 years ago

Volkswagen has become very good at showing off concepts that will never make it to production and, if they do, guaranteed to be never made available in the US. I really hope the "plain vanilla" e-Golf makes it here in 2014, but I think even this is a stretch for the America-hating Wolfsburg auto giant. I hope they prove me wrong on that count.

As for the XL1, I think it's marvelous and I knew Neil was going to think so as well. But gorr makes a valid point : Volkswagen, or some other concern with similar design talents, should give us something approaching the XL1 . . . perhaps a detuned version, suitable for slightly for more real world driving conditions. Install a rear window, external mirrors, conventional doors, let it get just a smidgen heavier in the process and, if still a 2-seater, provide room for another a bag of groceries or two. Then, of course, offer it at a price point that's slightly more egalitarian than the XL1's $50K.

First, though, VW has to pony up with a real production electric car, like the e-Golf, and actually sell it here. If they won't do that, the XL1 is just more unobtainium.

· · 5 years ago

Yeah I don't know what gives with VW lately... Now I hear they burn too much oil and have a worse than avg reliability record. Very unlike my '64 bug. Just as simple and oldfashioned as could be (not substantially different from the 1938 model other than a BIG 200 watt generator, 1200cc, and a 6 volt tranistorized AM radio). Technological advancements also included a spare tire operated windshield washer and leatherette seat trimmings.

Maybe the concept is what attracted me to the Tesla Roadster (with no options). Cloth manually removeable (not retractable) roof, AM/FM/CD/USB aftermarket style JVC radio, manual heater, recirculate, and airconditioning. Only thing mechanized were the power windows. The fancy touch screen, homelink, infotainment, and navigation were optional extras I didn't get nor even want.

No that the Roadster is no more, VW would be wise if they basically copied it and came out with a Kharman - Ghia EV. Even if they charged alot for it due to a big battery ( a few thousand of us bought big battery Roadsters ) I'm sure people would buy them. Or, for those who don't need it, offer different sized batteries.

VW could easily come up with something like this.. Start out with the old Kharman Ghia and shoehorn in some airbags and away it would go., Have Siemens make them a Motor with a Bosch Inverter.

The only thing missing is the Will. But I seem to remember it wasn't too long ago that they were against anything EV. Old arrogant corporate attitudes apparently die hard, even in Germany.

· · 5 years ago

This VW looks like GM EV1 - front & rear are very similar shapes (just a bit more futuristic)... lease only? then VW will take them and crush them!

· · 5 years ago

Its interesting that, in view of the Model S losing range precipitously when its cold outside, the ONLY PURE EV than can be used in very cold weather and go long distances between charges is not even made anymore. The Car? The Tesla Roadster.

· · 5 years ago

This is a bit off topic but fleetingly related. The above VW XL1 article came out on almost the same day I stumbled upon the below e-bike web item, which was originally published a few months back . . .


I've been riding my bicycle more than driving my car these past couple of months and have attempted to bring myself up to speed with the minutia of that technology . . . the mathematics of gearing, component design, balancing lightness against real-world durability and ergonomic concerns, etc.

While I have no plans to convert my current pedal-only ride into an e-bike, I've also kept an open eye on what it would take and the different approaches that are available to accomplish that. There are lots of ways to convert a dedicated off-road mountain bike into something that makes more sense for commuting on city streets (which is my current project) and there are easily just as many ways to go about crafting a similar machine into one that works with batteries.

The conclusion I've quickly come to is that it's very easy to double the weight of an existing human powered bike by electrifying it, thus rendering it almost useless if you want switch off the batteries and start pedaling again. You get a neat electric scooter, perhaps, but lose the bicycle in the process.

So, I have to marvel at what Jean-Pierre Schiltknecht has accomplished in what is claimed to be the world's lightest e-bike, which - at only 16.9 lbs with batteries, controller and motor - is easily 6 or 7 lbs lighter that my aluminum frame non-electric mountain bike.

· · 5 years ago

Nobody can buy it yet. And I'll believe they'll be able to buy it when I see it. Right now it seems that at best a few people may eventually be able to buy but at a high-price that makes it completely pointless.

· · 5 years ago

I'd really like to buy or rent that when I am overseas paying the equivalent of US$7/gallon or more.

· · 5 years ago

By the way, the 261MPG number is for Imperial gallons - it would convert to 235MPG in US gallons. And since it's diesel, the equivalent number for gasoline would be about 188MPGe. Still, obviously very impressive.

I just read that VW will be using the XL1 drivetrain in the Up!, which will be much less expensive to build.

The all electric range on the XL1 is 31 miles.

@ Jerry - where are you getting this info on Aptera? Aptera is as good as dead, as far as I know.


· · 5 years ago

I need to correct my post above - the 261MPG is in US gallons. My mistake.

That means the range of the XL1 is 10L - reserve (say 0.5L?) = 9.5L x 261MPG = 2,479.5 + 31 = 2,510.5

Wow - that is a really long way! The tank size is labeled on a cutaway image: http://www.newsauto.gr/wp-content/gallery/vw_xl1_production2/vw_xl1_prod...

And 10L = just 2.64 gallons and at the US average at the moment of $4.159 that would be just $10.98.

Very impressive car if it only gets half that MPG.


· · 5 years ago

I was not having a good day yesterday... I mixed the units in my range estimate - the total range by the number we have is ~650-680 miles. Much more sensible, really.


· · 1 year ago

I've found that ebikes can contribute a lot to this kind of conversation. The one I'm looking at now (haven't pulled the trigger and purchased yet) is the Wave Electric Bike at http://www.waveelectricbikes.com . Nice specs and low price, so I'm considering it.

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