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.

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