With its shapely sheetmetal, usable cabin, and production intent, the 261-mpg Volkswagen XL1 seems too good to be true. But to believe in the Volkswagen XL1, you simply have to recognize that the Bugatti Veyron exists. Both cars are pet projects of Dr. Ferdinand Piech, the authoritative chairman of the Volkswagen Group's supervisory board who is drawn to extreme cars. And after delivering a 260-mph supercar, Piech is now set on building a 260-mpg ecocar. While a hyper-efficient two-seater may not be as sexy as a Veyron and could never command its $1.7-million price, the engineering and ingenuity behind the XL1 is just as impressive as that which went into the Bugatti.
The XL1's genesis is a program started in 1999 with the goal to develop a production car that consumes less than one liter of fuel for every 100 kilometers driven, or about 235 mpg. To prove such fuel economy was possible, Piech revealed the first concept to the public during a Wolfsburg-to-Hamburg drive in 2002. Then, in 2009, Volkswagen introduced a significantly updated car at the Frankfurt auto show known as the L1 concept. But both those early prototypes were impractically small and narrow, with a passenger seated behind the driver.
Now, Volkswagen has delivered a third interpretation of the one-liter car and, having driven it, we can say that the XL1 is seriously close to production readiness. In fact, the German automaker is committing to limited production in 2013.
Svelte, slippery, and slow
To achieve the remarkable 261 mpg (on the European fuel economy cycle), Volkswagen uses an electric drivetrain and a 0.8-liter two-cylinder diesel. The lithium-ion battery pack is good for nearly 22 miles of electric driving before switching to diesel power. Volkswagen doesn't use the diesel engine to generate electricity like the Chevy Volt's gas engine does. Instead, it directly drives the rear wheels because it's more energy efficient to do so. No matter which power source the car is using, though, the XL1 uses all seven gears of the dual-clutch automatic transmission, a significant departure from the usual continuously variable transmissions and single-speed gearboxes of hybrids and EVs. A full recharge of the battery takes about one hour and 15 minutes from a 220-volt power source.