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Volkswagen's New Hybrid Could (Someday) Be Hollywood's Toy

VW XL1 PR Image - H 2013
Courtesy of VW

Ten years in development, the supercool, superefficient 261-mpg XL1 offers stunning gas mileage and a glimpse of the changing priorities for drivers and car manufacturers.

The specs sound like science fiction: A car capable of the equivalent of 261 miles per gallon, enough to drive from L.A. to San Francisco and back on less than two gallons of fuel. Except the car -- the Volkswagen XL1 — is in production and will hit the streets, albeit in severely limited numbers, this year.

With its gull-wing doors and ultra-aerodynamic lines, the diesel/plug-in electric XL1 looks like something custom-car legend George Barris would have drawn up for the Douglas Trumball sci-fi classic Silent Running and represents the end point of more than 10 years of development for VW.

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The XL1 is based on VW’s 2002 1-liter concept car – which was designed to travel 100km (62 miles) on one liter of fuel – and was shepherded through its laborious development by the grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche, Volkswagen Group chairman Ferdinand Piëch

Piëch and VW wanted to do for hybrids what Bugatti did for speed, which was make something so over the top that the brand’s commitment to engineering could never be questioned. Although the XL1 only makes 68 horsepower compared with the Bugatti Veyron’s 1001, there is just as much engineering under the hood.

So, what does a decade of development get you? With its carbon fiber underpinnings and tech-laden cockpit, the XL1 is powered by an ingenious two-cylinder 47 horsepower 800 cc diesel engine mated to a 27 hp electric motor and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Wired reported the development costs for the XL1 exceeded 10 figures, and the stunning mileage is the most obvious result.

The XL1 is all about weight savings to achieve maximum efficiency; the monocoque – basically the interior shell of the car -- is made from carbon fiber and lightweight reinforced composites. To shave even more weight, the XL1 doesn’t have power steering or power windows; a lightweight camera and LCD screen replace rearview mirrors and the traditional rear window. 

THR recently spent some time behind the wheel of the XL1 on the streets of Wolfsburg, Germany – Volkswagen’s home. The gull-wing doors swing up to reveal two snug bucket seats, originally arrayed in tandem, as in a fighter jet, in an earlier version. Hit the starter button and the XL1 is noticeably noisier than a conventional car, as the weight reduction extends to the lack of sound baffling. On the road, the XL1 feels smooth if a little sluggish with a 0-60 time of about 12 seconds -- but performance as defined here is about fuel efficiency, not brute power.

The XL1’s sleek lines, covered rear wheels and rounded corners contribute to a super-slippery drag coefficient 0.189 (for reference the Tesla Model S’s is .27 and the Toyota Prius .25) and a lithe curb weight of 1,753 lbs. What the XL1 lacks in speed and amenities it makes up for in lower emissions and some seriously great gas mileage -- it can go from Santa Monica to Beverly Hills more than 40 times on 1 gallon of fuel, which would please an entire contingent on the Westside if the car were coming to the U.S., which, for the moment it is not -- only 250 XL1s will be built this year, which would certainly satisfy the scarcity-equals-status equation favored by Industry drivers still on the waiting list for a Mercedes G-500.

VW says many of the innovations the car has wrought -- especially the use of composite materials to reduce weight and with it, gas consumption -- will find their way into the rest of the carmaker’s lineup.

“California, from an efficiency standpoint, is a step ahead of other states and leads the way in environmental consciousness,” says VW’s Darryll Harrison. “The XL1 represents the next generation of highly efficient transportation.”