Megalomania has its privileges.
You could ask 76-year-old Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Piëch, the former VW supremo who’s now chairman of Volkswagen AG’s supervisory board. That is, if he’d deign to talk to the plebian likes of you.
The rich and brilliant engineer from Austria -- credited with turning around Audi’s sagging fortunes in the 1980s and 90s before becoming VW’s CEO and assembling brands at a clip to rival General Motors at its acquisitive best -- is a hard-charging billionaire who rarely stops working and suffers fools legendarily badly. He is also known for fathering 12 children with four wives and is blessed, by most accounts, with the interpersonal skills of a marauding mongoose. But without his relentless ambition and the regular exercise of his iron will, Volkswagen would probably not be the sophisticated operation it is today, one of the biggest car companies in the world – and if his targets are achieved – one day the biggest.
Piëch is used to getting what he wants. If I were he, I think four children and 12 wives might have been a better game plan. But that’s me. You can’t really quibble with the engineering powerhouse he’s made out of VW. Remember him -- and not a committee -- when you’re thinking about how Audi became a credible, fully fledged competitor to BMW and Mercedes, two of the best car companies in the world. And, too, when considering the superior corporate parts bin that has allowed Volkswagen to leverage its engineering resources to revitalize new brands it now owns like Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini. Piëch doesn’t mess around and even though he’s not the official big cheese at VW anymore, owing to mandatory retirement policies, his power within the corporation – which now owns Porsche, the company his uncle Ferry founded – remains decisive.
All of which very much makes Piëch the guy you want to think about when you cast your peepers on the remarkable XL1 that came to visit New York City the other day. It’s a new, knee-high hyper-miler, a plug-in, parallel diesel-hybrid, mid-engine, two-seater that VW won’t be selling here in America but which grabs our attention in every way, nonetheless. A car of the future, this limited production (250, to start) exists primarily thanks to the visionary Piëch and it can be bought today (alas only in Germany and Austria, for now) for approximately $145,000. Hardly cheap, but surely dramatic looking, and best of all it gets an astonishing 261 miles per gallon – you read that right -- on the official European test cycle, an all-time record that crushes figures for any production car that’s ever come before it.
Though he’s fathered some very thirsty cars – Porsche 917 LeMans racer, anyone? – Piëch’s obsession with fuel economy is longstanding. Plans for the XL1 have kicked around since the turn of the century at his direction, with two previous prototypes, displayed in 2002 and 2009 and known as L1, representing earlier attempts to achieve the ambitious target outlined by the big man – a car capable of traveling 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel. Incorporating just about everything some of the world’s best engineers know about fuel economy, the new car comfortably exceeds that benchmark, which translates to a paltry 235 miles per gallon.
It’s not like any of the stuff on the road to 261 mpg is secret. To get hella gas mileage, you want to cut weight radically, improve aerodynamics dramatically, and you probably want to go with a diesel hybrid powertrain like the XL1’s; they make the gasoline hybrids Prius drivers are so pleased with themselves about seem quaint and as excessively thirsty as body-painted frat boys at a spring fling. What you need even more, however, is some self-confident someone very highly-placed who will arrange the spending on a technological showpiece that can only be a near-term money loser. Calling Dr.-Ing. Piëch.
While XL1 will go 31 miles on pure electric power, to achieve its mind-blowing economy without the range-anxiety issues that attend pure electrics, it deploys a new, two-cylinder turbo-diesel displacing a mere 830 cc’s. It ought to be slow with just 48-horsepower and 89 lb/ft of torque, (103 lb ft with electric assist) and it is relaxed by modern standards; VW quote 12.7 seconds for the 0-60 run. On the other hand, that used to be respectable acceleration not so very long ago and it doesn’t feel bad. XL1 had no trouble keeping up with New York traffic, along city streets and on Manhattan's West Side Highway. And all that time you save not stopping for fuel will surely help get you to your destination on schedule. Top speed is electronically limited to 99 mph, making XL1 the most expensive slow car we know. And yet we’re not ashamed to say, we love it.
Setting off, you’re struck again by the eerie silence of an electric car, until that Lilliputian diesel kicks in and joins the party. It makes an old-fashioned racket, not a million miles removed from the decibel rich character of old air-cooled Beetles, in part because of the engine being a two-cylinder affair with a stop-start function, in part because diesel is inherently noisy and lastly because all sound deadening is gone or seriously reduced in an effort to save weight. VW claim XL1 tips the scales at 1,751 lbs., which may not sound that light until you remember that a Mini-Cooper weighs almost 1000 lbs more and a Golf still more. To achieve such weight savings, extensive use of carbon fiber, which forms the central tub, is essential, as are the use of exotic alloys everywhere else. Even the engine block – set mid-ship, behind the driver, with the batteries upfront -- is cast in aluminum, a rarity for a diesel.
XL1 is also very low – more than five inches lower than Porsche’s sporty Boxster -- and extraordinarily narrow, to improve its aerodynamic profile. Indeed, XL1 is so narrow that the passenger seat is placed slightly behind the drivers seat to allow the rear of the car to taper sharply inward. Adding to its sleek appearance, the car sports no exterior rear view mirrors, deploying instead side view cameras, each with its own screen in the scissor-action doors. The cameras work well though the sensation is odd, and they might admit of the occasional blind spot so be prepared -- there is no rear windscreen and otherwise absolutely no looking backwards. All of these efforts to reduce XL1’s coefficient of drag, however, achieve their mission, allowing it to pull an incredibly low 0.19 cd, a record among production cars. Among the other benefits of the austerity diet: a car that doesn’t require weight-adding power steering or power brakes.
A rear-wheel driver that handles very nicely, with optimal weight distribution and a seven-speed DSG gearbox to ease access to what power there is, the XL1 is some kind of sports car. But the cabin ambience is more upscale than many sports cars (or Volkswagens) we could name, with top grade materials for seating surfaces and a handsome and interesting eco-experiment in pressed wood used for dashboard surfacing.
As a total experience, then, XL1 falls between high-end exotic and economy car. Not powerful, not cheap but it feels luxurious in many aspects. The ride is a little rough, thanks in part to pumped-up low-rolling resistance tires, which never do any good where ride quality is concerned. They are refreshingly skinny however, meaning the ride could be worse..
In sum, it works. I don’t know that I’d go 145 large for one of these – I’m not even a millionaire -- but I would like to drive an XL1 -- or something like it -- regularly. In the meantime, it’s a great test bed for future technologies, ones we’ll undoubtedly see not just in VWs but other, more conventional looking cars. Until then, this car is the future of the automobile and we have Ferdinand Piëch to thank for it. The only problem is, there’s no room for the kids, not even one.