Driving VW's Astonishing 200 MPG XL1

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 13, 2013

NEW YORK CITY—What’s it like to drive a car that gets approximately 200 mpg? Nice but noisy sums it up. The very aerodynamic (a CD of .19, lightweight and low-to-the-ground Volkswagen XL1, which looks like something you’d see parked at Starfleet Academy, is all about fuel economy, and it sacrifices a few things—like power windows and sound insulation—to get there. But no fossil-fuel-powered production car has ever gotten 200 mpg before, so this one is special.

The VW XL1 in Manhattan. Can you believe how tiny it is? But it seats two. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The VW XL1 in Manhattan. Can you believe how tiny it is? But it seats two. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The diesel plug-in hybrid XL1, with 31 miles of all-electric range, is headed for the market—at an eye-popping price of $145,000. It might take, I dunno, ten thousand years to pay back your investment with just fuel savings.

This car is headed for Europe—it wasn’t engineered for the U.S., and such niceties as headlight height could trip it up here. I asked VW’s Darryll Harrison who he expects to buy the astonishing XL1 over there. He said, “Early adopters, the tech-savvy, and people who are environmentally conscious with good disposable income.” Yes, that would help. I was able to pull the cover off this car at the Society of Environmental Journalists' conference in Chattanooga last October, but didn't get to drive it down there.

Only 250 will be made, and that’s likely to be it. Fifty have been produced, but they haven’t reached the public yet. Mark Gillies, the former auto writer (Car and Driver, Automobile) who now does product communications at VW, told me, “I haven’t heard of any plans to sell it elsewhere. If some mega-celebrity in China wanted an XL1, maybe we’d sell him one.” Even the person with everything doesn't have the slipperiest, most fuel-efficient car in the world.

The XL1 has gullwing doors that ride on chrome struts, and swinging them up and out of the way does make the super-low car a lot easier to get into. I’m reminded of my old Volvo 1800S, which also felt like riding in a bathtub. But the car that the XL1 most resembles is the first-generation two-seat Honda Insight hybrid circa 1999. That one weighed about the same (1,800 pounds for the Honda, 1,753 for the XL1, which benefits from a carbon fiber monocoque chassis)—but got only 70 mpg and couldn’t operate as an EV. Of course, it cost less than $20,000.

Look ma, no rear window. But There are back-facing cameras in each "scissors-type" door. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Look ma, no rear window. But There are back-facing cameras in each "scissors-type" door. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Midtown Manhattan isn’t the best place to test cars, but I managed to do the road course twice. Once inside, the XL1 is comfortable, if not exactly the space-age tour de force you might expect for that kind of money. The passenger seat is set back from the driver, which increases the interior space. There’s no rear window or exterior mirrors (they’re a big drag) so backwards-look cameras are embedded in each door. They were a great help in Manhattan traffic, where big trucks can make little cars like this feel even smaller. The side windows are made of Lexan, again for lightness.

The XL1 defaults to electric mode when it has battery power, and is driven by its 27-horsepower electric motor and 5.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack (with Sanyo cells). It’s quiet as a mouse in EV mode, but possibly because the charge was down the two-cylinder turbodiesel (just 830-cc!) cranked into life fairly often during my drive. Although VW has done a great job of stifling the diesel rumble in its TDIs, it’s a presence here. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it—remember, you’re getting 200 mpg!

This isn’t a performance car, though it rather looks like one. It takes 12.7 seconds to get to 62 mph, and tops out at 99. I gunned it when I saw some open asphalt, and got smoother acceleration than you’d expect from a two-cylinder engine, but all the rubber stayed on the tires. Another thing you notice is the lack of power steering, but it lightens up at speed.

Inside the XL1: It's cosy. (VW photo)
Inside the XL1: It's cosy. (VW photo)

This is a city car, but even urban dwellers want to get out to the country occasionally. The XL1 has a small luggage compartment out back, where the drivetrain also resides. Pack light, though.

The combination of light weight and aerodynamics explain this car’s amazing efficiencies. It can cruise at 62 mph (100 kilometers per hour) using just 8.3 horsepower, and in electric mode just .1 kilowatt-hour of electricity moves it six tenths of a mile. It’s factoids like this you’ll be offering to friends if you spring for an XL1. Here's a walk-round the car on video:

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