Volkswagen’s XL1 baffles New Yorkers, petrolheads

Drivers and onlookers around NYC today were probably wondering if some futuristic car had time-traveled from 2050, and got caught up in traffic on their way to find some trash to fuel their Mr Fusion energy reactor. Actually, and a little disappointingly, this is the VW XL1, one of the latest of a line of more unconventional vehicles from Volkswagen, which made its debut as a prototype way back in 2002 and was confirmed for production ten years later.

This isn’t the first out-there automobile from VW; the German car maker has a reputation for building limited-run, expensive cars, often at a loss, as exercises in engineering to prove a technology’s viability, like the Bugatti Veyron (€1.4 million) and the Golf Design Vision GTI (€4 million). But while the Veyron has an 8.0L 987bhp engine, and there’s 3.0L 500bhp on tap in the superpowered GTI, resulting in some pretty frequent trips to the petrol station, the XL1 is a test of a different kind. That’s because it’s a diesel-electric hybrid with an electric range of 31 miles and overall mpg figures of 261. That’s right. 261.

The Golf Design Vision GTI: this is what happens when scientists have too much time on their hands, and start feeding steroids to cars.

Got your attention now? That’s like five times better than your average run around. Take that, Prius.

Boffins at the German company have really outdone themselves this time; combining an incredibly efficient hybrid engine, a lightweight carbon fiber structure and the most aerodynamic body of any production car in existence. It has a 48 bhp two cylinder diesel engine combined with a 27 bhp electric motor and a 5.5 kWh battery, but don’t let the small figures fool you; it’s not the fastest car you’ll ever drive, and 0-60 takes around 11 seconds, but you can still cruise comfortably along at 60 miles using only 8 horsepowers. That’s actually amazing. Somebody’s surely getting a bonus.

One of the failings of many electric cars is that they’re just so damn ugly – I’m looking at you, Nissan Leaf. Hang your battery-powered head in shame. The Tesla Model S is one of the first to realise that you can have an electric car that is astoundingly good looking while using to force of electrons to whisk you from A to B. I’ll stop short of calling the XL1 a beautiful machine – sure, the front end is captivating, the best of the new Golf/Passat face glaring at you to get out of its way. But the further down you go, the less sure you are about its design – VW decided against side and rear windows to keep those mpg figures as high as they could. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either.

It’s almost as if the designer forgot to finish his drawing, and handed it in anyway.

Apparently 50 of a 250 run have been built already, with 200 to be sold to the public in 2014. Don’t get your hopes up – the registration process closed in October and in any case, pricing starts at around €111,000. Like the Tesla Model S, Volkswagen presume the first buyers to get their hands on the XL1 will be early adopters; tech heads with plenty of money and concern for the environment. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to make do with watching our fuel gauges visibly dropping as we resolutely hang on to our love of petrol and, logically speaking, distaste of disposable income. It’s a cruel world.

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