The average fuel economy for a new car in the U.S. is 9.4 litres per 100 kilometres (25 mpg). That's far less than the 1.94 L/100 km (121 mpg) equivalent of the Scion iQ EV, which is the most fuel-efficient passenger vehicle currently on the market.
But what if a car could get 1.2L/100 km (200 mpg)?
That's what Volkswagen has achieved with its XL1 -- a two-seater that will be the most fuel-efficient car to ever go into production when it makes its way down a German assembly line this year.
With a price-tag of about $145,000, the return on investment, at current fuel prices, would take decades. Still, that's hardly the point. In the mad dash to the 4.3L/100 km (54.5 mpg) corporate average fuel-economy standard the U.S. government has mandated by 2025, the XL1 shows it's more than possible using current technologies.
On the XL1, those technologies involve the extensive use of aerodynamics and lightweight materials, including a carbon-fibre body and magnesium wheels, as well as a power plant that combines all of the most fuel-efficient systems into one.
Not only does the XL1 use one of the smallest engines ever to be fitted inside a car, its 0.8-litre two-cylinder runs on diesel that is direct-injected, turbocharged and enhanced with a 27-horsepower electric motor.
It's a triple threat of efficiency that will, unfortunately, only be available in Europe. Volkswagen is making just 250 XL1s, none of which will be headed here because U.S. safety standards would require too many modifications. But Volkswagen made the car available for media test drives in the sprawling, rutted parking lot of the Hollywood Park race track in Inglewood, Calif.
What's most striking about the XL1 is its shape, which looks like something out of Futurama, with its teardrop profile and enclosed rear wheels -- both of which were shaped to give the car the lowest coefficient of drag of any production car created to date, measuring just 0.19.
Getting inside is a matter of gliding through its gull-wing doors. Doors that swing out, instead of up, wouldn't provide enough head clearance in a car so domed its ingress would otherwise inspire a head injury and so low it rides just 6.3 centimetres from the ground -- the lowest allowable in Europe. Once seated, the driver not only is situated as low as a supercar but also is slightly forward of the passenger, to allow both inhabitants ample shoulder room.
At a leggy 5-8, I found its cockpit surprisingly spacious, if spartan. Everything about the XL1 is streamlined for maximum efficiency. Similar to a McLaren 12C, inhabitants are cocooned in a carbon-fibre monocoque that negates the need for a heavier supporting frame and is outfitted with aluminum crumple structures on the four corners, since carbon fibre is strong and lightweight but otherwise incapable of absorbing the energy of a crash.
To keep its 795 kilometres (1,753 pounds) balanced 50/50 front and rear, while simultaneously keeping the front end as low as possible for improved air flow under the car, the batteries are housed in front of the monocoque. The engine is kept in the back and fed with air that flows across the car's smooth underbelly and curls over the bumper into the engine before exhausting out of vents through its back hatch.
Drivers can select between pure EV mode, which has a range of up to 50 km, and a hybrid mode that draws on the minuscule diesel engine of its parallel hybrid system. Both modes offered sprightly acceleration as I wheeled across the Hollywood Park lot.
While I didn't come anywhere close to maxing out the XL1's 160 kilometre-per-hour top speed, it felt capable and smooth, accelerating through its seven speeds seamlessly with a dual-clutch automatic transmission and mechanical steering that added to the car's sporty driving character.
The XL1 is an evolution of the L1 concept car dreamed up more than a decade ago by VW's current supervisory board chairman, Ferdinand Piech. In 2002, he challenged his team to make a car that used just one litre of fuel to travel 100 kilometres, or, to use American metrics, to travel 62 miles on a mere quarter gallon of fuel. With the XL1, he has come close to achieving that goal.
The previous incarnation of the XL1 had the passenger seated behind the driver, but that idea was discarded for the production version in an effort to make this already unusual-looking vehicle more practical and, to whatever extent possible, traditional.
To that end, the navigation is an aftermarket Garmin, instead of a built-in unit, to save weight. Instead of side-view mirrors, there are two cameras to provide more encompassing 180-degree views that transmit to a small screen embedded in each door panel.
So the XL1 won't be coming to the U.S. But it's likely more than a few XL1 features will appear in future VW passenger cars, a company spokesman says.
For the lucky few who are able to buy in, the future is here. For the rest of us, the XL1 is a tantalizing representation of what's possible.
-- The Orange County Register