2014 Volkswagen XL1: First Drive Of Wolfsburg's 261-MPG Car

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Look out, owners of 200-mph testosterone-supplement poster cars. If there ever was a real hypercar, it's the Volkswagen XL1.

Although in recent years the term hypercar has been distorted—to include cars that are faster (and often even thirstier) than those supercars from Lamborghini, Ferrari, and others—we're getting back to basics: The XL1 is a hypercar in the way that might make Amory Lovins smile.

That's a nod to one of the creators of the original 1990s Hypercar project, from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). In short, the project championed fuel efficiency that was three to five times better than an ordinary passenger car, with an ultra-light structure, the extensive use of composites, and a hybrid powertrain.

We recently drove the XL1 on roads surrounding Volkswagen's Wolfsburg, Germany headquarters, and can testify that it's at once not like any other new or development car we've driven. It really is everything we'd expect of the concept, which aims to maximize efficiency without compromising usability too much. Yes, of course it's a little compromised—and frankly a little fragile-feeling—but it's emerged from Wolfsburg with a fun-to-drive element that we frankly hadn't expected.

Part vintage sports car?

Distilling it to a reference point: From behind the wheel—if you can manage to block out all the elements of futurism for the moment—it drives a lot like a vintage sports car.

There's no power assist, and this system, with its great centering, as you're so directly connected to the narrow 115/80R16 front tires (145/55R16 in back), reminds us what we're missing in bigger and heavier new vehicles. On the other hand, bumps ping through the carbon-fiber (plus some aluminum) structure, exposing the lack of noise insulation, and the structure doesn't feel rigid in the way that we've become used to in today's new cars.

When we get to the soundtrack, the vintage-sportscar comparisons do fall apart. Maybe cross it with just a bit of the aural personality of a perfectly-running Trabant. Whichever reference comes to mind—maybe a motorcycle engine running at limited revs, maybe an emergency generator—the 0.8-liter diesel twin has an unusual character in a car.

That engine—think a 1.6-liter TDI lopped in half and you really won't be far off—produces 48 horsepower; and packaged with it is a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DSG). Also, there's a 27-hp electric motor system sandwiched in there—fed by a 5.5-kWh lithium-ion battery. With a full charge, the XL1 can go 31 miles, while the powertrain altogether produces 68 hp and 103 lb-ft in its 'boosting mode.'

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