Fourteen years ago, Volkswagen unveiled what at the time was quite the futuristic vehicle. Called the 1-litre concept car, it looked very much like the GM EV1 and first-generation Honda Insight hybrid. Built with a magnesium-alloy subframe and carbon-fiber body panels, the super-sleek design had a drag coefficient of 0.159, and managed an astonishing 238 mpg from its tiny single-cylinder diesel engine.
While that concept car never made it into production, it gave rise to the Volkswagen L1, the second 1-litre concept car. With revised tandem-seating arrangement, where passenger sat behind the driver, the L1 used a 0.8-litre common-rail turbodiesel engine married to a tiny 10 kilowatt electric motor and was unveiled to the public in 2009 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. While it too failed to make it into production, the L1 eventually morphed into the 2011 XL1, a two-seat plug-in hybrid concept car capable of managing 260 miles per gallon of diesel, and a claimed 22-miles of all-electric range form its tiny 20 kilowatt electric motor.
That car did make it into production as a super-expensive limited-production model priced from €111,000 in its home market of Germany. Despite its refreshingly honest driving experience, only 250 vehicles were made in total worldwide, with potential buyers picked from a prize-draw. And while the XL1 had its flaws (it was underpowered in the extreme, and the charger was contained in an external ‘box’ to save space, meaning you couldn’t charge on the road) we actually quite liked it.
Back in 2014, just a year after we got to drive the XL1 for ourselves, we heard rumors that Volkswagen was considering giving its futuristic plug-in hybrid fuel-sipper a four-seat makeover. Since then, we’ve heard nothing, although that’s hardly surprising considering Volkswagen’s ongoing dieselgate scandal of the past six months.
Until Friday that is, when UK motoring newspaper AutoExpress claimed Volkswagen is readying itself to use the XL family name again for a new fuel-sipper which it will call the XL3. As the rumors we heard in 2014, it will seat more than two, and it will be aimed more squarely at mainstream buyers rather than car collectors.
Moreover, say AutoExpress, the XL3 will be a car that will be based on some of Volkswagen’s latest technology, make use of the same MQB platform as the Volkswagen Golf and European Passat (the U.S. model has a different chassis), and be a rival to the Toyota Prius hybrid.
Aside from the name however, it will have almost nothing in common with the XL1 car it is supposed to evoke memories of. If the AutoExpress exclusive images are to be believed, the XL3 will be to the XL1 what the second-generation 2010-2014 Honda Insight was to the original 2000-2006 Honda Insight: a removal of everything that made the name unique, super-efficient and interesting.
In fact, we think it looks more like the Volkswagen C Coupe GTE concept than anything else we’ve seen from the German automaker.
Of course, there are visual nods to the original XL1 in the images shared by AutoExpress. The sweeping headlights and angled tail lights are the most obvious, but look a little closer and you’ll see cameras taking the place of rear-view mirrors, and a Kammback tail with lower diffuser to ensure a smooth air flow and thus lower resistance.
But instead of the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive of the XL1, the XL3 appears to utilize the standard front-engine, front-wheel drive setup, with plenty of space in the back for luggage. There are four normal doors replacing the two upwardly hinging doors of the XL1. And while the rear wheels are not covered, we note the images shared by AutoExpress seem to include Tesla-style retracting door handles for improved aerodynamic characteristics.
Far from being a champion of fuel efficiency, the figures quoted by Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen passenger cars, are nowhere near the lofty goals of the original 1-liter car. Admittedly, the XL3 is a lot more car than the XL1. As a four-seat sedan, it’s going to weigh far more, and as a consequence require more energy to push itself along. Its coefficient of drag will be far less favorable than the super-slippery concept too. But on paper, Volkswagen claims a likely marriage of its 1.4-litre turbocharged gasoline engine — complete with cylinder deactivation — and a 22 kilowatt electric motor.
On the NEDC European test cycle, Volkswagen is currently aiming for a combined figure of 94 imperial MPG, which in turn translates to just under 80 mpg U.S. on paper. Given the optimistic nature of the NEDC test cycle, we think real-world U.S. fuel economy would be closer to 70 mpg on a good day.
Will it plug in? That’s unlikely, says AutoExpress, which reports a likely range of “only a few miles” from a modest battery pack.
Looking forward, Diess was keen to reiterate that Volkswagen is working hard on a fully-electric vehicle with a range of more than 300 miles per charge and super-fast recharging capabilities, noting that electric cars offer far more interior space — one size bigger — for the same size vehicle than an internal combustion engine vehicle. In the light of dieselgate, it seems Volkswagen at least acknowledges that some form of plug-in development moving forward is essential.
But while Volkswagen is working on a mid-sized long-range EV, capable travelling far further per charge than its current electric vehicles, it won’t hit the market until the end of the decade. By which point, we predict Volkswagen will have lost out to long-range electric and super-efficient plug-in hybrids from other manufacturers.
Which brings us back to the XL3. Having driven in and experienced the XL1 for ourselves, we know the original design wasn’t one which would easily scale for a family-friendly hybrid. But as a flagship model, especially paired with an all-electric drivetrain, a super-sleek, futuristic, lightweight, two-seat long-range electric car available at a reasonable price could have been the halo car to have rescued the Volkswagen brand.
The XL3, at least as described by AutoExpress won’t be. It’ll just be another hybrid trying hard to match — rather than beat — Toyota’s Prius.
And we think that’s very sad indeed.
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