Future Drive: Volkswagen XL1

I have visited the future, and it’s a noisy place.

Volkswagen’s upcoming 261-mpg XL1 dropped by New York City recently, and I got to take the tiny, streamlined, intergalactic Beetle for a short drive around the Big Apple.

It’s the fruit of VW’s long labor to develop the first so-called “one-liter” car, a vehicle that can travel 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel. Its 110 km/l rating actually surpasses that goal, but comes with a caveat.

The XL1 is a plug-in hybrid that has a mid-mounted, rear-wheel-drive powertrain comprised of a 2-cylinder diesel engine, electric motor, 7-speed transmission and a front-mounted 5.5 kWh battery pack that the European tests assume will be recharged every 100 kilometers (62 miles), so the 261-mpg rating is the result of a mix of fuel and electricity.

Even without stopping to tap the grid, though, VW says the XL1 can deliver up to 140 mpg, nearly three times that of the Toyota Prius, the most efficient non-plug-in on the road today. It accomplishes this through a mix of lightweight construction and low aerodynamic drag.

The XL1 is largely made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, with aluminum and magnesium used for things like suspension components and wheels. The dashboard frame is wood pulp, and side windows are polycarbonate, while the glass for the windshield is extra thin. The addition of sound-deadening material was left off the to-do list. The result is a two-seat vehicle that weighs 1,753 pounds, lighter even than the Smart Fortwo.

Its body tapers to the rear where skirted, narrow wheels sit closer together than the ones up front. Rearview mirrors are replaced by video cameras on the doors that required a special dispensation from safety regulators, and the front end and headlights are lower than those of any other car on the road.

You enter the waist-high vehicle through the sort of flip-up doors seen on prototype racing cars, with cut-outs in the roof to help ease access. The Spartan interior features a mix of knobs and switches from the VW parts bin and a few custom pieces, including seats that are staggered to allow two passengers to fit more comfortably in the narrow space. A small bin behind the driver’s bucket augments the trunk at the back of the car, which is big enough to fit two German beer cases.

The diesel engine has a displacement of just 830 cc and combines with the electric motor for a maximum output of 68 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque. The XL1 can go up to 31 miles on battery power alone before switching to hybrid drive.

It’s not quick, taking about 12.7 seconds to get to 60 mph, but it needs only 8.3 hp to cruise at that speed, less than half that of the most efficient VWs of today. Passing requires planning and patience, and the top speed is limited to 99 mph, because if you regularly drive any faster than that, this really isn’t the car for you.

Steering is unassisted and feels as direct as a go-kart’s. The same day that I drove the XL1 I was out testing the 2014 Infiniti Q50, which features the first steer-by-wire system ever fitted to a production car, and the difference was dramatic.

Despite the narrow track, body roll is minimal, and the XL1 can handle an off-ramp or roundabout just fine. The ride is better than you’d expect from a skateboard, but given the low ground clearance, you’re better off treating “Road Work Ahead” notices as “Detour” signs.

But where the XL1 truly comes up short is in the noise department. You can carry on a conversation with someone on the street through the slim windows without even opening the DeLorean-style, hand-cranked toll-booth slots embedded within them; road noise is amplified for maximum effect, making every bump worthy of a sound editing Oscar; and when the diesel engine located inches behind your head kicks in, it sounds like a diesel engine located inches behind your head.

All of this is the price of progress, I suppose. But, unfortunately, so is the XL1’s price: $145,000.

Since VW plans to make only 250 of them next year, that might be cheap compared to what it must cost to build such a high-tech, low-volume car. To be fair, it’s technically listed at a more palatable sounding 110,000 euros, because it won’t be sold in the United States.

So the XL1 is less of a production car, more of a proof of concept that VW is graciously letting a select few help fund. Think of it as a manufacturer-backed Kickstarter for the teardrop-shaped, ultra efficient car of the future we’ve been waiting for almost as long as for one that flies.

Oh, but there’s one of those on the way, too.

VW is in the process of building an XL1 that swaps its hybrid powertrain for the 193 hp 1.2-liter V-twin from a Ducati 1199 Panigale superbike, simply because it also owns Ducati and it can.

I hope they don’t turn down the volume on that one.