CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE — I’ve never felt more like Vanna White. Dale Willman of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and I pulled the sheet back on the Volkswagen XL1, the 261-mile-per-gallon diesel hybrid that was making its North American debut here at SEJ’s annual convention.
The car is amazing, a sleek-looking two-seat bullet that recalls the German streamliners of the 1930s. Take a look at the 1939 Maybach Stromlinienkarosserie, hugely ahead of its time. The goal, then and now, was to reduce aerodynamic drag and have cars slip gracefully through the air. The CD of this car is just 0.19, which makes it more slippery than a Prius. The XLI adds to that with a very lightweight carbon fiber body structure. It hits the scales at around 1,800 pounds, quite similar to the original Honda Insight hybrid (which it superficially resembles). The electric-only range is about 22 miles.
The XLI is tiny, but I fit into it fairly well, not something you could say for Willman, who is six feet four. The car has really cool gullwing doors, with tiny roll-up windows incorporated into them. The passenger sits slightly back from the driver, which didn’t feel as odd as it sounds.
The XL1 is an exclusive car, and it won’t be sold in the U.S. (at least initially). The price for Europeans is $145,000, and only 250 will be built. But as the Diesel Technology Forum points out, it’s a great technical showcase for what can be done at the limits with a super-lightweight structure, a diesel engine, and hybrid technology. Here's a look at the car on video:
The engine is two cylinders, 800-cc, turbocharged and intercooled, running through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. There's a fairly small five-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. It’s not hugely fast, taking almost 12 seconds to get to 60 mph. But did I mention it gets 261 mpg combined? No matter how optimistically you look at electric car mileage equivalents, they don’t go that high.
I was able to tour Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga earlier in the day, and it’s a showcase for green technology. Spread over 33 acres are 33,600 solar modules producing 7.6 megawatts, or about half of the plant’s 16.5 megawatt load. You haven’t seen solar until you’ve seen more than 30 acres of it (below). VW doesn’t own the system, but buys the electricity in a power purchase agreement.
The $1 billion plant, which started producing cars (the North American Passat) in 2011, has LEED Platinum certification, captures rainwater on its green roof to cool the tips of the welding robots, retains waste from the paint shop (a center of an auto plant’s emissions) for reuse in concrete and brick making, uses daylight when possible and LED lights when it isn’t), offers preferred parking for green vehicles, and has bike racks out front. I asked about electric vehicle charging, and VW spokesman Guenther Scherelis told me, “We don’t have it yet, because we’re not yet offering an electric vehicle, but we’re pre-wired for it.” All-righty.
Chattanooga has a huge sustainability focus, which is undoubtedly one of the factors that attracted VW here. It fits right into the city. The only regret here is that the streets won’t be enlivened with fleets of XLIs.
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