I loved my brief drive in the Volkswagen XL1, a tiny, ultra-lightweight car that gets over 260 miles per gallon. Of course, I was put off by its $146,000 price tag and limited-edition, Europe-only distribution plan. I pulled the wraps off the car in Chattanooga, but I can’t register one in America for love or money.

VW XL1 in Manhattan

The VW XL1 in Manhattan, where I had a brief but exhilarating drive. A cheaper four-door is planned. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Gas sippers like the XL1, with radical aerodynamics and weight savings, plus novel engine technology, only make sense if they go wide. The Beetle changed history, but the XL1 won’t unless it becomes the XL2 — with four seats and four doors, plus a place in showrooms worldwide. The price has to come down, too. Combine a low price with super economy and you’ve got a total winner in the marketplace.

I’m amazed at the worldwide response to the Spartan, three-wheeled Elio, which promises 84 mpg for $6,800. Even though Paul Elio and his team still have to raise something like $150 million to get the car into production, and despite the fact that the engine isn’t ready yet (and prototypes are running around with an anemic Geo Metro motor), the public just embraces the concept like nobody’s business. Some 28,000 people have made reservations.

Elio in New York City

An early version of the Elio, also in New York for a test drive. Some 28,000 people have made reservations, but the company needs funding to start production. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Maybe VW has heard about the Elio, because, lo and behold, it’s actually talking about an XL2 with four doors (the back ones rear-hinged as on the MBW i3). The two-cylinder diesel would get a power upgrade, because four seats will mean about a 25 percent weight increase. To keep the car narrow and aerodynamic (just like the Elio!) it would retain the staggered seating of the XL1. The price is going to come down, but hardly to Elio territory.  

According to Autocar, Volkswagen Group chairman Ferdinand Piech is the driving force here, and he wants a conventionally powered car that can compete with the Honda FCV fuel-cell vehicle in the super-economy sweepstakes.

The Honda FCV is rated at 59 "mpk" combined. The "k" is for kilograms, which is how you measure hydrogen. Fuel cell expert Joan Ogden, a professor at the University of California, Davis, thinks that the cars will become competitive in the marketplace when hydrogen reaches $8 to $10 per kilogram, which (because of cheap natural gas) it will in the next couple of years. Because fuel cells are vastly more efficient that gasoline engines, $8 hydrogen is roughly equivalent to $4 gas.

Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Mercedes are all rolling out hydrogen cars, beginning next year, but because of station scarcity they’re likely, for now, to stay in a few enclaves — the Los Angeles area, Japan, Germany and South Korea. So Piech isn’t thinking about fuel cells as serious competitors right now, but as a zero emission technology giving its manufacturers clean-car bragging rights.

Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell car

Honda's FCX Clarity fuel-cell car is reaching its first customers. Cheap natural gas helps make it affordable. (Photo: Honda)

How would a, say, $70,000 XL2 stack up against electric cars? EV makers have to worry that a cheaper gas buggy (including Tesla, as it gears up its Model 3) with equivalent mpg is going to steal their thunder. Well, the XL2 would have far more range, and would be able to refuel conventionally, but with a diesel under the hood it’s clean but not zero emission.

I think VW should definitely proceed with the XL2, and offer it worldwide, at a price just north of what it costs to build. Hey, even losing money on a fuel economy champ isn’t such a bad thing. Toyota did it with the Prius and look how that car rules the hybrid roost now. 

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

What if we could have a 261-mpg VW in the U.S.?
The ultra-efficient XL1 is on the market, but only in Europe. A 4-seat XL2 could come here at a lower price. Should Elio be worried?