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Brothers from a Different Mother: GM EV1 vs. Volkswagen XL1

By Jacob Brown | March 07, 2013
Sometimes automotive engineers are allowed to roam free, using the best resources and the brightest minds at their companies to make extravagant, cost-no-object vehicles that are rarely commercially viable beyond a scant few wealthy buyers. They become prognosticators for the automotive industry, and we inevitably see what we'll be driving eventually. Starting in 1996 and running for four years, General Motors allowed its engineers to create what might still be the most recognizable electric car: The EV1. While limited to just 1,117 cars, with most having been destroyed by GM in the early 2000s to protect from liability, the GM EV1 became a poster child for just how efficient and fun an electric car could be if every last trick to squeeze more electric range were used. It showed off technology that's still fostering development in new electric cars today. Seventeen years later, Volkswagen has just introduced a production version of its XL1 ultra-lightweight hybrid at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show that looks almost as if it's an evolution of the GM EV1. Despite coming from different automakers and being separated by three presidential administrations, they have more in common than not. Let's explore the details.
What Do They Do? By the end of the EV1's production in 1999, it had been fitted with a 26.4 kilowatt-hour nickel metal-hydride battery pack, more or less a much larger version of what you'd find in a contemporary Toyota Prius. Still, weighing 2,908 pounds, it was able to go between 100 and 140 miles between charges. That's about the same as a brand new Toyota RAV4 EV with a battery pack that's nearly twice as large. It could achieve these figures by slipping through the air with a 0.19 drag coefficient, which is about half as much drag as most modern cars.
The VW XL1 has had 17 years to make progress. Rather than using plastic body panels to keep weight down, it's made of aluminum and carbon fiber, hitting the scales at right around 1,752 pounds. It has an electric motor that makes 27 horsepower and a 0.8-liter two-cylinder diesel engine that adds another 47 horses to the mix. Its battery is only 5.5 kWh, but that's enough to get the car up to speed on all-electric power: 0 to 60 in 12.7 seconds on up to a 100 mph top speed. It can achieve 261 mpg. The EV1 would handily topple it in acceleration--0 to 60 in about 8 seconds--with 137 horsepower on tap, but the two teardrops would top out at about the same speed.
Are They Practical? When you have a battery on wheels, you're going to sacrifice some practicality for function. Both the EV1 and XL1 are two-passenger cars, with the XL1's passengers sitting staggered to maximize passenger space. At 169.7 inches long, the GM EV1 is just shorter from bumper to bumper than a Chevrolet Sonic, yet it's more than 9 inches lower at 50.5 inches. The XL1 is a bit smaller: 153 inches long and 47 inches tall. Its cargo hold is a teeny 4.2 cubic feet, or 20 percent smaller than a Mazda Miata's trunk. Weekend getaway vacation cars these aren't.
Where Can I Get One? If you lived in California or Arizona in the 1990s, you already had your shot at leasing a GM EV1. GM didn't let drivers keep the cars, labeling them as experimental, and pulling them from its last drivers in 2002 after their leases expired. If you had between $399 and $599 per month, you could put your name on the list to get one of the hand-built electric cars. GM told customers that the car had a cash value of $34,000, but word within GM is that the cars each cost more than $80,000 to build, and their total development to break even with the amount made would have priced them closer to $250,000 a pop. It makes you appreciate the (technically) seven-passenger Tesla Model S even more, seeing as how the top-level ones will cost about $100,000. After the leasing program, most were crushed, and a few were sent to museums and universities for research purposes, albeit with disconnected electric motors.
The XL1 is much the same story. Initially, Volkswagen plans to build about 250, seeing how the market responds to it. If there's demand for more, it'll build them. If not, VW has no remorse about this science project that came about from Ferdinand Piech, a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and the eccentric mind behind the 267-mph Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. Both are loss leaders for the company.
The Volkswagen XL1 is anticipated to cost as much as three base Golf hatchbacks, which would peg it at about $66,000. But prices have not been set yet. While VW already has 50 definite orders written on blank checks, the cost of the car could balloon to more than $100,000. The sad news about the car is that outside of maybe a few imported by Volkswagen for research, our chances of seeing the XL1 in the U.S. are slim. It's tiny, it has no rear window, and who knows if VW would even be willing to put in the extra $1 million to federalize the car. Much like the EV1 catered to well-off greenies in the U.S., the XL1 might become Europe's next see-and-be-seen car, parked next to Range Rovers and Ferraris at country clubs overseas by the rich and famous--a Prius for cool people. Which Would We Take? There's something fun about an all-out efficiency for the sake of it. Ever try to hypermile a lumbering SUV, feeling proud of yourself when you get above 15 mpg? We have. It's a game of strategy. And the EV1 and XL1 are pros at it, perhaps the best.
We're not going to get our hands on either the XL1 or the EV1, so picking a winner between the two is moot. Both are radical designs that show just what humans can do when we're not focused on the economy and pleasing shareholders. There are cars available in the U.S. that can do similar things: the first-generation Honda Insight that some owners have jerry-rigged to hit close to 100 mpg and the Tesla Model S that's changed the EV game. The XL1 is newer and therefore better. But we'd just as soon press our luck and see how much cheaper and more efficient the technology will get. Because if the GM EV1's technology is now becoming mainstream for EVs, chances are it won't be too long before the VW's gets that way, too.

If I recall correctly, didnt GM have a concept that looked just like that VW a few years back???