I test drove the Volkswagen XL1 on Friday at the Chaoyang Sports Center. What’s the XL1, you ask? Only the most efficient car in the world — efficient in every way, from weight to energy usage to fuel consumption (it can go 100 kilomters on one liter, thus the 1 in XL1). “Are there any areas in which you think you can do more optimization?” I asked Dr. Volker Kease, technical project manager.
“Nope,” he replied. “We’ve done what’s possible at the moment.”
He was neither boasting nor bluffing. The XL1 is fitted with Plexiglas windows, carbon seat frames instead of aluminum, a magnesium dual-clutch gearbox, and wood in select places inside the paneling, all in the name of optimization. Oh, and no side-view mirrors — those would be on the inside, via cameras — to reduce drag. It’s equipped with a lithium-ion battery and can roll 50 kilometers in electric mode alone, with zero emissions.
Despite all this, the car is still a car, as driveable as any. According to the specs, it can hit 100 km/h in 12.7 seconds. It handled exactly like a normal vehicle, though a minimalist one — and one that’s surely to draw eyeballs, if that’s the kind of thing you want.
Which is all to say that it could be the perfect car for China. Imagine a second-generation rich throwing down the big bucks for one of these attention-grabbers, simultaneously buying the right to gloat to friends that he’s saving the environment, too. I spoke to Lorenz Fuehrlinger of Audi China, who happens to be head of R&D, who agreed that China is primed for electric vehicles. “I’m convinced in the next 10 to 15 years we’re going to see this change,” he said. “Maybe in the next 15 years we’re going to see these systems in place.”
Therein lies the obstacle, of course: the systems, i.e. the infrastructure required — charging poles, for one — to support a network of electric vehicles. To say nothing of attitudes. But we entertainined the notion that attitudes will have to change. Fuehrlinger lives in Beijing, so he knows as well as you and I — and every official — about the P word. And from a policy standpoint, if you want to both stimulate car growth and curb emissions, wouldn’t e-vehicles be the obvious way to go? Consider: the proposed odd-even license plate restrictions are for days when there’s lots of pollution, not traffic. If that’s truly the worry, why not subsidize e-vehicles, or give them special licenses that exempt them from plate restrictions?
An e-vehicle maker’s dream, that. As one presenter said — disclosure: I was at a VW press event — e-vehicles “perfectly fit China and its market.” (Another executive told me pollution “frequently” comes up in VW’s discussions with Chinese officials.) You can expect to see more car companies move in on second- and third-tier cities with hybrid vehicles, since drivers there don’t necessarily have an entrenched preconception of how a car should operate — fuel tank is empty; fill fuel tank; drive until fuel tank is empty.
As for Volkswagen, they won’t be selling any XL1s in China, since only 250 of these vehicles will be made in the world. Fifty will be prototypes, and the rest will go on sale in Europe only. But as far as concept cars go, the concept is solid here. It’s one that people will eventually get behind. The only question for everyone else: how far ahead or behind the curve can you afford to get?
The man pictured above is Ali Khalili from the Volkswagen R&D Center in Beijing, who accompanied me on my test drive. He may have been slightly disappointed when I failed to hit the top speed of 160 km/h. Next time.