Story first appeared on Forbes.com.
The most dangerous thing about Volkswagen’s XL1 is how it affects people outside the car.
They take cellphone photos and gesture frantically at highway speeds, looking across the steering wheel at a 90-degree angle from the road in front of them. They jump out in traffic directly in front of the vehicle, motioning for you to slow down so they can examine it closely. They yell out of open windows across traffic lights and multi-lane streets, asking how much it costs, how fast it’ll go and where they can buy one.
Thing is, they can’t. It’s not actually legal to drive in the United States.
“It was never designed for the U.S. market,” Mark Gillies, a VW spokesman, told me. “Things like, you have to have rearview mirrors for U.S. regulations.”
So was it technically illegal for me to be driving that thing around midtown last week?
“I suppose in theory, yeah,” he said, with a chuckle. “But you can bring prototypes into the states.”
Not that we were too concerned. The car doesn’t move very quickly (0-60 in more than 12 seconds) or fast (top speed is 99mph). Its rear-situated 47hp two-cylinder turbo-diesel engine and 27hp electric motor gets just 68 horsepower.
But you won’t know that from looking at the top-opening scissor doors, the tightly drawn rear end, or the futuristic disc-shaped rims engineered to create shields that block wind in the wheel wells. The car looks fast.
It won’t break any speed records, but it can go 261 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. That’s like driving from New York City to Washington, D.C., for less than $5.
The head of VW Group himself, Ferdinand Piëch, commissioned XL1 with that goal—to get at least 100 miles in a production vehicle on 1 litre of gasoline. His engineering team accomplished it by making XL1 lightweight (1,753 pounds of carbon fiber in the chassis and body panels) and slim (the two seats inside are offset so that the passenger sits slightly behind the driver, which allows the car to be narrower). Inside, for additional weight-shaving, the dashboard is made of wood and the interior sacrifices most creature comforts like power steering and a proper sound system. The rear of the car is narrow through the trunk, and the roofline and clearance sit low to the ground. Its 5-kWh lithium-ion battery and a 2.6-gallon fuel tank sit nestled between the powertrain and passenger side of the car–a position also strategized to conserve space.
Did I mention the XL1 has no rear window or side mirrors? Instead, video cameras feed two small screens in the inner door panels. It’s all extremely compact.
Headroom, though, is adequate, as is leg room. And driving it feels like commanding a small hovercraft. It’s virtually silent except when you accelerate quickly and the diesel engine kicks in with a whirr. The steering is easy, the regenerative brakes adequate but abrupt.
Gillies says “relatively wealthy” Europe-based buyers who “want a really efficient commuter car” will be able to get the XL1 for 111,000 Euros ($145,000 USD) later this year. VW will make 250 of them, all at a factory in Germany.
Unfortunately for us, it’s clear that the cost of altering XL1 to be street-legal here far outweighs the foreseen benefit to bring it over. But it does seem a shame that Volkswagen couldn’t send at least a handful to our shores. Based on the popularity of cars like the Tesla Roadster and Model S alone—and the admittedly anecdotal but enthusiastic reactions from consumers here who loved the car on spec—it seems reasonable to believe VW wouldn’t have any problem selling 500 or 1,000 of them stateside.
Then again, maybe it’s just as well. There are enough cellphone-related fender benders around here anyway.