The Car That Almost Was

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In the department of What Might Have Been, we find a car almost no one who isn’t a car industry insider has ever heard of – but which very nearly was.

You haven’t heard of it for good reason.

Well, good reason . . . from the point of view of other insiders. The ones inside the government.

It is a car VW briefly brought out to show what could be done – and just as quickly withdrew. Probably because it showed what could be done.

This car was powered by a 1 liter diesel engine and achieved a verified 170 miles-per-gallon. With its hybrid drive engaged, the mileage rose to an incredible 235 MPG. Put another way, on about two gallons of diesel, this VW could go almost 500 miles before it needed more diesel. And it would only need two more gallons to travel another almost 500 miles.

How long does it take to pump 2 gallons of diesel? Not much longer than it took you to read this article so far.

How long does it take to recharge an electric car? At least as long as it takes to read a couple of chapters of Moby Dick.

How much does two gallons of diesel cost? About six bucks at current prices  – to go about 500 miles. Free transportation, almost – and with almost no emissions produced, including the new “emission” (carbon dioxide). When you burn almost no fuel, you emit almost no emissions.

Fewer emissions than electric cars – which require a lot more energy to go 500 miles than that contained in two gallons of diesel.

It is probably beginning to occur to you why you never heard about the L1 – the name VW gave to its diesel-hybrid prototype, which has gone the way of the 100 MPG carburetor.

Except the VW was real.

VW had publicly stated its intention to get a production car based on the L1 to market by 2013. This was the apogee of VW’s diesel engine juggernaut, which had expanded to include compression-ignition offerings of almost every car it made. These were not expensive cars; they were cars almost anyone who could afford a new car could afford.

You could buy TDI-powered Golfs and Beetles and Jettas for about $22K that could peg 50-plus on the highway, which was (and still is) nearly as good as the hyper-miling plug-in Prius but much less expensive and without the battery pack and motors.

These cars were also about half the price of the least expensive electric cars then (and still) available and came without the range limitations or the recharge hassles.

Something had to be done.

It was.

VW found itself the focus of a curiously severe inquisition over picayune – almost unmeasurable – variances in exhaust emissions. Nothing that made any measurable difference in terms of air quality, at any rate.

Such variances happen often – federal regulatory rigmarole being recondite rigmarole – but these discrepancies are usually – actually, always – sorted out between the government regulators and the car companies without the severe inquisition.

Except this time.

In a historically unprecedented action, VW executives were criminally charged – and frog-marched in irons before judges, who bore down on them with the threat of hard time harder than that given to murderers – over angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin regulatory infractions which have caused no demonstrable harm to anyone.

But the L1 – and VW’s diesel engine program – threatened a great deal of harm to the then-nascent electrification putsch which was just getting under way in 2013 and which – six years later – is now ready to seize power, literally.

 

VW’s diesel program had to be stopped. And was.

The L1 and production car derivates were aborted;the L1 itself has been memory holed; it is so unknown it might as well never have existed.

This memory immolation was absolutely necessary in order to avoid the problem of unhappy comparisons between what was possible – what was on the verge of becoming available  . . . and what is being forced down our throats.

While the L1 was a very small car intended as a commuter car, one can extrapolate from the capability of a 1 liter diesel to the likely capabilities of a 1.4 or so liter diesel in a subcompact car one notch smaller than the current Golf – which, recall, could get 50 on the highway with a 2.0 TDI diesel.

Maybe not 170 MPG. But probably at least 70 MPG – and for a lot less than the cost of an electric-powered mobility-reducer such as VW’s eGolf – which costs time as well as money.

It goes about 120 miles on a charge – and costs $31,000 to start.

It doesn’t take less time than it took you to read this article to recharge. It makes you sweat – literally – whether to use the AC on a hot day. And shiver as you ponder whether to turn on the heat on a cold day.

The L1 and VW’s now-defunct line of diesel-powered cars let you run the AC full blast all the time with no appreciable effect on the range. You stayed cozy on cold days – because it costs nothing, energy-wise, to run the heat as high as you liked.

Most ironically of all, VW’s ultra-efficient diesels were environmentally sounder than the electric cars being foisted upon us, if only because almost everyone could afford to drive one while most people cannot afford to drive an electric car.

What is the benefit of a “zero emissions” electric car if it’s too expensive for all but a small handful of people with the means to buy one?

Wouldn’t it be more “environmentally sound” to reduce the emissions of the cars driven by average people by whole numbers via double-digit gains in MPGs as opposed to curb-stomping VW over fractions of whole numbers differences on some arcane federal test?

Such questions don’t bear asking – because of the answers which might be forthcoming.

They must be memory-holed.

Along with the L1.

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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53 COMMENTS

  1. Actually, I’m enjoying the move to electric cars in a perverse sort of way. Between watching states dancing around the issue of decreasing gas taxes and the knowledge that our electric grid can’t handle a nation of electric cars, I expect this change-over to be highly entertaining. Right up until people figure out just how hard they’ve been screwed.

  2. I lived in San Diego when those things came out. At that time you could cros sinto Tijuana and buy diesel for 11 cents a gallon and if you go a few miles south the proce dropped to 9 cents or less.
    A few shops in SD specialized in putting aux fuel tanks in the spare tire well. You could see them evert day lined up at the border with thier spares on a rack across the back and leaning to the back. Go to TJ fill up for $2.50 and drive for 6 weeks before you had to go refill again.

  3. I waited for a US version of the L1 and then the Elio and soon realized I would see neither and it generated rabid aversion to buying cars that I hope contributes to the impending crash of the car market. I will dance in the street when it happens.

    • Hi Ric,

      I share your frustration. I wish even one major car company would just Say No – as Nancy advised – to the regulatory apparat instead of colluding with it. As someone else observed, VW – one example – is paying over billions in extortion that could have been used to launch an advertising juggernaut to explain to people the truth about exhaust emissions, diesel efficiency and “climate change.” It could at least have – as the idiot saying goes – “started a conversation.”

      Instead, they drop to their knees like Ned Beatty and squeal like a pig for the mountain man.

      • eric, dropped to their knees like Ned Beatty. Seems like Ned never had another good part after that. Hmmmmm, wonder why?

    • I too was excited at the announcement of the L1 upon reading about it in 2009. It was a few months afterwards that I thought I spotted 2 of them parked at a Taco Bell in Apache Junction, AZ. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was it so? I started looking them over when the drivers came out. I asked them if these were their cars and they said no, that they were test driving them across the U.S. for VW. I’d read that the L1 was to be available in both a hybrid and non-hybrid version. I was informed that both of these cars were non-hybrid which, I was further informed, was the only version to be sold in the U.S. I was pleased that these two fellas were open to my questions and I asked them what their mileage had been so far. I’d understood upwards of 100 mpg was possible. They said that their experience had been closer to an average of 87 mpg. The cars had AC, performed very well with plenty of pep and considered that a pretty good number. I did too and wanted to ask more questions – where they’d started from, where they were going, etc. but they said they had to get back on the road. The cars had no state license plates, just a notice in that space indicating they were test vehicles. I felt very fortunate to have discovered these cars and waited for the announcement as to their availability. How disappointing to hear later that not only would they never be available in the U.S. but that the L1 program had been scrapped.

  4. This article reads like a mirror opposite of all those “they built an electric car but just before they were about to produce it, the big oil companies bought their patents and killed their plans” stories that have been faithfully circulated since the 1970s. One of the last conspiracies I recall seeing was the “Who Killed the Electric Car?” documentary purporting to tell the real story of why the 1996 GM Impact was quietly memory-holed. They even had an elderly battery maker testify on camera that his batteries were sufficient not only to power the Impact at normal expected range but ALL electric cars, should anyone care to build them. So the question is, has the world really flip-flopped? Has the government and the industry so truly turned against fossil fuels that VW’s super-diesel had to be murdered? Or was it a case of Big Oil’s profits being threatened by its high mpg ratings, and — knowing electrics are a high-cost boondoogle — was protecting itself by taking out a positive development in the fossil fuel field?

    • Hi Hansa,

      I was around (as a car journalist) in the ’90s – and drove the Impact/EV1. I know the story about suppression of battery tech to be false. The EV1 was too expensive and too impractical; the same problems that still plague electric cars today.

    • The EV1 stuff is nonsense. It was an evaluation program that GM extended well beyond the original intent. It was known from day one the cars would be collected and crushed per GM policy and even though they were EVs likely various automotive regulations. I do not know if EV1s were fully compliant with FMVSS and other facets of uncle’s demands. Maybe they were. In either case everyone knows that when these sort of programs end the cars are collected and crushed. Maybe something comes of it, maybe not. The people who had the EV1s apparently liked them but that’s how first adopters are, it’s a self selected group. The list of cars GM could have or should have built is very long and no vast conspiracy is needed for the EV1 to have joined that list.

      Unlike the magic mystery super electric car a high mpg small diesel car prototype is believable. It’s really not all that ‘out there’. What comes of it into production is another story. I am unsure if VW could have produced a complaint car capable of anything approaching half the prototype figure. A car people would buy is more believable. One that is uncle compliant in all areas is a bit of a stretch. Would VW being trying too? Sure they would.

      • What I read about the L1 back then – 2009 to 2012 or so – was that it was produced and sold in Germany and the UK for a few years. They were highly desirable in the UK with used ones bringing a high price. But VW said it would not be easy to make the LI compliant with U.S. regs. Maybe test driving in the U.S. confirmed that. I don’t know. Or VW came to the conclusion that it would have killed sales of it’s bigger, less efficient models.

  5. What if VW had spent some money on telling the public what was happening to a car that a lot of people would have wanted to buy, and why they couldn’t have it? I’ve begun to see ads for a VW electric hippie van that almost no one will want. Doug’s idea would be a viable option as well.

  6. Really the upshot is despite the price delta between the pump and the charge-point, buying an electric car to save on fuel costs is a losing battle. Though electricity is cheaper to generate, even from pricier clean sources, than the retail price of the refined gasoline used to move your vehicle the same distance.

    But currently electricity is very expensive to store, and THAT cost is all upfront in the purchase price (likely financed) of the vehicle. For the cost of the electricity PLUS the cost of the battery, compared to cost of gasoline and frequent oil changes, you can end up going much further over the life of the vehicle. For the fuel savings to even reach the break even point that vehicle must remain in service for a VERY VERY LONG time. And in that time say in 10 to 15 years you must eventually lay out even more money for a replacement battery. at which time the saving counter must be reset.

    Buy electric for the quick off the line performance, silent operation, and minimal visits to your neighborhood convenience store.

    Seems like a V8 might be a better buy though.

  7. I watched a couple year old video on some town in Indiana where the government decided an older subdivision with small homes needed to go to build a higher end subdivision. But how to force people to sell? Well they started with tickytacky fines on every little thing out of place.

    The push for the electric car is little different.

    They do this crap right out in the open but those of us who see it and speak of it are conspiracy theory nutters.

    • Why didn’t they just use the Trump way and pay off some judge to issue “imminent domain”? Works well for him many times.

      Worked splendidly for Texas building the Mexico highway.

      • according to the video that was reserved for a later stage. The reason was because it wasn’t a few homes but something like 400.

        • Ah, but Trump used eminent domain to strip hundreds of people of their homes. It was an entire area of a city. He’s no stranger to pay-offs. He sent $5,000 to Hitlery before they were in contention with each other. He was asked later why Hitlery would attend his “coronation” and he said because he had been sending her money. She owed him and would show up. He was correct.

          • Yeah but this is a small town in indiana, not new england. It’s about preserving the illusion of fair government to do the harassment first. If you were from IL, IN, WI, MI, doing this in stages is no surprise. It’s just the way it’s done here.

      • Saw imminent domain work very well in North Richland Hills, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. Back around 1997, I believe. A big mall wanted to expand but a 25 year old housing development with 150 homes stood in its way. So the mall owners went to the NRH city council, said that they would pay more taxes on that land than did the homeowners. The fat cats on the city council agreed and a price was set to buy out the homeowners. After about a year all but a handful had accepted the offer and wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until the bulldozers showed up to force those people out of their homes, most of whom had raised families there and wanted to stay until they died, did they finally accept payment and move. And so some of the nicest seventies homes you could hope to see in the Dallas-Fort Worth area disappeared. This action had been heavily protested by the entire Dallas-Fort Worth community, but it went through anyway. If I remember right, then Texas governor George W. Bush had been asked to intervene, but he didn’t. So we learn that Big Money always wins in the end.

        • One that same note about 3 years ago, eminent domain was declared by a pipeline company for some property at the edge of Ft. Worth. It went to trial and the owners won. The pipeline company, sure of the results, had already traversed the land and screwed it up so the owners collected a lot of money and retained their buildings too. It was a first for citizens against a big oil concern.

          Of course there were many protests and lots of jailing of even famous people but it never made the news so only internet readers knew about how people were getting their land stolen for the Mexico highway. And it’s still going on. The DMN(Dallas Morning News)would even try to stop the spread of the information about it.

          The Ft. Worth Star Telegram is just a socialist rag and it’s easy to see by their headlines touting the socialist money stealing politicians like Beto O’Rourke, a Mexican(sic…ha ha ha) politician and son of a district court in Texas. He’s not as Mexican as me and I’m not Mexican at all but I do eat a lot of Mexican food.

          It may not be Mexican but tomorrow I will cook a beer butt cabbage and a venison roast. Eat your hearts out vegans. Of course everything I cook is hot enough to fight you back, just the way I like it.

          While this isn’t germane to anything here, I made a vow to buy a new freezer I would stuff with venison and feed my pets for the next year(hopefully). It really doesn’t need to be “in season” to get shot and et hereabouts. It does hang and age much better when we have cold weather. I have three single-trees and can make more similar with rebar if need be. BTW, watching a video this winter I saw some people hang a deer upside down like it would hang to age and field dress it in that position. When you leave everything intact and cut through the chest and then the pelvis it all falls down intact into your lick container you can load into the pickup and haul down 100 yds from the house and pick off the coyotes that eat your livestock and pets. It’s a two-fer.

  8. Truthful, informative and great as they are, these articles and comments are well…tilting at windmills.
    VW was fined $2.8 billion for what?
    Competing with the anointed electric boondoggle-mobiles.
    What I simply cannot understand is why (for that amount of money or probably a lot less) VW simply didn’t extend some contracts…Out-sourcing, if you will.
    The world has efficient mercenary organizations that would insure those “judges” and bureaucrats ceased to emit CO2.
    Try to tell me this would be impossible but, $2.8 billion would write 2800 one million dollar checks.
    The Clinton organization has not-so-dearly departed at least 90 people that were impediments to their agendas.
    And as rich as they are, the Clintons are not in valued at anywhere near $2.8 billion.
    $2.8 billion was just the fines so; This did not include loss of business revenue and multiple other expenses.
    If 100 – 200 of the worst offenders were to assume room temperature, the rest would likely have an epiphany.
    Just-wondering…

    • Your solution is, of course the only one that’s going to work in the long term. Eventually its going to be us or them, since they believe they are rightful masters of us all.

  9. You are assuming the people that “curb stomped” VW think logically, and have some nefarious agenda in mind to force everyone into electric cars in order to control us. I feel the problem is much more pernicious than that. These people who are in charge are clueless. When they think “diesel” they think “semi trucks with bad injectors barreling down the freeway spewing out thick, black smoke”. Because the exhaust from a poorly maintained city bus is visible and able to be smelled, diesel is “dirty” and “polluting” and “causing global warming/climate change”, and you can never EVER use it. Diesel is taboo.
    Most of the people in modern bureaucracies are probably political science majors or social workers who glommed onto jobs at places like the EPA in order to make the world a better place. They are pathetically weak on both environmental science and engineering, but are very heavy on indoctrination into how “evil” capitalists are hell-bent on destroying the planet. and to try to convince them otherwise may not be challenging their religious beliefs but is every bit as difficult as convincing a devout Hindu in the non-existence of reincarnation. It is NOT going to happen.
    And while their fatwas may have the result of severely limiting us, that is not the intended consequence. The intent was to please Tlaloc, the ancient god of weather. And doing anything against their ritually determined course of action incurs their self-righteous wrath as surely as if you had questions about just how ripping out someone’s heart will impact cloud formation. This is why there is no rationality to their actions, and such a fierce punishment of those who have the temerity to try to approach problems rationally.
    We are not dealing with logic. We are dealing with faith–a modern day equivalent of the belief that sacrificing our children on the steps of a pyramid will somehow please the weather gods and make it rain.

    • This is something I’ve noticed before. I still think there’s an agenda at the top levels, but those top levels are served by an army of people who do not have one single little clue what they are talking about or doing. It’s not just cars, either. I’ve heard stories of OSHA inspectors citing factories for minor and mostly harmless violations, then missing some major mistake that actually has the potential to kill someone – if they don’t actually cause an accident in the process of their investigation. If they had any industrial background they’d be able to tell the difference, but they quite obviously don’t. Or whoever it was who wanted to ban barrel shrouds even though they didn’t know what a barrel shroud was and thought it was “a shoulder thing that goes up”.

      One of the foremost symptoms of the authoritarian disease is completely non-technical people trying to write complex technical regulations. They do not understand the effects of their decisions, nor would they care if they did. Their job is merely to decree what must be done, and then it’s our job to figure it out.

      • Hi Chuck,

        Yup. When I worked as a reporter/columnist in DC, I attended many “briefings” at federal regulatory bureaucracies; saw the sausage factory up close. One of the moments that was revelatory for me was a briefing about CAFE regs. It was instantly apparent that the people in charge did not understand (cue Pakled voice) “what makes it go.” Or care. They were insufferably arrogant people who were very open about their hostility toward cars and the people who drove cars they didn’t approve of. Snide comments about SUVs, for instance. But overarching this, the attitude that it was their job to determine what cars the public shall be permitted to drive.

        I had very vivid daydreams involving woodchippers and feet first…

  10. Back in 1981 my parents bought a VW Rabbit diesel. It wasn’t very powerful or very fast but it got 50 mpg. In 1981 that was astounding.

    30 years on VW diesels were still in the 50 mpg range but far smoother and far more powerful. Killing them off and sentencing the company that built them to a slow, lingering death is criminal.

    The technology that made the latest generation of VW diesels so powerful and efficient will have to be rediscovered if too much time passes.

  11. Another excellent case supporting the notion that government doesn’t give a rats behind about what may be practical for its citizens. It is fueled by lame-brain politicians and special interest agenda pushers who are power-starved control freaks, not to mention absolute sociopaths.

    • good post and the only way to stop them is put the fear of death into them and or imprison them on a glacier in the north pole

      • Who’s going to put the fear of death into them and be jailers for them? There’s only one answer for those types and it’s not the “fear” of death although you hope they shit themselves right before they die.

  12. I just returned from Europe visiting friends. My friend in Slovakia drives a VW Touran, basically a super Golf, they call it an MPV Multipurpose Vehicle. Sort of half minivan half SUV with a hatch and a 3rd row.
    You see them a lot as Taxis in Budapest and Vienna and as the standard Vienna police car.

    Tooling around, with the 2.0 TDI the car’s computer measured 4.8 liters per 100 km, – do the math- and that was sightseeing around. On our day trip to the back roads, it did better.

    That is well north of 60MPG in any driving situation! Based on our distance and fuel the thing did 64 mpg average with 3 people ion the car, in vehicle that was comfortable, roomy, quiet, had plenty of torque and was fun to drive (being Golf-based it came natural) and yes and 5 mins to refuel.

    That we cannot get such vehicles here is criminal.

  13. These excellent articles on VW diesels keep kicking us in the shins, or elsewhere higher up. I intend to keep my 2005 Passat TDI for as long as I can get it fixed or maintained. Will not surprise me if it is made illegal by what I describe below. But then I will still have my 1988 Citroen 2CV6 until “they” come for that.
    We are in a time of rule by oligarchy. There is no concern for anything but money and power. To complete the domination, excellence must be destroyed and replaced by hedonism: Sex-Drugs-Rock and Roll. Our rulers know what they are doing and just as western Europeans must be destroyed, so must any alternatives to their domination plans. Diesels were invented by Europeans, now all BAD !
    The insane state of affairs in our current automotive menu are all designed to destroy our autonomy and extract our money: Power and Control are all that matter. Since our leaders are not historical Americans, and our political process has been bought off, nothing stops this destruction. Diesels and Europeans are no exception.
    Viewed through the lens of our domination, all this hyper technical bull shit makes perfect sense. It is unsustainable, and that is the goal. We lose, they gain.
    Stop thinking technical, and start seeing the economics of all this strangulation, and you will sleep better, if you can sleep at all.
    Nothing matters anymore but DEBT and USURY to our rulers. They keep the latter, and we are fed the former.
    And society focus on its navel…

    • Thanks, Jack!

      I will keep hammering away at this – because people need to know and because no one else in the auto journalism world will write/speak these truths. It really is appalling – evil, frankly.

      Strip away the cant – the false narratives about “emissions” and “climate change” – and just look at the facts about diesel capabilities/performance vs. electric and it is very clear that the object of all of this is exactly what you describe. To eliminate anything that gives people more freedom – including economic freedom – and leverage them into ever-greater-debt for the purposes of ever-more-control.

      What person in his right mind would buy a $30,000 Nissan Leaf with a 150 mile range (and 30-45 minute partial recharge time) when he might have bought an $18,000 TDI-powered commuter car that averaged 70 miles on one gallon of diesel – and so only needed about two gallons (about $6) to travel as far as the Leaf’s maximum range?

      And the diesel would have a range nearly five times that of the Leaf with say 10 gallons of capacity in its tank. A tank that could be refilled in 5 minutes. And a car that went just as far in winter as in summer, AC blasting or heat cranking. A car that would probably last 20 years and 250,000-plus miles without needing major/expensive repairs.

      It is sick – and sickening.

      • “And a car that went just as far in winter as in summer”

        Err, no. Winter gas has less energy content than Summer gas. And cold engines give notoriously bad mileage until they warm up.

        • Hi Bob,

          True – but the difference is slight relative to an EV, which can experience a 30-plus percent reduction in range when it is very cold outside, as some EV owners found out last winter!

  14. Looks like you’re the lead story again at the LIO Friends Facebook at Libertarian International Organization website.

    They ran a thing on this 2 years ago, now we know what happened.

  15. Eric, you’re makin me all verklempt with these VW oil burner articles, ‘snif! A sweet Jetta/Golf Sportwagen with a non-CR Diesel, maybe son-of-Pumpe-Duse or ALH, ahhh, that would be family transport nirvana! Carve up the corners in the Hill Country at 80+ while returning 60+ MPG on I-45! Damn those EPA bureacrats black commie hearts!

  16. Let’s not give “all” the credit to the diesel engine. Since that L1 was little more than a three wheel motor sickle, it certainly should have produced better mpg than any real car.

  17. “Build a better mouse trap” ….. And the Gov’t will beat a path to shut you down. Who wins and who loses depends on has the most BS and the most “grease” for the commissar’s palms!

    • Allen so true. There are over 2,000 patents for energy the govt. is sitting on and has declared them non-existent.

  18. If it could go at least 75 mph I would have driven the hell out of that thing because the savings in gas would have paid for the car in 2 years with my 110 mile commute.

    On another note. Funny how fascism always seems to come in vogue when a white republican is in office ranting and raving but real fascism was going on when a D was in office. Fascism is a means, not some words barked on twitter.

  19. It’s a SHAME that the L1 won’t be built. I’d buy one in a NY minute! I’m single and travel alone 99% of the time.

  20. “What is the benefit of a “zero emissions” electric car if it’s too expensive for all but a small handful of people with the means to buy one?”

    I think most of us know the answer…..

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