Hybrid pioneers: Mk1 Toyota Prius vs Volkswagen XL1 vs Honda Insight

When Ferdinand Piëch drove from Wolfsburg to Hamburg one April morning back in 2002, he did only what so many business types in the region still do every day.

The normality of his 140-mile journey was reinforced by the weather (cold, rainy) and his old-school attire (flat cap, checked scarf). He didn’t listen to the radio, because there wasn’t one. With just 8.5bhp at his disposal, neither did he do much overtaking. Bobbing along in the autobahn flow, Piëch simply drove his car for three hours in order to get from company headquarters to an important shareholder event. All quite typical, for a certain sort.

Except, of course, there was nothing typical about this particular journey. Sixty-five years old and soon obliged to retire, as per corporate policy, Piëch was the brilliant but often callous chairman of the supervisory board for Volkswagen. The event was the 42nd annual general meeting of this ambitious company. And between setting off and reaching the five-star Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, the ‘car’ drip-fed just 2.1 litres of diesel into its toastersized 299cc engine for an average consumption of 317mpg – or less than one litre per 100km.

It was the one-litre barrier that meant everything to Piëch and became an absurdly expensive obsession for Volkswagen over the next decade. How could it achieve such economy in something fully homologated for road use? How, in other words, could it achieve it with something that didn’t rely on a Spitfire seating arrangement, that wasn’t so flimsy that it weighed just 290kg and that didn’t look like somebody had cack-handedly force-fed liquorice into an oversized sausage stuffer?

The answer was the XL1, which even today, nine years after it was unveiled in Qatar, of all places, drops jaws like the top-secret black pudding Piëch burst out of that spring morning. With it, VW had essentially pushed the nuclear button in the war for fuel-efficiency bragging rights. The XL1 was an ecological cousin to the boundary-smashing Bugatti Veyron, which had also been developed on Piëch’s watch, and took on the supercar’s philosophy, only applying it in another way. It cost £98,515 when it went on sale in 2014 and is without question the wildest ‘people’s car’ ever to wear numberplates.

Here’s what it took: a full carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) monocoque, magnesiumalloy wheels, carbon-ceramic brake discs, a titanium exhaust, polycarbonate Lamborghini Countach-style windows (with manual winders), CFRP-shell seats by Sparco, unassisted steering, a dual-clutch gearbox (with a bespoke magnesium casing), a flat underfloor and an engine set amidships. Even the delicate anti-roll bars were CFRP.

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And looking forward? What’s intriguing is that history could be in the process of gently repeating itself. Where VW was once obsessed with diesel, today it’s betting the farm on electric cars, led by group CEO Herbert Diess, the self-styled Elon Musk of Wolfsburg. Same ethos, different medium. Honda continues to experiment, occasionally delivering clean-sheet wonders such as the refreshing E electric city car, although in general innovates with little of the conviction it had around the time of the millennium. Don’t expect it to change the face of the industry.

As for Toyota, it remains lukewarm on electric cars, mostly selling hybrids made to the same recipe set out by the original Prius. However, for some time, and somewhat against the grain, it has also taken hydrogen very seriously, chipping away at the technology to the extent that if society reaches any form of pivot point, it will be ready. The Mirai, it’s called – an outwardly ordinary but inwardly extraordinary saloon. Sound familiar?