Auto Outlook: Futuristic Volkswagen gets world's top mileage, CR survey's top cars

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  March 3, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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CHICAGO, March 3 (UPI) -- Volkswagen unveils its latest engineering triumph at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland this week -- a production version of a sleek two-seater concept plug-in hybrid that averages the equivalent of 261 mpg.

The covered rear wheels of VW's XL1 make the vehicle resemble a first-generation Honda Insight from 1999 through 2006 that operated on gasoline and electric power. Like the original two-seat Honda three-door hatchback hybrid, the XL1 will go on sale to the public later this year.

It's billed as the world's most fuel-efficient production car.

"The 261-mpg fuel consumption figure is a record that has not been achieved by any other vehicle to date, showing that Volkswagen is redefining what is technically feasible in the automotive industry," the German automaker said in a release.

The XL1 began life as a 1-liter diesel-electric concept in 2002, which led to the L1 prototype in 2009 and XL1 concept in 2011.

The vehicle has upward hinged side doors, uses carbon fiber reinforced polymer body panels, has magnesium wheels and ceramic brake discs, and weighs just 1,753 pounds. A 47-horsepower, turbocharged two-cylinder diesel engine is paired with a 26-horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels through a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission.

Volkswagen says the XL1 can go about 21 miles on its lithium-ion battery before the diesel engine kicks on to recharge the battery. Top speed is 99 mph with a zero-to-60 time of more than 12 seconds and the car can cruise at 62 mph on a super-efficient 8.3 horsepower.

Only about 50 XL1s will be made this year, largely by hand in Osnabruck, Germany, and pricing was not available.

AutoWeek confirmed Audi will show in Geneva a new 201-hp gasoline-electric A3 hatchback hybrid, the fruit of its e-tron program to develop hybrid and electric powertrains for all Audi models.

The six-speed dual clutch e-tron powertain -- a 148-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder direct-injection gasoline engine mated to a 100-hp electric motor -- is capable of going 31 miles in electric mode with a claimed top speed of 81 mph and a combined fuel economy of 156.8 mpg.

Brave new wheels

While 261 mpg or even 156.8 mpg is pretty impressive, this humble auto writer is pleased with the 30 mpg highway his new 2014 Mazda CX-5 crossover utility vehicle is getting.

I finally retired the 1999 Mercury Grand Marquis after touring the Chicago Auto Show and have entered the world of 21st Century automotives and telematics.

While I go through the Mazda's 520-page owner's manual I'll keep you posted on how state-of-the art electronics has affected the driving experience -- for better or worse. For most new car owners there's a learning curve.

Right off the bat I have only praise for the blind spot monitoring system that illuminates little yellow boxes inside the side mirrors representing a vehicle hanging in your blind spot. If you put on the turn signal on to change lanes you get an audible warning while a vehicle is in your blind spot.

Another winner is Bluetooth wireless integration of devices like iPods and cellphones. Add a mobile broadband connection your car is Internet ready.

General Motors and AT&T announced last week they will partner to expand OnStar features to put embedded 4G WiFi connectivity into most 2014 GM vehicles sold in the United States and Canada.

The announcement of the "connected car" was made at a mobile communications conference in Spain. Customers would be able to do things like stream audio and video to passengers in the back seat.

"Turning this vision into a reality starts with enabling fast, reliable and responsive connectivity within the vehicle," a GM spokeswoman said in a release. Through this built-in 4G LTE connection, we have the opportunity to reinvent the mobile experience inside a vehicle."

The GM-AT&T system will not require a smartphone to use connected services and the connection speed could be as much as 10 times faster than older 3G wireless technology, GM said.

Ford 'limp home' complaints spark NHTSA probe

Complaints by owners of recent Ford and Mercury models that their vehicles suddenly go into "limp home mode," stall or surge has prompted an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA said it would investigate reports of unexpected engine power loss involving some 724,000 cars and SUVs from the 2009-11 model years.

"Limp home mode" reduces a vehicle's top speed to 20 mph or slower when the computer signals a problem and limits the engine's revs to prevent damage making it feel like the vehicle is stalling. The ride becomes increasingly rough although the engine continues to operate.

NHTSA and Ford received nearly 1,500 complaints about the problem affecting Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs and Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans. Ford, which discontinued the Mercury brand in 2011, has not announced a recall related to the problem and is cooperating with the government inquiry.

"We are cooperating fully with NHTSA on this investigation, as we do on all investigations," a Ford spokeswoman said. The Detroit News said NHTSA believes the problem could be related to contaminated circuit boards with plating variations.

Most of the engine power loss incidents occurred at speeds of 40 mph or greater.

The affected vehicles do not have Ford's direct-injection, turbocharged EcoBoost technology that has come under scrutiny after several recalls of new 2013 Ford Escape SUVs and Ford Fusions.

Ford, which introduced EcoBoost in 2009, plans to add 12,000 hourly jobs at U.S. plants to ramp up EcoBoost engine production.

More Ford buyers are spending the extra $1,000 or so for the optional EcoBoost engine.

"I think the supply is basically against the wall, based on demand," Jeff Schuster of LMC Automotive told the News. "As the EcoBoost technology and brand itself catches on, it is what's driving these types of decisions."

Consumer Reports disses U.S.-made vehicles

The 2013 Consumer Reports ranking of automakers puts Japan on top and the Detroit Three behind.

For the first time in six years the magazine doesn't name a single Detroit vehicle a top pick.

At the top of the heap is Toyota's Lexus division, followed by Subaru and Mazda, Toyota, Acura and Honda. All domestic U.S. brands were in the bottom half of the rankings.

Just 20 percent of Ford and Cadillac models were recommended by the magazine, and only 25 percent of Chrysler models.

Honda's luxury Acura brand was the only nameplate other than Lexus to have all its models recommended by the magazine and Honda had three overall top picks for small SUV -- the CR-V; minivan, the Odyssey, and mid-size sedan, the Accord.

The Honda Civic is also back on the CR recommended list after a winning redesign for 2013.

The Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ were named top sporty car.

The BMW 328i was top sports sedan, the Audi A6 top luxury car, the Subaru Impreza top compact car, the Toyota Highlander top midsize SUV and the Toyota Prius top green car.

Toyota's Scion brand was seventh overall, Audi, eighth, Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand, ninth and Mercedes-Benz 10th. South Korea's Hyundai was 15th and its Elantra subcompact was named the top budget car of 2013.

Among U.S. brands, Cadillac was 14th, GMC and Chevrolet tied for 17th and Buick 21st. Chrysler was ranked 22nd, Jeep 25th and Dodge 26th.

Ford was 23rd with its revived luxury Lincoln brand 24th. Consumer Reports said Ford's overall rankings were affected by continuing problems with its MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems.

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