By the end of the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show, Volkswagen will have unveiled as many as nine world premier vehicles. What’s the common denominator? “Maximum efficiency,” according to VW. The coolest in the bunch are the L1, a two-seat hybrid concept that could get hundreds of miles per gallon, and the E-Up! all-electric minicar. With these concepts, VW is pointing to small innovative platforms, new levels of aerodynamic design, and electric or hybrid drive.

Today’s car shoppers should not get too excited. The L1 and e-Up! are futuristic models with little or no chance of going into volume production. Referring to the E-UP!—perhaps the more practical of the two concepts—Martin Winterkorn, VW chairman of the board, said, “To be a genuine success, such an electric car must be affordable to a broad customer base and must be uncompromisingly practical in everyday driving. Only then, in high volumes, and ideally on all continents, can one truly speak of the beginning of the electric age in automobiles and a perceptible reduction of their environmental impact.”

Winkerton indicated that production numbers would need to approach levels of the VW Polo, and that would probably not happen until 2020. He said, “That is why our highly efficient TDI and TSI engines are the most important waypoints of the present.”

L1: World’s Most Efficient Road-Legal Hybrid

The L1 is powered by a turbo diesel and electric motor and weighs only about 840 pounds. Its narrow body is made of carbon fiber, and its drag coefficient is 0.195, lower than any production car on the road today. The L1 name refers to the European concept of a “1-Liter” car, meaning it uses no more than 1.0 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, or about 235 miles per gallon. The L1 is capable of a top speed of 100 miles per hour, and 0-to-62-mph acceleration in a leisurely14.3 seconds.

The L1’s 0.8 liter TDI is the smallest diesel engine intended for production applications every built by Volkswagen. It’s derived from the 1.6 TDI just introduced a few months ago. The 1.6 TDI is making its debut in Frankfurt in cars such as the new version of the Golf BlueMotion and Passat BlueMotion. The engine is mated to a 10-kilowatt electric motor and a 7-speed direct-shift gearbox—all situated at the back of the car. Volkswagen calls the L1 the “most fuel-efficient road-legal car hybrid drive in the world.”

The passenger sits directly behind the driver. You enter the car through a roof cover hinged at the side. All instruments and controls are arranged over a 180-degree radius to the driver. To start the L1, the driver pushes a button on the right side of the steering wheel. When it is rotated, the round start button simultaneously serves as a gear selector switch and is used to activate the electronic handbrake. The driver controls the on-board computer, navigation and entertainment systems, via keys in the steering wheel. Due to the driver’s low seating position, there is an additional window in the roof used to view traffic lights.

E-Up!: Beetle for the 21st Century

Volkswagen’s other piece of green car eye candy is the E-Up!, a 10.5 foot minicar that seats four—three in front and one in back. Top speed is less than 85 miles per hour, with a 0-60 mph pace of about 11 seconds. E-Up! weighs about 2,400 pounds—with more than 500 pounds coming from the 18 kWh battery pack that can deliver about 80 miles of range from a single charge. The driver activates forward or reverse gear via a rotary knob in the center console.

Volkswagen E-Up!
Volkswagen E-Up!

VW is suggesting that the E-Up! could be the “Beetle for the 21st Century,” although its design is decidedly current, more closely resembling previous VW concept vehicles, such as the Up! city car and Space-Up! microvan.

The VW logo on the V-shaped engine bonnet of the E-Up! is more than just an homage to the Beetle. Hidden behind the folding logo is the integrated port for charging the batteries. The concept car has a touch-screen interface that monitors battery state of charge, provides traffic data, and locates available charging stations.