Volkswagen wanted to build a car that could go 100km on a litre of fuel. Now, 15 years after setting that challenge for itself, it has exceeded its goals in almost every way. The VW XL1 is built like a supercar, looks like a spacepod, feels like a production model and crosses the Autobahn while using barely 0.009 litres of fuel every kilometre. This is what it’s like to drive the future.
Full disclosure: Volkswagen wanted me to drive the XL1 so badly it flew me business class to Wolfsburg, put me up in a very nice hotel and paid for all my Hendrick’s Gin & Tonics. Then it even let me try out its newest toy.
When Dr Ferdinand Piech drove the first prototype of VW’s one-litre car from Wolfsburg to Hamburg for the annual shareholders in 2002, he probably didn’t have a great time. Prototypes tend to be noisy and rather uncomfortable on the Autobahn. But that demonstration must have worked since today the diesel-electric hybrid XL1 is entering limited production.
What’s for sure is that Piech wanted to have a 100km/L car and he ended up achieving 110km/L. That’s a remarkable result, even if that number is only achievable in an ideal world where hypermiling is the norm. If you use all its power, the XL1 will still save more fuel for you than most cars out there while it seats two, has enough cargo space for a short trip (around 120 litres) and a range of 500km if you fill the tiny 10-litre fuel tank to the brim.
If you open it up, it doesn’t take long to realise how much work and money went into the development of this futuristic Tatra. There’s carbon fibre everywhere and you sit in a one-piece monocoque that VW gets from an Austrian supplier. At 80kg, it’s super light. It has carbon-ceramic brake discs and pads, polycarbonate windows and a magnesium clutch. This was a project not many could have pulled off apart from Volkswagen, and even it had to think about it for quite a while.
The end result is a car that weighs only 795kg. And while 65kg of that is actually down to the batteries, this electric system makes much more sense than the Porsche 918’s.
So here we are in Wolfsburg, a town of 50,000 that could be described as the cheerful Death Star of the VW empire. Or the German Bethlehem, whatever you prefer. There are five XL1s in the parking lot, and I’m going to drive one. The moment of truth I’ve been waiting for since Geneva. VIN number 19 will get floored.
After a few metres, it’s obvious that you need to be a car guy (or girl) to get why certain compromises had to be made with the XL1. For example, there is no power steering, but you get park assist. It’s all about weight and it’s all about nerdy details. Let me start from the beginning.
There’s a button on the dashboard that says EV. As you may have guessed, that means the XL1 uses only electric power (27hp) until the lithium-ion batteries run out of juice (approximately 50km), which causes the 0.8-litre turbodiesel (TDI) engine to kick in. Now, in pure electric mode, the XL1 is slow. It’s fine in a crowded city, but the fact remains that you need flammable liquids to get excited.
Volkswagen claims that thanks to its aerodynamic body (0.189cd), the car only needs 8.4 horsepower in order to cruise at 100km/h. Fair enough, but getting there takes quite a while if you leave it to electricity.
That’s why you fire up the big block engine. When you choose combined mode and let the TDI do its job, two things happen. You get an extra 48 horsepower/instant speed and a terrible grinding noise from behind as the diesel is not toned down by any weight-adding soundproofing.
It gets better once the DSG shifts up and the engine warms up, but it’s still surprisingly noisy inside, with quite a lot of vibration when you put the pedal to the metal carbon fibre.
But stop thinking of the XL1 as an economy car. Think of it as a radical sports car. The XL1 has no power steering, no soundproofing and lots of carbon fibre. There are no mirrors, just a rear-view camera. And while it doesn’t quite go like an F40, it is faster than the efficiency suggests. Cruising at 130km/h using the combined power of 75hp, the XL1 feels happier than being stuck in city traffic, and while it is limited to a 160km/h, it could do more.
The lack of power steering makes it very direct even with the rather slow steering rack, and the ride is good despite those crazy Michelins optimised for low rolling resistance. You sit in a carbon monocoque, and that translates to the rigidity of a tank.
It’s not flawless. It’s noisier than your average VW and the sound isn’t just from the TDI, but the carbon brakes as well. That’s supercar stuff, you get used to it. The VW guy sitting next to me fixed the issue by turning on the radio. German engineering in the haus!
I guess you could also get used to the rear-view camera, but in traffic, it felt weird. The screen is not where you would normally look, so you have to take your eyes off the road for a second. And since there’s only two of them, you end up with a whole new sort of blind spot.
Let’s put it this way: If somebody stood behind you and stole your licence plate, you wouldn’t know. There’s no rear window. But Volkswagen believes in this technology and Dr Ulrich Hackenberg told us that since screens are getting cheaper and cheaper, we should expect to see cameras instead of mirrors as soon as it figures out the legal side of it.
The biggest gadget, of course, is the drivetrain that will soon find it’s way into the Volkswagen e-up!… without the diesel part. It’s great how you know exactly what’s going on under the panels. The carbon brakes make a noise, the electric motor’s regenerative braking doesn’t. So it’s clear what’s stopping you. The TDI will certainly let you know when it powers up, and in EV mode, there’s the usual electric sound giving you the full Jetsons experience. The screen displaying the system gets rid of the rest of your question marks.
On the move, it certainly looks like nothing else on the road.
Unfortunately, when you look around inside, it’s much less exciting. In fact, it’s standard VW stuff apart from the carbon dashboard and the funky carbon bucket seats. The steering wheel is great and the off-set seating means there’s enough shoulder room. But in a car like this, I expect to have holograms and alien colours. Not the Germans. They just don’t do that.
So, I’m crawling in traffic in EV mode, saving pandas and looking for the rearview mirrors. Not like anybody is going to crash into an XL1. They might take pictures though. And even sitting lower than anybody else, the carbon fibre’s rigidity gives a sense of safety. It’s stronger than most small cars out there.
As we head for the Autobahn, I unleash full power, only to realise that the XL1 is much better at highway speeds. Reaching 130km/h is no problem, the DSG does its job, the car is very stable and with the total lack of drag, the only things slowing you down are the bugs you hit on your way. The wind becomes your friend in this one.
When we head back to the parking lot, I realise that overall, the XL1 is much better than I expected. It really feels like a production car instead of a prototype, and that’s the biggest compliment for a limited production vehicle. And limited it is.
Volkswagen already made 50 out of the planned 250 run. They will sell them at “important markets” in Europe, with some probably reaching the shores of China too. This first batch of cars will be actually handed to the public for a month long testing session in Germany, and since many are interested, VW had to set up an essay competition to decide who will be the lucky ones to get it.
So, what’s the point then? The point is that they could pull it off. It’s a technological masterpiece that hints at the future of lightweight mobility. And it works today.
After the drivetrain, the next step might be high volume carbon fibre panels from Volkswagen. They know how much weight can be saved by that, and these people like numbers.
There’s no word on pricing, no word on available colours (white, grey and red are for sure), but if the XL1 catches on, we’ve learned that the very labour-intensive production run can be expanded beyond the 250 units. Only time will tell, but I want one.
Pictures: Máté Petrány