Driving Volkswagen's 0.9L/100km Car Is Like Driving The Future

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


    It looks straight out of demolition man.

    Gets 100km per litre, has a 10 litre tank, but maximum range of 500km? Need more details on how this stuff is calculated.

      Lol, don't even bother. Giz never picks up on this sort of stuff.

      At a guess, I'd say the range is calculated off the official "combined" figure, as it is in most production cars, whereas the quoted 0.9L/100km is the "best" consumption which occurs only when highway driving at ideal speeds in ideal conditions.

      I wonder though - why not make the tank 15, or even 20 litres? Surely it wouldn't take up that much more room, it certainly wouldn't add that much weight, then they could claim that the car travels 1000km on a single tank. My inefficient 6-cylinder sedan can do 700km on a tank easy, and it's convenient that it does. Even though it uses a lot of fuel doing it.

      Last edited 27/06/13 12:16 pm

      I think that's return. you can travel up to 500km away from home, and get home on that tank.

    One of the keys, I feel, to gaining more acceptance to these hybrid/electric vehicles is getting the look right. I quite like the front end of this car, but the back end ruins it for me. The dashboard is nice and simple.

    A general aside, It seems car manufacturers try and throw in as many electronic accessories as possible. To me thats like putting always on lights on a laptop with no way to turn them off when running from battery. That said, VW doesn't seem to have gone over the top with this one, which to me is the right way to go.

    I want to like this car, which is more than I can say about other hybrids.

    Last edited 27/06/13 11:34 am

      The thing is the shape of the car went out of "favour" in the 70s-80s. I cringe when I see cars shaped this way. Maybe it's just me (and you maybe), but I can't understand why car makers keep crawling back to this shape.

        I think the shape of this car must be extremely aerodynamic, which is becoming important again in the push to constantly reduce fuel consumption... You might be cringing more often in the future unless a more appealing aerodynamic shape is created.

          I'm not an aerodynamic expert, and I'm sure it's more complicated than this, but I thought a thin front and a wide rear is more aerodynamic than a wide front and thin rear (due to wind resistance). This is why F1 cars are shaped the way they are.

            Having the sort of wedge design you describe whilst being efficient at entering the air stream creates a lot of wake turbulence which creates a low pressure area behind the car basically holding the car back. The most efficient designs are indeed the ones that look like the XL1, just look at the GM EV1 which had a very similar design.

            F1 cars whilst highly aerodynamically tuned are not very efficient, they are made to create downforce which almost always comes at the expense of aerodynamic efficiency.

              Yes, here's the answer as to where GM's EV1's all ended up.

        I think it looks cool. I cant stand cars always looking the same. Get rid of the box and give us something that looks more like a Delorean any day!

          Each to their own I guess. Thankfully we all still have a choice, for now at least!

    I agree, my head went wait, what?... 100 x 10 = 500?

    Amazing car !

    Gonna be a pain changing those back wheels :)

      It's usually no different to a regular car other than you have an extra cover to remove before hand.

    I wonder how much weight was actually saved by using a video system to replace the wing mirrors? Does it really save weight or does it just look cool?

      I think that part was to help with the aerodynamics.

    From the front it looks like an updated Toyota Sera.... and that's only a good thing !!!

    Overall it's too much of a space pod, but the front end and gullwing doors are cool.

    2 seats but only 1 cup holder?

      Might only be a problem if two girls are in it...

      Last edited 29/06/13 12:41 am

    I can't help but feel they've jumped a bit too far forward in a single jump.
    The problem with these cars is they are designed for a very small niche use. The shape itself screams "look I can go really far on a straight freeway"..... just don't try to park one.
    I wonder what the braking performance in the wet will be like with such tiny tyres.

      The article mentions park assist at the start.

        That was just an example. There are plenty of things that car looks like it would struggle with.
        Having side "mirrors" that low down and on the door seems strange.
        How about the fact that if you put two 90Kg people and 100kg in the boot you've now increased the weight of the car by over 40%. How is that going to affect the handling, economy and braking?

          100kg in the boot? lol So don't buy one.

            It's got a 120L boot, it should be able to cope with extremes. It's call operational range qualification.

            but "lol So don't buy one." is exactly my point. It's too much of a niche to become successful.

              No, I mean don't *you* buy one. There are plenty of people for whom this car would be very useful. 120L boot does not mean you have to be able to pack it with 120kg. You wouldn't buy a mini if your job was to transport giraffes.

              Your argument boils down to "What a shitty spoon! It can't even cut this steak! Whoever designed this spoon is an idiot! Why would anyone buy one?!!"

                No my argument boils down to "why buy a spoon when I can buy a spork-knife that can do everything and costs the same."

                Obviously there is no mention of cost but carbon fibre monocoque is not going to be cheap.
                What I'm trying to say is that in designing a "future" car they made it too niche. I'm not saying no one will buy it, I'm not saying it's completely useless, but I am saying that if you want to lead the world in future cars, you're going to need something that will appeal to as large an audience as possible and be as flexible as possible. This design is not flexible.

                It's the same reason why SUVs are getting so popular. They cost the same as medium sized cars, have the same features, similar fuel economy, but are bigger, have more boot space, more leg space, can tow, can have roof racks, offer a higher driving position, arguably safer etc etc. You simply get more for your money.

                Buying this future car is like buying a supercar.,. you buy it for one purpose only. You can't take it shopping, you cant tow, you can't fit your skis in it etc. That's not saying someone won't buy it, but it's not marketed as a future care for everyone...

                Last edited 01/07/13 1:21 pm

                  So what if it's not a car for everyone? No car is. That doesn't mean it won't be successful.

                  You're assuming every single person has your lifestyle... what about people who don't ski, don't want to tow things and don't have kids? Impossible!

                  Why would you want a buy a spoon knife, which does both jobs shittily, instead of just a car that suits your needs? Commuting in the city, doing the shopping, highway cruising; sounds great to me.

                  It's too bad this car isn't designed specifically for you, personally.

    EVERY 'future' car for the last 30 years has had gullwings. Other than the Delorian... Where TF are all the gullwinged cars huh!? Are we in the future yet or what?

    On a functional note, gullwings rock, they are far better than laterally opening car doors.


      There you go =)

        Thank you sooo much. Now - Where TF is my hover-board?

    "This was a project not many could have pulled off apart from Volkswagen"

    Am i missing some important fact here? VW is pretty synonymous with shitty cars. Is it all their diesel research your referring to or is VW considered nice in australia? Seriously wondering

      It's because The Volkswagen Group owns Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen marques; the Ducati brand; and commercial vehicles under the MAN, Scania and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles marques.

      They have massive resources and very deep pockets.

    VW includes Audi, Porche, Lambo, Bugatti, Bentley and more. So they do have a lot of inhouse experience.

    Until cars can time travel, and run on Mister Fusions, I'm not really interested in future concept cars. And besides, the petroleum industry would never let these cars get mass produced. And the Americans wouldn't buy them because they aren't as large as Sherman tanks and don't get 1 mile to the gallon.

    Last edited 01/07/13 3:23 pm

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now