14 August 2014 ~ 0 Comments

An alien concept:
driving the Volkswagen XL1

Space-age looks and sci-fi technology. Rich Gooding straps himself in the fuel-efficient VW and prepares for an out-of-this-world driving experience

2014 Volkswagen XL1

Driving the Volkswagen XL1 is like nothing I’ve ever driven before. Even walking up to the carbon-fibre eco supercar you’re amazed by its small footprint and low-slung stance. Little wider and longer than a Polo, the XL1 is far, far lower.

Its rear wheels are hidden by fairings and the lack of a back window and rear cooling vents remind you of early Beetle prototypes from the 1930s.

The front takes typically contemporary Volkswagen design cues and emboldens them with a bit more glitz: LED head lights and indicators dazzle in the overcast conditions, while the tapering nature of the XL1’s profile view has more than a whiff of sci-fi about it.

That’s made even more space-age by the white colour of the test car (although silver has the same effect). The narrow-tailed body serves a purpose though: with its precise trailing edges, the body exhibits, according to VW, ‘perfect aerodynamics’.

And that’s just the start of the theatre. Push the part-hidden door handle and the scissor door rises up on its gas struts to reveal a sparse cabin, quite technical in appearance.

Clamber gracefully over the exposed carbon sill and drop yourself into the carbonfibre driver’s seat. Adjust fore and aft to find the perfect position to drive Volkswagen’s £98,515 eco-warrior and you’re ready.

Sleek and exotic
The sleek and exotic Volkswagen XL1 is the reality incarnate of the German company’s ‘1-litre’ car. A long-standing and technically-challenging project, the XL1 is the third evolutionary stage of the process to produce a car which only uses one litre of fuel every 100km (upwards of 200mpg).

The story begins at the turn of the millennium when Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Volkswagen AG, the formidable Prof Dr Ferdinand Piech, came up with the vision to create a production car which was practical enough for everyday use, yet offered an out-of-the-ordinary fuel consumption figure.

In fact, the XL1 goes one better than even Dr Piech’s goal, achieving a 0.9l/100km fuel consumption (313mpg).

A low weight of 795kg (the Mk 1 Polo weighed 685kg), an extra-slippery Cd value of 0.189, emissions of 21g/km, and its plug-in hybrid powertrain give the XL1 all the super-eco ammunition it needs.

And it puts them to good use.

Pull the door home firmly and start the XL1 from the key in the centre console. The automatic handbrake disengages and the super-light super-sleek little car glides forward in all-electric mode. Straight away it feels tiny.

With a low centre of gravity and only 1153mm of height, you’re immediately aware of the shrunken shape when compared to other vehicles. In almost all cases the XL1’s roof is barely level with most cars’ headlights.

Unfamiliar sensation
Another unfamiliar sensation to get used to is the lack of door and rear view mirrors. instead, the two-seater has a tiny pair of door-mounted cameras (‘e-mirrors’ in Volkswagen terminology) which relay pictures back to large smartphone-sized screens embedded in the interior door skins.

Judging extremities and traffic is difficult at first (not helped by the car’s left-hand drive layout) but looking at the doors just head of you soon becomes second nature.

As does making sure you know where the edges of the car end – due to the teardrop shape in plan view, the side bodywork of the XL1 actually extends out from the specially-coated polycarbonate windows.

When driving on the left in the UK, you just have to make sure that you’re closer to the nearside of the road than you think you might be.

But, you soon don’t miss a rear view mirror, just relying on the door screens to let you know what traffic may be bearing down on you.

The XL1 is 129mm lower than even a Porsche Boxster, so other drivers have to attune themselves to the lightweight VW’s presence, too.

In all-electric mode, the XL1 is, as you’d expect, whisper quiet, bar some road noise from the 15 and 16-inch flush-capped magnesium wheels and low rolling resistance tyres. There’s also a faint but endearing whine from the 20kW 26bhp electric motor.

A small touchscreen borrowed from the Up displays an energy meter and flow diagram, notifying you of which power source you’re using.

The removable display unit is not the only part cribbed from other production Volkswagens to keep costs down, either: the column stalks are similar to those you’d find in a Mk 5 Golf, while the air-conditioning controls could be lifted from a Caddy or Transporter.

The instrument panel will also be familiar to anyone who has driven a current Beetle or an Up. The two-spoke steering wheel is bespoke, though, and toy-like tiny. The dashboard itself is simple yet stylish and although looks like carbonfibre, is actually made from wood pulp.

Muted but omnipresent
The XL1 can go over 30 miles on lithium-ion battery power alone, but to increase the range to 500km, the mid-mounted, 800cc, two-cylinder, 35kW 47bhp TDI engine needs to be kicked in.

It should happen automatically when the accelerator is pressed in a more forceful fashion.

A button on the dashboard can disable e-drive alone and speed up the process if needed, though. Once added, the TDI unit makes its presence felt with a gruff, almost generator-like sound – muted, but omnipresent.

I’m told that the three cars Volkswagen UK is currently guardian of are pre-production prototypes, and that the sound-deadening may not be as extensive as on the finalised production models.

The chugging of the diesel engine is never an issue, though – the energy flow display adding yellow arrow tracks to those of the blue e-drive to signify the TDI engine’s awakening.

On the move, the XL1 feels swift enough, thanks to the carbonfibre-reinforced plastic body and aluminium suspension components.

The XL1 is no supercar for sure, despite its exotic looks, but it will do the benchmark 0-62mph sprint in 12.7 seconds when both parts of the hybrid system are engaged.

It will power on to an electronically-limited top speed of 99mph.

Ample torque
While the performance might not quite match the looks, there is ample torque for accelerating safely. The two-pot TDI develops 120Nm, while the electric motor has 20Nm more. The whole system’s torque is the larger of the two figures.

But it doesn’t matter that the XL1 doesn’t have the mega horsepower its low-slung body promises: when you’re driving the snug coupé, it feels much faster than it is.

That’s obviously in part due to that low centre of gravity, but also the car’s lightness. With height kept to a minimum, body roll is virtually non-existent and the car never feels anything less than stable.

The non-power assisted steering feels light enough to cope with the demands placed upon it, while the carbon-ceramic brakes slow the car effectively, if noisily.

The seven-speed DSG gearbox works just as in Volkswagen’s other cars so equipped, driving the rear wheels. As you would expect from a plug-in hybrid, battery regeneration occurs when the car slows down, the electric motor acting as an electric generator.

That eco-mindedness translates into efficiency, too: to travel at a constant speed of 100km/h (62mph) the XL1 only needs 6.2kW, just 7bhp.

Added parsimony
For added parsimony, just slot the gearlever into ‘D’ – which constantly shuffles between electric and diesel power depending on conditions and need – and coast on downhill stretches of road.

Take your foot off the throttle entirely and the car will roll along quite happily and for some quite astonishing distances.

To add some extra charge into the battery select ‘S’ (VW denys it’s a ‘Sport’ function) which gives more engine braking and battery regeneration, thanks to the prioritising the use of the two-pot TDI engine.

Does the XL1 deliver on VW’s promise of practicality? To a point. There’s a 120-litre boot under the rear bodywork/engine cover, but if the small suitcase-sized portable charger for the electric motor is carried then even that is negligible.

But you don’t buy a car like the XL1 for its luggage capacity. No, you buy it because of its technological highlights. Its looks. Its rarity. Its engineering prowess.

Order books for the production XL1s open in October, with first deliveries slated for March 2015. According to Volkswagen, they are selling fast. Only around 30 examples are coming to these shores, so exclusivity is guaranteed.

A total of 250 are being manufactured and assembly takes place at the old Karmann plant in Osnabruck in an almost hand-built process.

Exciting, enthralling, intriguing
Volkswagen states that the XL1 is the ‘most fuel-efficient’ production car in the world’. And even though the car’s multifunction computer will not display over 200mpg to prove that you’ve acheived the magic 313mpg or 0.9l/km, who am I to argue?

The diminutive XL1 is the most exciting (not in the rip-snorting sense of the word), the most enthralling, the most intriguing and just plain out-of-this-world car I have ever driven.

It may be small, but the Volkswagen Xl1’s achievements, both in technology and efficiency, are mightily large indeed.

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