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VW XL1: first drive

  1. Volkswagen XL1

    It may look like a retro amalgam of Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion car and the 1937 Audi Streamliner, but it’s capable of 313mpg and VW is deadly serious about its latest super economy car, to the extent that it’s going to build it for sale in two years’ time.

    Words: Andrew English
    Photos: Ingo Barenschee

    This feature was originally published in the March issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Volkswagen XL1

    Can Wolfsburg be serious? Listen to chairman Martin
    Winterkorn, and you can take it to the bank. “To meet the EU targets of
    limiting global warming to just 2°C by 2050,” he says, “then the average fuel
    consumption of the world’s car fleet will need to be about 313mpg by then.” Er,
    I hate to tell you this, but VW’s XL1 launched at the inaugural Qatar motor
    show in Doha at the end of January, might just be the supercar your children’s
    children lust after.

    So will you want one? We snatched a drive around the
    emirate’s capital, where a consequence of the highest GDP in the world means
    these are the most exclusive traffic jams outside of Monaco on race week.

  3. It is a gorgeous-looking thing. Just 389cm long and 118cm
    tall, the XL1 has a carbon-fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) monocoque body and
    it weighs about the same as an original Mark 1 Golf. Wheel spats, scissor doors
    and television cameras (pictured) instead of wing mirrors help create an impression of
    something designed by Gerry Anderson for Thunderbirds. Aluminium subframes
    absorb crash forces, and it even has F1-style wheel claws so the wheels absorb
    crash stresses rather than fall off.

  4. In the back, there’s what amounts to half a 1.6-litre VW TDI
    turbodiesel engine, but made entirely of aluminium. This 800cc parallel twin
    clatters out a diminutive 47bhp, augmented by a plug-in hybrid system
    consisting of a thin 27bhp electric motor/starter that sits between the engine
    and the seven-speed twin-clutch transmission. Drive is to the rear wheels, and
    the range, with a full battery and a brimmed 2.2-gallon fuel tank, is about 340
    miles. Top speed is limited to 99mph, with 0-62mph acceleration in 11.9secs, EU
    combined economy of 313mpg and CO2 emissions of 24g/km.

  5. The battery is a Sanyo lithium-ion unit rated at 5kWh, with enough punch to drive on volts alone for 22 miles at moderate throttle openings and speeds under 62mph. Weight and energy-saving ideas predominate. There’s electrical aircon, lightweight wiring with electrical fuses, low-friction plasma-sprayed surfaces on the engine bores and pistons and LED lamps including the headlights. When it comes to saving fuel, this is the guvnor. 

    While the designers didn’t get much of a chance to stylise
    the exterior, in the cabin, they were dealt a freer hand. It’s lovely, clean
    and easy to use, but also innovative. Unlike this car’s tandem-seat
    antecedents, the seats are mounted side by side, but staggered so you don’t
    clash shoulders. The passenger’s seat is fixed, but the driver’s adjusts along
    with the steering wheel to give a pretty good driving position for up to

  6. “We wanted it to be recognisably a VW, but also to show how
    different it was,” says British designer Andrew Hart-Barron. He’s achieved it,
    with a clever mix of VW Group instruments, a feature-length piano-black
    ventilation duct and matt, carbon-fibre black background that looks and feels
    like velvet.

    Like a Lamborghini’s scissor doors, the VW’s take a good tug
    to get shut, and there’s an eerie silence as 22 gimlet-eyed mechanics and
    engineers look at you in their one-and-only £2 million prototype. Start-up
    involves a couple of prods of a button, but no engine noise. In hybrid mode,
    the car runs on battery power down to 22 per cent charge level, so around town
    it’s silent.

  7. Or it should be, but those narrow Michelins make a fair bit
    of noise, as does the whirring driveline. The ride is pretty rigid at low
    speeds, too, so the first impression is of trundling slowly out into the
    traffic and just waiting to be T-boned by a gold-encrusted SUV.

    It does get better. Out on the dual carriageway, the ride
    improves, and you leave the transmission noise behind. Mash the throttle, and
    the engine starts, which thumps through the oily bits but transforms the
    performance. Suddenly this is a major-league fun car, with the electric torque
    wafting you along and the seven-speed gearbox managing to extract the last drop
    of performance. Those skinny tyres transmit a steady stream of feedback, and
    the unassisted steering is better than anything else in the Volkswagen Group.

  8. What’s surprising is how fast the XL1 will run on just its
    battery power. VW says it needs about half the energy to maintain 62mph as a
    1.6-litre TDI Golf, itself a very frugal car.

    Fun? Yes. Frugal? Certainly. By the end of a day’s test
    driving, the fuel gauge had barely moved. But this 21st-century streamliner
    will have a highly limited audience. VW can’t build more than 6,000 bodies a
    year, and XL1’s technology is rarefied and expensive. Expect a price in excess
    of £30k, but we’ll see a lot of the innovations creeping into other cars soon.
    This year’s Up! Space microcar will use the XL1’s twin-cylinder diesel hybrid
    powertrain to cut its CO2 emissions to the low 70s, LED lamps are already on
    their way and the carbon construction will be seen on this year’s Lamborghini
    Aventador supercar.

  9. This is Dr Piëch’s project. The head of VW’s supervisory
    board commissioned it when he was chairman of the firm and in 2002, after he’d
    driven that original One Litre car from his office in Wolfsburg to the
    shareholder’s meeting in Hamburg, I drove it. That 290kg car was a prototype;
    noisy, raw, capable of 300mpg and charming. The second gen of the idea appeared
    at the 2009 Frankfurt show and now, with its rough edges smoothed, this XL1
    demonstrates just how far you can travel on a gallon while still having fun. I
    thought it was fantastic, and I reckon the rest of the world will too.

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