TG drives the VW XL1 in London
Our first test of the 100mpg+ tech-laden VW eco machine on London's roads. Can it handle the capital?
Posted: 13 Dec 2013
London is smiling. Top Gear's home city, bathed in July sun, has got the summer mood. The buildings and streets and views look magnificent, the people have opened their hearts and minds. It's an ideal morning to present them with something utterly fresh. A pearlescent-white streamlined personal transport module that looks like it's been beamed in from a future decade. A VW XL1. And they love it.
We stop outside the former Bluebird Garage in Chelsea, now in their words a 'gastrodome' of high-end food joints. Swing up the semi-gullwing door. A man comes over. What is it, what's it cost, when's it on sale? I tell him it's all about economy, but not cheapness - £50k plus, price not confirmed. "I don't care. I'm going to order one." Later, in Smithfield, it's the same quiz, from a man who has an R8 Spyder. I mention it might be too slow for him. He doesn't seem put off.
So it goes, all day. As a scaled-down supercar the XL1 obviously entices petrol-heads, but not just them. Geeks go for it - maybe to them it's a scaled-up computer mouse. It manages to be entirely non-threatening, so even as we short-cut through Clerkenwell, hipster motherlode of the fixie bicycle, where decadent internal combustion is frowned upon, it gets smiles. Tourist kids in Parliament Square go ape for it. Gorgeous summer-dressed women too. That never happens with supercars, not outside Italy anyway. At one point I get back in and move off, and we overhear someone say, "I can't believe that's just someone's car." Yup, it looks like some static exhibit, not something with number plates that comes out of a car dealer.
On the road, it moves through a non-stop Mexican wave of panning phonecams. Our photographer Rowan, in the car behind with his windows wound down, reports the most common reaction is simply a rather delighted questioning expletive. Yes, London loves it.
So does Top Gear. I've followed its development, been to the factory where its high-tech carbonfibre body is lovingly assembled by an artisanal workforce, and driven it down some foggy, wet Swiss motorways. But this is the day when I can experience the XL1 on roads we know. Time for it to show us its abilities, and how good it is. And, more important really, how it makes us feel.
Obviously it's VW's highest-tech car. But it's also the VW Group's joint highest-tech car, along with the Porsche 918. And it shares a vast amount in concept (if no actual parts, of course) with the 918. It's a two-seater, with a carbonfibre tub and carbonfibre panels. It runs a mid-mounted piston engine, in parallel with an electric motor, and a DSG transmission, driving the rear wheels. It has a battery, and can run in electric plug-in mode, or part-electric hybrid mode. It has highly advanced aerodynamics, and carbon composite brakes. (Unlike the Porsche it doesn't have a front e-motor, nor any 'performance' modes.)
These technologies - aero, powertrain and lightweight - all serve efficiency, but while the 918 employs them in service of performance, in the VW it's all about economy. Strangely, its exterior designer Peter Wouda, who's my passenger today, says the Porsche 917 was an inspiration - look at the first 1969 cars and you see what he means.
He also cites a shark. "They're such low-drag, and they were perfected by evolution so long ago." He's talking about the XL1's wide and low front-end and its tapering rear. Small wonder one passer-by asked if it went underwater. His aim was for the pattern of lights and lines at the front to look "focused and attentive", rather than either aggressive or cute. Most of the design work was about surfacing: the proportions and basic shape were dictated by packaging and the need to shave drag and frontal area to the very minimum. They even managed to get lipstick cameras homologated in place of draggy door mirrors.
Open the XL1's semi-gullwing doors and drop into its narrow cabin. Frankly it feels a little claustrophobic. You're as low as a serpent, and the view forward is great but backward and upward very limited. But there's enough space. You sit on a thinly upholstered one-piece carbonfibre seat which, to save weight, doesn't recline, but only tilts and slides. Am I uncomfortable? Not at all. The passenger's seat is entirely fixed, and further back than you because the battery is ahead of their feet. Otherwise the cockpit is simple and elegantly sparse, both pragmatically to save weight and philosophically to keep the focus on the technical nature of the car.
Driving it, you remain utterly focused too. I find I've developed a tic, always dropping an eye to the instruments, watching how the engine starts and stops, and how amazing economy figures keep popping up on the trip computer: somewhere between 170 and 200mpg most of the time. That economy isn't merely by cheating and supplementing its diesel diet with stored mains electricity from the battery. The battery charge isn't depleting very fast either. The fact is this car just requires very little power of any kind to move it along.
In fact at a steady 62mph on level ground, it needs just 8bhp if there's no headwind. It is indeed stable and capable on a motorway, but it's limited to 100mph because otherwise it'd need bigger brakes and tyres and cooling, so would be less efficient at normal speeds. Besides, like any low-powered low-drag car, its acceleration tails off noticeably beyond 60-ish.
Low-powered? There's 27bhp of electric motor, and 47bhp of 800cc twin-cylinder diesel. It uses the electric motor for most running around today, the diesel only cutting in when you need a spurt of acceleration or high speed. The start-up is amazingly smooth, so I often don't notice it unless I'm looking at the tach. It's achieved by using the traction motor and clever automated operation of three clutches (two in the DSG, one between the e-motor and diesel).
Another reason I don't notice the start-ups is that the twin-cylinder diesel is quieter than you might imagine, and it's near-drowned by lots of other noise. Sound deadening is heavy so VW didn't use much. You hear the tyres rumbling along the tarmac, you hear the graunch of the carbon brakes. Most of all, you hear the noise of the traffic around you through the polycarbonate windows and thin carbon bodywork.
Despite the fact that VW very badly needs me to return this car without any wounds (it was transported straight down to Goodwood that evening), Rowan our photographer, in the car behind, said afterward I was "driving it like a Londoner".
Quite so. It bids you to do just that. It accelerates nippily off the line, steers with delicious accuracy, and uses its slimness to point into cheeky traffic gaps. I was also swerving around pot-holes: the suspension is firm, and though the car feels very strong I didn't want to be hard on it.
The door cameras are a bit odd: they're not far off the ground, actually lower than the screens that they feed. This means what you see is mostly wheels. This worm's-eye view is intimidating at first, but you soon realise it's all the information you need because you're never going to be crushed by a truck that's hovering, wheel-less, above your field of vision.
What makes the XL1 so wonderful - OK, apart from the fact everyone thinks you're a person of taste and discernment for driving one - is the deep engagement in driving it. You watch the dials and listen to the powertrain to get best economy, you avoid the brakes by anticipating the car's motion and how it swims with the traffic. The steering, without assistance, gives you an intimate connection to the road. Eventually you get close to a non-physical state, where you're getting along with almost no energy, powered only by thought.
Not your own thought, mind you, but the immense brainpower of the VW boffins who created this thing. Topped up by the goodwill of London itself.
Words: Paul Horrell
Photography: Rowan Horncastle