VW XL-1: we drive the future
"Ooh, it'd be like going to bingo in a spaceship!" exclaimed one curiously happy old lady as she peered through the wing doors at the spartan, ascetic interior of the VW XL-1. "But there's a problem..." she leaned in, patting my hand as if to reassure me, "it's a bit low, and me 'usband in't as flexible as 'e used to be!" The last accompanied by a throaty chuckle as she pottered off, running a craggy hand down the little white car's flanks. It took a while. Firstly, she was moving at the pace of cold treacle, and secondly, she was having to shoulder her way through the crowd that this Volkwagen seems to tow in its wake like a boyband minibus. Mind you, I doubt that many out-of-season North Yorkshire seaside towns see many cars like the XL-1. But they might do, in the future.
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The reasoning isn't all that bizarre. Of all the themes to have arisen in the past decade, the search for greater efficiency is one of the most powerful. Getting the most from the least, the most effective bang for your buck, no matter in which direction you point the needle, speed or miles-per-gallon. We ended up in Whitby after filling the XL-1 at VW HQ in Milton Keynes and driving it north, for no other reason than to see if this lab-looking vehicle can operate in the real world, only refilling after a healthy few hours and a brisk traverse across the North York Moors. We covered motorways, dual carriageways and B-roads, all in a manner I would consider as completely normal. Fun, even. Several hundred miles. The real delight? The XL-1 only has a 10-litre fuel tank. We were averaging just under 170mpg. It's a remarkable thing.
In fact, the XL-1 is a potent expression of what happens when engineers get unhealthily fixated. The specifications read like a wish list for enthusiasts of automotive parsimony: a two-seat diesel-electric hybrid that claims 313mpg, with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that coughs out just 21g/km CO2. The monocoque, all the exterior bits and even the anti-roll bars are made from carbon fibre reinforced polymer for strength and lightness, and the shape has been teardropped - the rear wheels are almost entirely faired, the mirrors have been replaced with rear-facing e-mirror cameras and the rear track is much narrower than the front - for a drag-defeating coefficient of 0.186. It's basically an eel with wheels. Even the paint is lightweight: the XL-1 is coated with a special fleece layer before the colour is applied, giving a 50 per cent reduction in paint weight, and the laminated windscreen is a barely there 3.2mm thick. The wheels are magnesium and feature tyres skinnier than a Hollywood starlet. The result is a car so focused, it could burn a hole in the floor.Advertisement - Page continues below
Basically, it's a posterchild for people who distil their own houmous and knit their own sandals. Such a glib statement suggests that the XL-1 is a worthy, bran-eating, excitement-free zone. Boring. Except that it isn't. Because, despite VW's bloodless claims that the XL-1 is the first-ever SEV or "super-efficient vehicle", and that it's the world's most fuel-efficient production car, I think it's something else entirely.
The VW XL-1 is a hypercar.
Just like the McLaren P1 or LaFerrari, it has a two-seat carbon chassis clothed in carbon body panels, a mid-mounted piston engine supplemented by a battery pack, seven speeds from a double-clutch gearbox. It has the kind of drive-by presence that makes localised camera-phone bandwidth spike alarmingly. It pushes boundaries, expands understanding, explodes with excitement. The VW XL-1 is, when it comes down to the bare lithium ions, an eco-Veyron. Yes, you could argue that 0 to 62mph in 12.3 seconds and a 99mph top end is a bit relaxed for the hypercar echelon, but maybe we just have to open up the requirements, because innovation should always be an equal-opportunities employer. And when it's wrapped up in a car that makes dogs bark, you know that clever can be cool, and efficiency doesn't have to be tedious.
As ever with the truly brilliant, the XL-1 started out as the peculiar obsession of a clever man with resources. Way back in 2000, Professor Dr Ferdinand Piëch - Veyron parent and chairman of the supervisory board of VW AG - decided that he wanted to produce a car that managed 282mpg. Seems like a random outrageous number, until you convert it into metric and find that it refers to a vehicle that consumes just one litre of fuel per 100km. First, there was the one-litre car of 2002 - an ultra-narrow, single-seat pod that looked about as practical as a motivated coffin. Then came the L1 Concept in 2009, which had tandem seating in a still-skinny body. And now we have the production XL-1 - a two seat, sort of practical car that manages to be both spectacular and thoughtful at the same time.
It's an extremely odd car to drive, too. First, there's the blatant theatre of the faired-in rear wheels, wing doors and chopped-off Kamm tail. It looks special. The XL-1 is actually the same length and width as a supermini, but the super-low stance makes it look tiny. The interior is narrow but simple: the two seats are in a slightly offset arrangement, with the driver forward of the passenger and the lithium-ion battery module in front of the passenger's feet. The seats are carbon-fibre one-piece affairs with only the driver's one adjustable for tilt and slide - multiple adjustment adding weight - and the gearbox is the usual VW auto stick without paddles or other controls. The Garmin satnav system is almost identical to the one you find in a VW Up. The heater and fan controls the same as in the Transporter, the dialset from a Golf. So there's not actually very much to get used to, apart from the little rear-view-camera screens in the doors instead of traditional rear-view mirrors.Advertisement - Page continues below
Move off, and the XL-1 slides away with a vaguely sci-fi whine. The car can manage about 30 miles in EV-only mode, relying solely on the 25bhp electric motor mounted above the driven rear axle. Accelerate hard, and a third clutch (there are two already in the DSG 'box) engages the 800cc, 45bhp two-cylinder TDI diesel, and it thuds into life like a tiny Evinrude outboard, making an odd but strangely appealing throb. It's basically half of the four-pot 1.6 TDI, with a crank-driven balancer shaft to even out the twin-cylinder thrum. The steering is unassisted and heavy, but the car itself feels... light. Low impact. The XL-1's mass of 795kg might not be impressive in absolute terms, but, for a working hybrid, it's nothing short of extraordinary. And the way that it moves is astonishing: lift off on even the slightest gradient, and the XL-1 barely slows. It slices through the air as if oiled past the molecules. On a level bit of ground, a steady 62mph requires just 8bhp to maintain. That's not much. It's comfortable, if not overly quiet, and pick-up from 60mph is genuinely impressive - if you're not having to force your way past the air, then you can maintain and increase velocity in a much more elegant fashion.
Even when you're not on a motorway, the XL-1 still delivers. And this is the tricky bit - because it's probably quite a lot more fun to drive than performance cars whose horsepower overshadows their finesse. Driving it across the moors, it really does feel proper. The tyres are so skinny (115/80 R15 on the front and 145/55 R16s on the rear) that there's not a huge amount of grip, and the power is so lean that you have to plan, think and try to carry speed through a corner. The surprise is that you can: the XL-1 chats amiably through the steering and doesn't heave around like a big car. Fun. Strangely old-school, purist sports car.Advertisement - Page continues below
Which is why the XL-1 wins TG's Innovation of the Year. Because it's a demonstration of boundaries successfully pushed and expanded, and you can't unlearn this kind of progress. No, it's not exactly mass production - only 250 will be made at a cost of £94,000 each - but this clever little drivetrain will find its way into a small VW in the near future. At which point, we'll know that under the bonnet, our hybrid Up has a little bit of spaceship at its heart.