Volkswagen brings to market the truly boutique plug-in hybrid city car in the sleek shape of the 313mpg XL1. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The incredible 313mpg Volkswagen XL1 is a two-seat coupe that's powered by a diesel-electric plug-in hybrid powertrain. The world's most efficient production car also emits just 21g/km. It's a snip at a mere £98,515. Butterfly doors, cameras instead of mirrors, a monocoque chassis, carbon ceramic brakes and carbon-fibre body panelling all come as standard.
As a rule, big car manufacturers tend to shy away from the radical. The reason? Extreme tends not to sell. All too often, the appeal of playing safe and making modest profits wins the day. With the cost of new vehicle development these days, the stakes are often far too high to take a speculative punt on something that'll divide opinion. Enter Volkswagen. The company has already done the conservative thing with its electrically-powered models like the e-up! and the e-Golf, so there was less riding on the business case for a technological showcase. That's exactly what the XL1 represents. It's an indication of what Volkswagen can really do when the gloves come off, a straight to market feasibility study, in this case championing the argument for hybrid cars. So yes, you can walk into a Volkswagen dealer and place an order for one but be prepared to underwrite the hefty development budget in the process.
The basics of the XL1 don't sound particularly exotic. There's a two-cylinder diesel engine mounted behind the driver of a mere 800cc capacity and this tiny powerplant contributes a mere 48bhp to the propulsive cause. Add to that a 27bhp electric motor and you have a car that doesn't tax its rear tyres too heavily.There's a seven speed DSG twin-clutch transmission and the XL1 also uses another clutch pack to disengage the internal combustion engine so that you can roll around town on electric power alone. Given the full beans, the XL1 will accelerate to 62mph in a crisp 11.9 seconds and run onto an electronically-limited 99mph maximum. It steps off the line very cleanly thanks to the ultra-low 795kg kerb weight, the torque of the electric motor and the lack of aerodynamic drag. There's also a built-in freewheel effect that takes a little getting used to. As you might expect the diesel engine isn't the most refined thing in the world, but around town you'll be using solely electric power most of the time. Despite the XL1's tarmac-hugging ride height and apparent lack of suspension travel, ride quality is actually very good. The steering system is interesting, lacking any kind of power assistance, but the XL1's front tyres are skinny and you won't need strapping biceps to steer the thing into a parking space.
Design and Build
If you had to explain what a Volkswagen XL1 looked like to a car geek, you could ask them to extrapolate a trend that started with Vauxhall Astra Mk2, proceeded through Honda Insight Mk1 and arrived at the XL1. Yes, it's that 'squeezed from a tube' shape with blanked off wheelarches and a super-low frontal area. Volkswagen reckons its drag factor is around half that of typical modern cars and that in part contributes to its extraordinary fuel economy. For light weight, the car uses a carbon fibre-reinforced polymer skin over a magnesium-alloy subframe. The doors open upwards, not unlike those on BMW's i8 electric supercar. The overall effect is more head-swivelling than any contemporary Ferrari or Lamborghini. Practicality isn't a big plus of the XL1. It's left hand drive only, there are only two seats and the boot measures a paltry 120-litres which means that you've only got a nadge more carrying capacity than something like a Lotus Elise. At first glance, it would also appear to have even worse rearwards visibility, but mirrors have been replaced by camera monitors and the windscreen pillars are admirably thin. The two seats are cleverly staggered so that shoulders don't bump in what is a narrow cockpit. You even get carbon ceramic brakes, primarily for lightness.
Market and Model
There's only one variant in the XL1 range and if you were thinking of buying one as an alternative to a Prius then you might want to take a seat. Volkswagen wants £98,515 for one, which must make it the world's most expensive car with manually winding windows. The side windows are made from polycarbonate, which is just another way that weight has been saved. You do get a stereo, sat nav, Bluetooth and air conditioning. Nearly a hundred grand might strike you as a lot of money for a car that can't crack the ton flat out and while it's true that the asking price will limit the market, Volkswagen only aims to import 20 or 30 cars to the UK and you'll need to move very quickly to secure yourself a build slot. The appeal of owning the most fuel-efficient production car in the world hasn't been lost on some high-tech early adopters.
Cost of Ownership
You're probably a little bored of the sort of nonsense fuel economy figures spouted by manufacturers of cars which can rely on electric power. As if you'll ever get anything like 94mpg from a Porsche 918 Spyder hypercar. Volkswagen have given themselves a bit of leeway with the XL1 though. The aim was to produce a car that would consume a litre of fuel every 100km, which equates to 282mpg in old money. They did better than that, the production XL1 managing a claimed 313mpg. Drive one as smoothly and efficiently as possible and you can get that figure to nudge up towards 400mpg. Give the throttle pedal a bit more point and squirt treatment and your economy will plummet to around 180mpg. Still hardly catastrophic, is it? The battery pack can be topped up in around an hour using a home power supply and you get a range of about 30 miles on full electric power. Residual values and insurance groupings are, at the moment, yet to be rated.
Truly extraordinary production vehicles don't come along very often. The Volkswagen XL1 certainly merits that description and that is hard to put a price on. Yes, the virtually six-figure sticker price is going to deter many who would otherwise be drawn to the idea of a 313mpg car to trim the budget, but viewed as a piece of incredible engineering, the XL1 is every bit as impressive as a modern hybrid hypercar. Perhaps the most convincing thing about the XL1 is that it's clearly technology that will migrate to more affordably-priced cars. Everything works. As amazing as the end result is, the solutions have come through nothing but tried and tested means. Good aerodynamics, light weight materials, low internal friction and a fundamentally efficient powertrain can all work on a vehicle less extreme than the XL1 and that is this car's greatest legacy and also its Achilles heel. One day, sooner than we think, 300mpg will be normal.