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Volkswagen XL1 review (2014 onwards)
We like: intriguing to drive, very well executed inside and out, astonishing fuel economy
We don’t like: you feel a bit vulnerable, the massive price, battery-charging compromises
Volkswagen XL1: first impressions
It’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Low, swooping design (reputedly influenced by the profile of a shark), incredible economy, and it’s in production right now. Well, sort of.
VW will build 250 examples of the XL1, simply because it’s about time that someone moved beyond fanciful motor show prototypes and proved they could actually build a viable hyper-economy car.
Performance is steady – passably quick and eerily quiet
So, well done Volkswagen for bringing the concept to reality. The two-seater XL1 is highly advanced, with a carbon composite body structure, a bespoke 48hp two-cylinder 800cc diesel engine and a 27hp electric motor. The lithium-ion battery gives a range of up to 30 miles on electric power alone.
You charge the battery from the mains and then there’s a gradual top-up from both the diesel engine and when you are braking. The reality, though, is that once the battery is exhausted, that’s pretty much it until you can get to a power socket for a refresh.
And that’s a compromise. To save weight, Volkswagen has left the complicated recharging unit out of the car so you need this suitcase-sized box each time you recharge. It does fit in the boot, but then there wouldn’t be much room for luggage. Still, it’s a small price to pay in this quite remarkable car.
Volkswagen XL1: performance
There are three possible operating modes. The one you’re sure to choose first is full electric operation. Press the button on the centre of the dash and you’ll run electrically until the battery is exhausted. Performance is, shall we say, steady – passably quick and eerily quiet. And if you need more power than the battery can give, push the accelerator to the floor and the diesel chimes in with some welcome backup.
The narrow tyres are designed to minimise the rolling resistance on the road
That’s pretty much what happens in the regular Drive mode of the automatic transmission too, except that the mix of electric and diesel power is constantly changing according to some fiendish algorithm within the control unit.
In this form the XL1 will happily cruise at motorway speeds, with the bonus of a gliding function when you lift right off the throttle. The XL1 simply coasts along on its narrow tyres and low resistance bearings, losing speed only gradually.
Finally there’s Sport, which gives more bias to the diesel as well as providing some engine braking, which in turn pumps some power back into the battery. Though you’d probably need to drive from the top to the bottom of the Alps to gain a full recharge.
So it’s no sports car but neither does the VW XL1 feel at all out of its depth in the cut and thrust of normal driving. It’s rather fun.
Volkswagen XL1: ride and handling
There was no real opportunity to evaluate the ride on poor road surfaces but elsewhere the XL1 feels very composed and comfortable. The steering has no power assistance, which is almost unheard of these days, but the narrow tyres and low weight means the only time you are aware of this is during very low speed manoeuvring.
The XL1’s interior smacks of Golf quality
Even then it’s not really heavy, just weightier than you may be used to. The upside, for ‘real’ drivers, is that the sense of feel and precision through the lovely small steering wheel mirrors that of a classic British sports car. Yes, it’s that good.
Those narrow tyres are designed to minimise the rolling resistance on the road, yet they do a good job of providing the necessary grip too.
Volkswagen XL1: interior
The exterior may look futuristic but the XL1’s interior smacks of Golf quality, standing out for the way in which it feels so utterly well developed. Open the scissor doors and slip in over the wide sill into some lightweight but well-finished cloth seats.
The front passenger sits a little further back to maximise shoulder room for both occupants and there’s a small shelf behind the driver for storing coats and bags. The doors are easy enough to reach and close, and then it’s simply a matter of pressing the start button and gliding off.
313mpg is a surreal figure whichever way you look at it
The fascia is trimmed in carbonfibre to continue the high-tech look, but the instruments look pure VW. There’s a Garmin screen in the centre of the car that, as well as sat-nav, gives you several different ways at looking at your power consumption and whether you are, at any moment, being powered by battery, diesel or a combination of both.
Amusingly, the fuel consumption meter seems to max out at 200mpg, which means that even if you are getting the theoretical 313mpg you can’t boast about it to your passenger. But more of economy later.
There’s a sizeable, well-shaped luggage compartment at the back and some storage within the XL1. But no rear view mirror, nor indeed traditional wing mirrors. The first isn’t possible simply because there is no rear window. The second is a technical solution to reducing aerodynamic drag. Instead of bulky mirrors there are tiny cameras on each side of the car that display a crystal-clear image on the TV screens mounted inside each door.
Oh, and there are no electric windows, just a tiny wind-up glass panel built into the side window.
Volkswagen XL1: economy and safety
Three hundred and thirteen mpg is a surreal figure whichever way you look at it. That, and the very low 21g/km CO2, are the result of a statutory test cycle that allows the first part of the economy measurement to be undertaken on electrical power but overlooks the energy cost.
That also applies to vehicles like the Vauxhall Ampera range-extender and Toyota Prius Plug-in. Yet there’s no getting away from it, the VW XL1 is still amazingly economical.
The overall range on a 10-litre tank of diesel exceeds 310 miles, says Volkswagen, and of course, you can always just drop into a fuel station for fuel even if you are unable to recharge the XL1’s batteries.
On electricity alone 10km consumes just 1kWh of charge. Recharging, via the converter supplied, is simply a matter of plugging in to a domestic socket.
The big weight-saving measures on the XL1 – carbon composite bodywork, ceramic disc brakes, extensive use of aluminium – also help the safety of the car. There is, however, just one airbag fitted, in the steering wheel. The front passenger may not need one anyway as he or she sits so much further back from the dashboard.
Volkswagen XL1: the MSN Cars verdict
The XL1 is a thoroughly intriguing car that impressively hits the ambitious targets Volkswagen aims for. The drivetrain is outstandingly efficient yet asks for only limited compromises in driving style to get the most from it. The fit and finish is equally well thought through.
Volkswagen is building 250 of the XL1. With stellar development and production costs there is no possibility that it will recoup the outlay, even at a mooted figure of £100,000 each. That will buy you a very nice Audi A8 or Mercedes S-Class. But that’s not really the point, is it?
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