VW will build only 250 examples of its super-streamlined 313mpg XL1. CAR’s Georg Kacher has driven one of them to find out if it really can achieve its amazing claimed economy figures.
First impressions of the VW XL1
You enter the vehicle through mighty gullwing doors which are blown open by little integrated pyrotechnic devices should the poor thing ever come to rest on its roof after an accident. One sits on lightweight buckets in a staggered position, the driver closer to the dashboard than the passenger, to avoid rubbing shoulders and to warrant an ultra-slim frontal area that almost matches a cabin scooter.
Instead of mirrors, monitors integrated in the door panels depict in full colour what is happening behind your backs. Just about the only low-tech item inside this space-age plug-in VW are the manual window winders.
On the road in the VW XL1
We are ready to go, and after pushing the starter button, activating EV mode and pulling the transmission lever in Drive, so is the car. The six-hour tour will take us from Luzern near Zurich to Geneva near the French border. The route provides a challenging mix of city traffic, autobahn sections and B-roads as well as plenty of steep climbs and descents. In town, the 795kg eye-catcher is a silent battery cruiser which unleashes 103lb ft of clean energy torque whenever you depress the accelerator - which one does with maximum restraint. After all, every overtaking manoeuvre is instantly reflected by the range indicator, the state of charge display and ultimately also by the fuel gauge. More than once, unassuming pedestrians stepped into our flight path because they simply did not hear the whispering ground-bound blimp approaching them from behind. Inside the beautifully finished cocoon-like cabin, however, the XL1 makes all sorts of strange and unusual noises.
The carbon-ceramic brake discs tend to rumble and chafe when not used hard, the suspension responds to potholes with random thumps and plops, and under trailing throttle the transmission can sound like an ancient coffee grinder.
In theory, a full charge should make the 5.5kWh lithium ion energy cells take the car over a distance of 30 miles. In reality, however, it is almost impossible to maintain the steady pace required to reach this goal. That´s why it is advisable to switch to hybrid mode as soon as the speed quickens and whenever there are mountains to climb. The two-pot TDI cuts in and out with pursed clutch plates, but especially when still cold, its working noises sound - in contrast to EV silence - like an air hammer trespassing through a quiet zone. Whenever the diesel is taking charge, the batteries can take some rest. While lifting off and coasting are the easiest tricks in the book, braking takes some getting used to because the transition from recuperation to deceleration is a little rough sometimes. After about one hour, you barely ever touch the brake pedal anymore: the XL1 is a clear case of fuel economy by foresight.
Although the consumption readout should be the pivotal gauge in a one-litre car, our eyes are instead glued to the state of charge indicator. In this difficult environment and in this kind of car, every climb is your worst enemy, every descent is your closest ally.
Just how efficient in the VW XL1 in real-world driving conditions?
After 135 miles, by now in test vehicle number three, the computer readout claimed 176.6mpg, at an average speed of 23.1mph - that´s very slow, even for Switzerland and a remaining range of 204km. But these figures don´t tell the whole story. Why? Because I did less well in test vehicles one and two, where the consumption hovered around the 141.2mpg mark. True, that´s an excellent result for a two-seater which can top 100mph when no one is looking, but from a driver´s perspective it is a below par performance in this competitive group of ambitious *****-footers.
What I shared with the eco pros was the unexpected fascination of slow speed, the joy of changing direction with a totally unassisted steering, the brakes’ double role as competent provider and annihilator of energy, a new perception of the throttle’s talents which is in this case progressive to the point of feeling lazy as well as totally instantaneous, and of course the dynamic kick of a mid-mounted powerplant driving the rear wheels. Not to mention the eerie pleasure of mingling with the most dedicated mpg junkies who automatically idle heating and air con, won´t demist steamed up windows or listen to the radio, and even try to avoid switching on lights in a tunnel.
We never rushed in the claimed 12.7sec from 0-62mph, and the fastest we saw on the digital speedometer was 78mph. But once, only once, the devil inside took over and made Herr Engineer in the passenger seat unhappy for the rest of the day, because five or ten clicks later his dream of winning the efficiency trophy was over. Apologies for doing what I had to do: stretch the right hoof in the direction of Geneva, change from seventh into fourth via kickdown, and then overtake three cars in a row with an angrily snarling TDI yelling yippieh! through that sleepy valley.
There is no doubt about it: this low and narrow aero wedge with the mean-looking LED headlights and the spaceship rear end is not only a great fuel miser but also an object lesson in vehicle dynamics. The steering is honest and keen, the chassis is firm and stable, the brakes are prompt and well balanced, the skinny tyres have more grip than that small contact patch suggests, engine and motor are really something when they fuse power and torque.
The wheelbase is long enough for decent directional stability on fast straights and short enough for carving through hairpins and waltzing through esses. It would have been wonderful to keep up that brisk Tour de Suisse momentum, but the numbers on the in-dash monitor suggested otherwise: consumption 156mpg, SOC 9.5percent, EV mode currently not available. The guilty conscience sat heavy on my shoulders for the rest of the trip to Geneva. At the final destination, the XL1 first consoled itself at the pump and then at the wall charger.
VW´s one-litre car shows what can be done when brainpower and money are no object. In any case, the plug-in hybrid has got what it takes to become an affordable alternative drivetrain of choice across most of the model range. The two-cylinder PHEV will debut in 2015 in the Up, the three-cylinder PHEV is earmarked for the 2016 Polo replacement, and the four-cylinder PHEV is going to be offered in the Golf VII before the end of 2014.