Volkswagen XL1: Piloting the Future of Mobility

By Matthew Askari | July 25, 2013
There are only 50 in the world, and the sensation that you're witnessing something that will transcend this experience and this generation comes fluttering fast and hard. I'm talking about the Volkswagen XL1: a modern marvel; a rolling paradox; an object that for car and technology enthusiasts packs more fantasy than Walt Disney, Jenna Jameson, and J.K. Rowling rolled in to one (and we're a foolhardy bunch). Here's the deal: This is the most aerodynamic production car ever built. The XL1 is impossibly light, and low, and it returns more than 200 mpg--check to see what type of fuel economy your car gets, and then re-read that number again. And again. Basically, it makes your Prius look thirstier than Michael Jordan in a Gatorade commercial.
What started as a declaration from VW Group supervisory board chairman Ferdinand Piech to build a car that would return 235 mpg--essentially creating a hybrid that would be the most fuel-efficient production car in the world--has after 11 years of development come to fruition. Remember, this is the same man who is responsible for the existence of the Bugatti Veyron, the world's fastest street-legal supercar. But the 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds Veyron will run you well over two-million dollars. The Volkswagen XL1? You can't even buy one (sorry DiCaprio, Bieber, and Beliebers). As of now, Volkswagen plans to build 200 or so more, and only offer them for short term leases in Germany and Austria, the returns of which will never scratch the surface of the XL1's development costs.
Why build a car that financially doesn't make sense? A few weeks ago, VW Group R&D chief Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg--who has since moved on within the VW Group to spearhead Audi's technical development--told a group of us media assembled at Volkswagen's Wolfsburg, Germany headquarters, that the XL1 was built to make a statement. "We made this car to demonstrate that all these technologies could work in one car." Just what technologies is Dr. Hackenberg talking about?
Less is more. Less car and less weight means more fuel economy. That was the underlying principle in deciding what would go in to this efficiency-supercar, which would also create a technological paradox. To save weight, the XL1 is hyper-sophistacted; it uses digital e-mirrors with screens on the inside of the door panels. Yet it's also anachronistic; it ditches advancements like power-steering...hello, 1956! And the list goes on. Volkswagen engineers even redid the wiring to save weight, and the whole car is littered with expensive, lightweight, carbon-fiber reinforced plastics.
But its rebellious streak is what also makes it attractive. Visually the Volkswagen XL1 is arresting. At angles it resembles the old school GM EV1, but at other angles it has shades of the ultra-alluring Audi R8. A very unscientific study conducted on my Instagram account reveals the XL1 is visually held in high esteem. A hybrid with butterfly doors that rise up? Who approved that? And, thank you. Driving around Wolfsburg, a town used to seeing unusual Volkswagen creations, ordinary residents and teenagers were caught snapping pictures and taking video on their smartphones.
Driving Driving the Volkswagen XL1 leaves an impression that stays with you--it's inescapable. Yes, this 0.8-liter diesel-hybrid pushes all of about 70 hp through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to the rear wheels, and boasts skinny tires that look like they should be on a mountain bike, not a car. And yes, getting moving without power steering requires a little elbow grease. Sure the whooshing of the ceramic brakes is audible, and to save weight, there's very little sound deadening, meaning a noisy ride. But you know what? In my hour with the car, I got up to highway speeds on the autobahn--more than 70 mph--with ease, and the XL1 almost feels quick. At least as quick as a Toyota Prius, which gets about one-fourth of the fuel economy.  You can drive the XL1 using the purely electric motor at speeds up to 37 mph, but once that diesel engine kicks in, you'll hear it. There's something raw and primal about the whole experience, but also wholly satisfying. Volkswagen says its diesel-hybrid supercar has passed the six European standard safety crash tests, but to receive good marks in the U.S., I'm sure it would have to reinforce the XL1 frame. But I was physically able to drive a car that can already get 262 mpg on the European cycle, or about 210 mpg by American EPA measurements. That's incredible, and if nothing else, makes our fuel-efficiency driven future seem a little brighter.
And there's sure to be a ripple effect. A future Volkswagen Golf Blue Motion is already slated to use a version of this powertrain, as is the Audi A3 eTron, at least in Europe. Both will use what is essentially two of the 0.8-liter diesel-hybrid Volkswagen XL1 engines put together. It appears as far as what may come in the greater story of the XL1, we've only just read the Table of Contents.