At least, that’s what VW claims. XL1 has a one-litre engine, weighs just 795kg and emits 24g/km Co2. Looks pretty cool, too. Best of all, it will go into limited production in 2013. We have first drive.
Ten times more fuel efficient than your average saloon car. Hard to believe and, let’s face it, experience suggests that the reality might be slightly less amazing than VW bills it. But make no mistake, this is one remarkable road car. And Volkswagen will build it, too, firstly in highly restricted numbers in Wolfsburg, later in higher volumes (say 100 000 a year) at the Phaeton plant in Dresden.
We’re here to be the first to drive the XL1 – to find out if you can really live with the compromises bound to be involved with such an efficiency obsessed plug-in-hybrid. But what on Earth are we doing in Doha, Qatar, where petrol costs 20 cents a litre and everybody got rich on the very fuel this car hates to slurp? Because the Qatar Holding owns a sizeable 17% chunk of Europe’s largest car maker. To promote the Qatar Motor Show the sheiks asked their German partner to drum up a globally relecant PR event.
So the star of the show was neither a streched Cadillac nor a jacked-up Hummer but a long, low, narrow hight-efficiency Volkswagen. It’s a one-litre car, sandwiched on the stand by a street-legal Race Touaref (a gift to the emir of Qatar) and by white Middle East Touareg special with ghastly gold-plated brightwork.
We drive the XL1 straight off the show stand into Doha’s crazy morning rush-hour traffic. And I’m immediately impressed. If restricted headroom is the only compromise required, you won’t need a beard to think there’s a suggestion of the future here. The car, a rear-wheel-drive two-seater, marks the third chapter in VW’s one-litre car saga. In 2002 it presented a tandem-seater bubble car that weighed only 290kg. In 2009, we saw the less minimalistic but still cigar-shaped L1, weighing 380kg. For 2011, the packaging is changed so that driver and passager sit next to each other, in a slightly staggered position. XL1 weighs 795kg, but features air-con, the full ICE works, a safety cell and a plug-in hybrid system.
Great, but will I fit inside? It’s a squeeze – while the passenger has enough room at least to swing a rat, the driver is handicapped by the battery positioned the seat. ‘We’ll fix that in the next development stage’, promises chief project engineer Holger Bock. ‘By relocating the battery pack to the passenger footwell, we gain an extra 50mm of seat travel’.
I push the starter button – once to alert the hish-voltage brain and ti light up the green READY display; a second time to release the shifter of the seven-speed DSG ‘box. In D, we take off in near-total silence. Bock summons the tuchscreen to keep us informed about battery condition, driving range, charge status, energy flow and a dozen more numerical or bar-graph parameters. I simply steer.
Theoretically, XL1 can accelerate up to 100kph in zero-emission mode. With the EV button pushed, you can cover up to 30km without burning a drop of diesel. Acoustically, e-mode is a somewhat eerie experience. Depending on speed and the gear you’re in, the electric motor sounds like the humming of a freshly stocked fridge or the whining of an undergeared forklift.
Other noises include the chafing of the ceramic brakes, the baritone of the ultra-slim low rolling resistance tyres, the whir of the electric power steering and the rather wooden interplay between the carbon fibre monocoque and the aluminium suspension. In the traffic we have no choice but to give the 0.8-litre two-cylinder TDI unit stick to keep up with the pace. It’s redlined at a modest 4500rpm where it dishes up 36kW and 121Nm of torque, and it sees noisy. That’s the bad news. The good news is the amazingly civilised drivetrain management fades the diesel in an out super-smoothly. On some occasions, the auxiliary powertrain is only required for three or four seconds, but on the highway wher XL1 quickly reaches a limited 16kph, diesel is mandatory. When you floor the accelerator the featherweight coupe in 11.9sec fro 0-100kph. Without the speed limiter, the car could top 208kph, they say.
Despite the radical stance, XL1 is surprisingly easy to live with. The ergonomics are off-the-peg VW: good seats, bigger boot than 911, Phaeton build quality. On the debit side, there’s restricted traffic light visibility and manual winders for the letterbox windows. Recharging the batteries takes 20-90 minutes depending on voltage.
Made of carbon fibre by Austra’s Carbotech, the XL1 body is bonded and bolted together for maximum stiffness and easy repair, using a procedd called aRTM (automated resin transfer moulding) which cuts the 24hr autoclave time to 60mins. Thanks to crash tubes, extra-strong crossmembers, a roll cage, special wheel clamps which form part of the passive safety performance meets all current crash norms with only a driver airbag on board. It’s truly intuitive and very easy to drive. The unassisted steering requires only 2.5 turns from lock to lock which makes it quick and responsive but not snappy or nervous. Despite the narrow rear track and modest tyre size, grip and traction are never an issue. The car turns in eagerly, adheres to the chosen line and feels well balanced even when the pace is brisk.
Even though the srings and dampers are tuned for stability rather than comfort, the ride is less brittle than expected, and the car’s dolphin-like shape is matched by the relaxed way it irons out long undulations.
Although the transition from regeneration to deceleration and vice versa is well masked, the price you pay for the weight-saving absence of a brake booster is a high pedal effort and a wooden feel.
The nergy cells weight 60kg and deliver 5kWh. ‘Almost everyone uses lithium-ion batteries these days’, admits Rudi Krebs, VW’s master of alternative drivetrains. ‘But the available energy cells fidder vastly in character and performance. XL1 relies on tri-metal batteries which boast a more efficient cobalt coating and more advanced separation membranes. Despite their high energy density, these cells are good for at least 3000 cycles with a charge/discharge window of 80 to 20%. While Toyota has a clear advantage when it comes to conventional battery technology, their lead in the field of lithium-ion applications is less obvious’.
Since it is difficult to guage factors like battery prices, ageing profiles, reliability issues and potential subsidies, VW is still undecided whether the one-litre car will be sold or leased. ‘The first batch of cars will go to early adopters’, explains Ulrich Hackenberg, board member in charge of R&D. ‘We are going to build them in Wolfsburg, using prototype tools, starting in 2013. That’s why the output is limited to between 50 and 100 units. In a second step, it would make sense to aim for at least 5000 cars. If the market demans more product, this number could grow to 15.000. Beyound that, you are looking at major investments and at a volume of up to 100.000 units.
After dark I learn more from Holger Bock: that a wall box will be available to quick charge the batteries in the owner’s garage; that the secret of the aRTM process is a new fast-flowing resin which creeps into every recess; that a version of XL1 fitted solely with the two-cylinder TDI engine would still return 1.98l/100km; that only 6kW are required to maintain a steady 100kph; that the carbon fibre monocoque costs R50.000, exactly the same amount McLaren quotes for the 12C shell. And that the base technology is compatible with the MQB matrix which suggests that bits of XL1 will appear in future Polos or Golfs.
So this car really matters. And whatever other hurdles it faces, it has a key boxed ready ticked: it’s fun to drive. A lot of fun.
WHY THE VW XL1 IS WAY COOL
1 | PLUGGING AWAY
No, it’s not some update of an early Star Wars robot but the sort of charger we’ll all be getting used to if VW gets XL1 into the mainstream. Takes about an hour to charge.
2 | FLYING WITHOUT WING…MIRRORS
Wing mirrors replaced by built-in rear-facing cameras, serving two large LED monitors mounted on the inside of the doors.
3 | NOT YET IN HD…
…but the image you get is clearer than anything you ever saw in a conventional mirror. As ever, build quality is brilliant.
4 | POWER AND LIGHT
Carbon abounds under the incredibly tightly packed lid. Diesel engine, electric motor and a DSG box with magnesium housing.
5 | SEX APPEAL INCLUDED
VW’s green boffins may have been overdosing on the eco bottle, but the designers have been busy too. XL1 looks way too cool to be a planet saver. Check the lights!
6 | JUST LIKE OLD TIMES
Hilariously skinny 115/80 R15 Michelin tyres, Hang on, didn’t the old Citroen 2CV have a set of these bad boys?
PRICE | R350.000 (est)
ON SALE | 2015?
ENGINE | 800cc two cylinder turbodiesel, with 5kWh electric motor, 55kW @ 4500rpm, 220Nm @ 4500rpm
TRANSMISSION | Seven-speed DSG, rear-wheel drive
SUSPENSION | Double wishbones front, multi-link rear
WEIGHT/MADE FROM | 795kg/carbon-rich polymer
LENGTH/WIDTH/HEIGHT | 3888/1665/1156mm
PERFORMANCE | 11.9SEC 0-100kph, 160kph (limited), 0.9l/100km, 24g/km