Volkswagen XL1 Plug-in Hybrid Driven: The Future, Or Just An Expensive Toy?

Sleek. Sexy. Futuristic. Efficient. These are just four words that could be used to describe Volkswagen’s limited-production two-seat plug-in XL1 coupe, the €100,000+ fuel-sipping car that makes the Toyota Prius look like a gas-guzzling Humvee

But after getting the chance to drive one this morning at Volkswagen’s UK technical centre, do we think the XL1 is the future of motoring, or just an expensive toy for 250 lucky buyers worldwide?


The Volkswagen XL1 is part science-fiction, part reality. And 250 will be available to buy next year.

The Volkswagen XL1 is part science-fiction, part reality. And 250 will be available to buy next year.

Ultra-efficient in every way

On paper, the Volkswagen XL1 is nothing short of an engineering masterpiece in aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Based on Volkswagen’s 1-litre concept car — a vehicle designed to travel 100 kilometers on just one litre of diesel fuel — the XL1 is designed to have a low a drag coefficient as possible. Thanks to a low frontal area, narrow, low-rolling resistance tyres, enclosed rear wheels and boat-tail rear — not to mention replacing conventional rear-view mirrors with tiny rear-view cameras — the XL1 has a drag coefficient of just 0.189. The lower the drag coefficient, the less energy required to push the car through the air, and so the more efficient it becomes.  For reference, General Motors’ famous EV-1 electric car had a drag coefficient of 0.195, while the drag coefficient of a Nissan LEAF is 0.28.

The XL1 isn’t just a car with a low drag coefficient however. It’s also incredibly light, thanks to extensive use of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic for its monocoque chassis and body panels. Like the BMW i3, which also uses CRFP as a major structural component, the XL1 is significantly lighter than it would be if it were made out of traditional chassis-making materials like steel. In fact, at 795 kilograms, the XL1 weighs about the same as an early Volkswagen Golf Mk 1, despite having 227 kilograms worth of high-voltage batteries and electric motor  on board in addition to its two-cylinder diesel engine.

Even the car’s windows, except from its laminated windscreen, are made from polycarbonate in order to squeeze every last piece of weight loss out of the XL1.

Remarkably Spacious Inside

Narrower than a Volkswagen Polo, the XL1 might look a little cramped from outside, but once you’ve climbed into the cockpit and pulled the car’s upward-hinging doors down, the XL1 feels decidedly spacious.

The XL1 is astonishingly spacious inside.

The XL1 is astonishingly spacious inside.

That’s part due to its staggered seating arrangement. Like the Smart ForTwo, the driver and passenger seats are slightly offset, with the driver’s seat placed slightly further forward than that of the passenger. This avoids the nasty problem of bumping elbows with your companion while driving, but also means the driver is given a commanding view of the road on both sides at junctions without needing to lean forward to see past their passenger.

Despite being located further forward than the passenger seat however, even the driver’s seat feels spacious. Adjustable for both reach and rake, the driver’s seat easily accommodated this writer’s five foot ten inch frame, and seemed to push back far enough to accommodate even well-built drivers over six foot with ease.

Everything is within easy reach, from the XL1’s automatic DSG 7-speed gearbox to its touch-screen Garmin-branded in-car computer, although getting used to a lack of physical rear-view mirrors — and learning to look down to the rear-view displays located in each door — takes a little practice.

Functional, fun driving

With so many of the trappings of modern cars sacrificed at the altar of efficiency — like power-assisted steering — the XL1 is refreshingly mechanical to drive. Unlike other plug-in hybrids we’ve driven, the steering was direct and wonderfully responsive. From taking a corner at speed to negotiating a tight parking space, feedback from the road was excellent, although steering was a little heavy at lower speeds. Meanwhile, a low centre of gravity kept the XL1 glued to the road in all but the most extreme of driving situations,

With both a 20 kilowatt electric motor and 47 horsepower diesel two-cylinder engine on board, the XL1 can operate in three modes: EV, Drive, or Sport. In EV mode, the tiny 20 kW electric motor does struggle a little a slower speeds to accelerate quickly.  Get too impatient, and the 2-cylinder engine — located behind the driver cockpit — rumbles into life to add some extra power to proceedings. But when cruising at normal speeds, the XL1’s ultra-aerodynamic shape means 20 kW of electric power is more than enough to maintain a 60 mph cruise.

Beautiful styling, and even a useable, if small, trunk.

Beautiful styling, and even a useable, if small, trunk.

In drive mode, the XL1’s on-board computer blends power from both the diesel engine and the electric motor in a series hybrid configuration, combining performance and efficiency. Lift your foot off the accelerator, and the XL1 disengages its drivetrain, entering into a coasting mode capable of covering an astonishing distance without losing much momentum.

With so little power to start with however, even with both diesel and electric power trains operating in tandem, the XL1 takes 12.7 seconds to reach 62 mph, going on to an electronically-limited top speed of 99 mph.

So what of  Sport mode? With so little power to play with, Sport mode doesn’t actually improve performance, but does engage regenerative braking on accelerator liftoff, recovering any excess kinetic energy as electrical energy via the electric motor on long downhill stretches.

When driven correctly — and by that we mean switching between operational modes as best suits the road conditions  rather than driving overly slowly — the XL1 returns an astonishing 313 miles per imperial gallon (261 miles per U.S. gallon, or 0.9 litres per 100 km.) Although we were unfamiliar with the car, played around with operational modes a fair bit, and tested the acceleration numerous times, we still managed a respectable 256 miles per imperial gallon (213 mpg U.S., 1.1 l/100km) over our short, 30 mile (48km)  test-route.  Under normal circumstances, a fully-charged XL1 would make that same route easily in electric-only mode.

Beautiful, a must-drive experience, but not an everyday driver by any means

Beautiful, a must-drive experience, but not an everyday driver by any means

The future, only compromised

While we love the XL1’s direct driving experience, futuristic looks, and low-noise all-electric mode, we feel less enamoured with its noisy 2-cylinder range-extending diesel engine and poor acceleration.

Undeniably, however, the XL1 is an amazing car which showcases the possible future for plug-in hybrids. And we’re not talking just its shape, either. Rear-view cameras instead of rear view mirrors could, if made legal, could help reduce drag-related fuel consumption dramatically across all forms of car. For now however, they’re still only legal on limited-production and prototype cars like the XL1.

But at the end of the day, the XL1 isn’t a car you’ll be able to rush to the shops and buy any time soon. Yes, VW will be producing a limited-run of 250 cars, which it will sell with an expected price tag of €100,000 or more. That’s more than the all-electric and far more practical zero emissions Tesla Model S.

The XL1 also carries some strange compromises too, or rather doesn’t. The most annoying is the lack of on-board charging capabilities. While the XL1 has a standard-looking Mennenkes connector for charging its on-board battery pack, the actual charging unit — which weighs 20 kilos — has been removed and placed in a moderately large box that owners can leave at home. While that helps the XL1 shed some significant weight, it does mean public charging is impossible unless you’re willing to fill the trunk with the bulky off-board charger.

Our inner geek loves the XL1 from tip to tail. But in the cold light of day, expect the XL1 to remain a highly prized curios for plug-in fans and wealthy car collectors. As a daily driver, it’s just not affordable, or practical enough in its current form.

We only hope VW can figure out how to put those same energy-saving features in its mainstream cars, or figure out how to make the XL1 a little bit more everyday.

Do you like the XL1? Would you own one, or do you think it’s too compromised as a real-world car? Let us know in the Comments below.




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