#ThrowbackThursday | Driving VW's ghostly quiet XL1 hybrid
Join us as we take a gander at some of our automotive endeavours from days gone by. This week the time machine beams us all the way back to June 2 2013, when Sunday Times motoring scribe Thomas Falkiner got to sample the ultra-rare (only 200 were sold to the public) and ultra-efficient (an achieved 0.8l/100km) Volkswagen XL1 hybrid. In these dark days of increasing fuel prices, it's apparently the only test car he wishes he could own.
Most Tuesday mornings I’m stuck inside my office. Squinting at a computer screen. Listening to people sneezing and coughing and shouting down their telephone handsets. But today I find myself standing in a rain-soaked parking lot at the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany.
In case you don’t know, this is the heart of the Volkswagen Group. Situated next to the factory in which the first Beetles were built, the Autostadt gives people an idea of what the brand is all about. There’s a multistorey museum saluting the past, numerous hat tips to the present and many clues to what we can expect from this marque in the future.
Any Joe Average can pay the €22 entry fee and see how this automotive giant is planning to shake up the car industry with its concepts of sustainability. But this morning I have been granted access to go one step further and actually experience it along the streets that surround this German Detroit.
Brought up from the top-secret bowels of the Volkswagen skunkworks, an XL1 concept vehicle is waiting for me outside. A project conceived back in the Noughties by Prof Doctor Ferdinand Piëch, the XL1 is a plug-in hybrid vehicle that promises to deliver insane levels of fuel efficiency, thanks to all sorts of savvy German engineering. In fact, the powers that be are boasting that it will sip no more than 0.9l/100km across a mixture of town and highway driving. But more about that later.
At the moment I am more intrigued by this machine’s Tron-esque architecture. History has taught us that polar bear-friendly cars place an emphasis on function rather than form. Like the infamous Toyota Prius, a vehicle that runs on the sniff of an oil rag but also resembles a melted-down kitchen appliance. It’s not something any true gearhead can ever get excited about. The XL1 is a different ball of wax.
Squatting above the asphalt, it looks like the product of a wild fling between an Audi R8 and some showy Lamborghini prototype. It also comes loaded with quirky design details like enclosed rear-wheel arches and outrageous scissor doors that wouldn’t be out of place on a V12 supercar. But unlike any supercar I’ve seen, the XL1 is minute. It feels like you and three friends could pick it up and put it in somebody’s front garden after a few pints at the pub. Shorter than your sister’s Polo and lower than the new Porsche Boxster, it weighs only 795kg, thanks to a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis. So I guess such mischief is not entirely impossible.
You would think that getting yourself inside a car endowed with such diminutive proportions would require the severing of limbs. Remarkably, it doesn’t. In fact, there’s more than enough space for my six-foot-something frame to stretch out in. There’s also an ingenious staggered seating arrangement that allows somebody to sit next to you without your shoulders banging together. But the headline act takes the form of two LCD screens, sunk into the inside panel of each door, that act as your rear-view mirrors. Conventional exterior mirrors would just ruin the aerodynamics.
If this sounds hard to get accustomed to, nothing can prepare you for the actual driving experience. Around the bustling Wolfsburg streets, in full electric mode, the XL1 feels utterly bizarre. Whisper quiet at standstill, one stomp of the accelerator pedal stirs up a distant whirring noise and then you’re accelerating like some ghostly apparition.
The buttock-tickling ride height together with an automatic transmission that picks the most efficient gear means that the XL1 comes across like some kind of space-age go-kart. To burn more weight there is also no power steering, something that seems at odds with such a sophisticated piece of engineering. But being an old-school aficionado, I quite like this.
Spearing through traffic, pedestrians slack-jawed at the spectacle, the electric powertrain doing duty inside the XL1 is proving to be more than sufficient. It takes two hours to charge off a regular plug point and can deliver a range of up to 50km. And if you run out of juice or need an extra shot of muscle, like when overtaking a frumpy Prius, the two-cylinder diesel engine kicks in seamlessly. Equipped with a turbocharger and 10-litre fuel tank, it not only boosts your range by an extra 450 clicks but also allows you to hit a limited top speed of 160km/h.
Just don’t expect it to recharge the battery. Unlike full hybrid vehicles, the XL1 is of the plug-in variety, which means that its lithium-ion battery can be charged only via the grid. This technology, Volkswagen is quick to point out, was chosen because engineers didn’t want their car burning diesel fuel to create electricity. Which makes sense when you ponder it.
But right now, cruising down the Autobahn, I’m not thinking about all this humbling technology. I’m concentrating on how polished the XL1 feels. It’s comfortable, supple and, perhaps most importantly, a real gas to drive. Our test route has been only 55km but I would have no problem going further, to make a break for it and find some Alpine pass to silently ascend. I tell this to the Volkswagen brass waiting for me back at the Autostadt and they seem pleased.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” says Steven Volckaert, a chief engineer involved in the project. “We wanted to build an economical car that was good to look at and fun to drive.”
I tell him that he and his team have succeeded. He asks if I was able to get anywhere near the claimed fuel consumption figure. After clicking through the trip computer I discover I have actually bettered it — 0.8l/100km. This is quite an extraordinary figure. But then the XL1 is no ordinary car. Attached to a price tag that is still a closely guarded secret, only 250 of these super-efficient phantoms will be built. It is a technological lighthouse, one whose legacy will surely live on in future Volkswagen products intent on going green.