It’s not very often that you get a chance to take a peek into the future. We live in the now, and all future products and practices are being hammered out behind closed doors, in science labs, and in the heads of engineers across the planet. Occasionally, however, someone pulls back the curtain and allows you to eyeball and experience what’s next.
I got a peek at the future, and I had to travel all the way to Wolfsburg, Germany to see it.
It’s called the Volkswagen XL1.
Volkswagen has been showing off their high-mileage concept vehicle for some time now. It started with the 1-Liter Concept, which Volkswagen Boss Ferdiand Piëch drove from Wolfsburg to Hamburg back in 2002. That version had a 1+1 seating setup, with the passenger riding along behind the driver. After that, the world was shown the 1L prototype in 2009 and it had a similar look and feel as the concept vehicle that came before it. In 2011, the car grew into the XL1 Concept, which marked the vehicle moving closer to a production state. Now, finally, we come to the ready-for-public-consumption version of this high-efficiency concept, and it’s simply called the XL1.
It’s still very much a car as you and I know it. There are two seats, this time in an offset side-by-side layout. A steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and a dual-clutch gearbox. Out back sits an diesel motor over the rear axle, which works together with an electric unit to propel the XL1 forward.
It’s not the pairing of diesel and batteries that have me thinking about the next generation of motoring machines. The reason this car is the future is due to the manner in which its constructed and the type of materials that are being employed into action. Carbon fiber composite, or CFRP, makes up a large percentage of everything XL1. It’s everywhere you look, from the entire dashboard to the steering wheel and running through the central portion of the car that hides the gearbox. The seatbacks are CFRP and so are the sway bars underneath.
The monocoque is also constructed from the stuff. It’s a 197-pound one-piece unit that is similar to what you might find in ultra-exotic super cars like the Lamborghini Aventador. That piece is hand formed, but Volkswagen have figured out how to cut down the construction time of the monocoque by calling in their robotic workers. Now they can press out the XL1 units at a rate of about one per hour.
All of the lightweight materials keep the curb weight of the XL1 remarkably low. The entire car weighs just 1,735 pounds. Think about that figure for a moment. A Mazda Miata weighs 2,480. The Scion FR-S weighs 2,758. You’d have to look towards the BAC Mono and Ariel Atom for lower curb weights, and those don’t come with a roof over your head and a pack of batteries. The XL1 owes a lot of its efficiency to the amazing efforts of the engineers that were able to cut down so much of its weight.
It’s not just through the use of CFRP either. There’s no passenger side airbag because the offset seating arrangement renders it useless. The passenger sits too far away from the dash for it to have an effect. The wiring in the car is aluminum, which further cuts weight. The wheels are magnesium and the tires wrapped around them are thin for better aerodynamics. Ceramic discs have been employed for braking purposes, and the body skin itself is just 1.2mm thick. Beyond the weight, however, lies another key factor for fuel savings. This is one slippery fish. The XL1 has a drag coefficient of 0.189. It cuts through the air as dramatically as a Hummer H1 does not. That drag figure one-ups the also-slippery and efficient Saturn EV1, which was impressive with its 0.190 Cd rating.
Opening the gullwing doors and sliding into the XL1, I’m treated to a surprising driving position. The seat doesn’t adjust in a conventional manner but instead pivots forward and backward on a rear hinge. What I wind up with then is a seating position akin to what I might find in a prototype of Formula 1 racecar… and I like it. The carbon composite seats are covered so you’re not riding on the stiff material directly, and the comfort level is fine for the average trip. It might get a little stiff over a long haul. Once I’m seated I go to adjust my mirrors, but I can’t because there aren’t any. The XL1 is the first street-legal production car to use side-view cameras, which feed to mirror-sized monitors frenched into the doors. It was an odd sensation to look at the door to check my lanes, but I got used to it after 15 minutes or so of on-road maneuvers.
I leave the Wolfsburg facility parking lot and venture through town. Working to get my moving is a 27-horsepower E-Motor that receives its power from a 5.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack located up front. Out back sits a two-cylinder 0.8-liter diesel engine that produces 48 horsepower. This is not a powerful combination as you might expect. The run from 0-60 miles per hour is estimated to take 11.5 seconds. Still, that low-end pull feels surprisingly brisk thanks to the wonders of electric propulsion. Once at speed, a press of the pedal gets the XL1 moving faster with less effort and if when I keep the throttle pressed I can run the car all the way up to its 99 mile per hour top speed. Yes… I tested that out, and the car felt fine cruising there.
Around town the steering action is a bit stiff, but that’s due to the fact that there’s no power steering system. Again, this is a weight savings measure and the car drives quite fine without such a setup. The steering feedback was incredibly direct and I can feel exactly what the front tires are doing. There’s some decently loud suspension crash over rough pavement, but that’s to be expected when your only sound insulation is a bit of CFRP. Like the steering, the braking is also well suited to the task of stopping. The ceramic discs haul in any speed with minimal effort and brake pedal effort is a bit higher than your average runabout but easy to get used to, plus it’s quite progressive.
When you put all of the weight savings, aero engineering, and powertrain capabilities together you wind up with the XL1… a vehicle with a fuel economy rating of 261 miles per gallon. That’s rather a lot of miles for rather a little bit of gallons. Of course, there are selectable drive modes which can push that up or down depending on your right foot. In full electric mode, the XL1 can run for 31 miles. Combine that with the gas-drinking mode, and you have a total range of around 310 miles. I preferred the Sport Mode, however, which uses both motors as propulsion sources at the same time. When the diesel kicks on, it sounds like a lawnmower behind your head and I quite enjoyed the mash-up of interior visuals with aural oddities.
Speaking of the interior, despite the weight savings throughout the XL1 Volkswagen have still seen fit to outfit the car with plenty of amenities. There’s a parking assistant system so you can see what’s going on around you (there’s no rear window), a central display provided by Garmin includes radio, navigation, and Internet functions. There’s also air conditioning and cruise control available. Out back, the trunk space offers up 4.2 cubic-feet of cargo room, which was more than enough to swallow my camera bag with room to spare for a run to a German beer store for later.
I return from my drive route and I already want more time with the car. It is, after all, still a car but it’s an amazing one in many ways. Right off the bat, it looks pretty amazing. It could’ve been an extra in Minority Report or perhaps iRobot. The construction techniques and materials employed are also amazing, and the powertrain does rather impressive stuff. I never thought I’d be blown away by a vehicle that has a singular, focused quest for fuel economy… but I am. The Volkswagen XL1 is part of the future of motoring, there’s no way around that.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up my love of driving, ahem, quickly. Think back to that curb weight of 1,735 pounds but now imagine no battery pack and a mid-mounted 2.0-liter turbo. Volkswagen is ahead of us all, because it’s already considering the XR1.
The future is going to be awesome.
[Disclaimer: Volkswagen flew me to Germany to drive the XL1. I got to ride in style in a 747, and once in Germany I was treated to way too much pork and wonderful German beer at a traditional brauhaus. I love Germany now because of the Autobahn and the fact that people actually know how to drive over there… I miss you Germany!]
[Images copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker]