First Drive: Volkswagen XL1The future is now

Volkswagen-XL1-Lead

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-XL1-front-three-quarter 

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.

Volkswagen-XL1-interior

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.

Volkswagen-XL1-front

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. 

Volkswagen-XL1-rear-side-detail

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.

xl1-detail-quad

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.

Volkswagen-XL1-rear

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]

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23 responses to “First Drive: Volkswagen XL1The future is now”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    Highly informative and very well written, but give it another spelling check, will you?
    I can imagine that the XL1 will be fun in the city, and maybe enjoyable on the occasional weekend ride. Good it's finally available!

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar

      What did I miss? I wrote in Evernote and transferred to WP so something might have gotten messed up.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        Only because you asked: "a back of batteries" should be pack, "to have an affect" should be effect, "thick.Beyond the weight" is missing a space after the period, "drag figure one ups" needs a hyphen between one and ups, "plus its quite progressive" needs an apostrophe for it's, "iRobot" should be I, Robot, and "a singular focused quest" either should be singularly or should have a comma after singular.
        That's just a quick review. No guarantees.

        1. FreeMan Avatar

          Almost, it should be ".001-ups"
          Sounds like an interesting future. I'm glad to hear they're considering the 2.0 for it. Would that be gas or diesel? Also, I like the rally driver/co-driver seating arrangements.

          1. mdharrell Avatar

            That should be 0.001-ups.

        2. Jeff Glucker Avatar

          what do you think I am, an editor?
          … Oh wait shit, good catches.
          Will fix when I get back from the DMV

          1. longrooffan Avatar

            Damn..md, always the teacher…

  2. Alff Avatar

    Interesting vehicle that I suspect heralds our automotive future. I wonder about reliability and longevity, given CFRP construction and aluminum wiring.

  3. LEROOOY Avatar

    Just like with the first-gen Insight, CRZ, Aptera, and others – I can't wait to see somebody get a motorcycle engine in one to achieve supercar performance while getting "only" 80 mpg.
    Seriously though, this is exciting tech at the edge of what may be the last frontier of radical car design.

    1. calzonegolem Avatar

      At the price of entry for this thing I doubt you'll be seeing this anytime soon.

  4. dukeisduke Avatar

    Whoa, driving the XL1? What a sweet gig you've got, Jeff.

  5. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    I love that the future looks like it's from 1985. Great Scott.

  6. muthalovin Avatar

    The XL-1 is quite an impressive bit of kit. I really look forward to seeing it IRL someday.

  7. racer139 Avatar

    A diesel electric with a gas drinking mode… That must be to piss the ecco people off eh.

  8. cruisintime Avatar

    Jeff , Does Hooniverse give you enough juice that VW flies you to Germany ? Or are other factors at work?
    That vehicle is some sweet machine.

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar

      They invited me on behalf of Hooniverse, so I think it's safe to say we're gaining some ground.

      1. cruisintime Avatar

        Gaining traction and moving along at fine pace.

      2. Vairship Avatar

        Plus the Hooniverse World Domination HeadQuarters are right next to the VW complex according to the pictures. The Hooniverse WDHQ could do with some paint though…
        😉

  9. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Nice, thoughtful review. The cutting edge of technology is always a fun place to be. And this car shows that fuel economy and sustainability doesn't have to be unpleasant or a snooze. Better, this looks like a genuine attempt by VW to test out concepts that can be brought to production. I can imagine a lot of the features being further refined, and maybe dialed back a bit to be more palatable to the average buyer. Too bad Colin Chapman isn't around to have some fun with all the new toys and technology.

  10. wunno sev Avatar

    this is super cool, and even cooler that you got to actually drive it.
    that said i must always ask the safety question. though i am sure the carbon fiber cell is stronger than a steel frame would be, i wonder if it would pass the safety tests as they are now.
    i also wonder: is there a point at which we will collectively accept cars that are less safe but more efficient? when do we make that transition?

  11. craigsu Avatar

    So, what is VW anticipating the asking price to be?
    Also, looks like they'll have to ditch the SVX-style windows for the US or no one will be able to use the drive-thru window.

  12. Otto Nobedder Avatar

    As was pointed out-looks a lot like a certain Honda designed way back in the 20th Century

  13. CABEZAGRANDE Avatar

    I really hope they'll do a not quite so crazy version for an affordable production version. They've got that awesome little 105 hp 1.6L TDI out of the Polo. They could plop that in there with no hybrid system. Replace some of the carbon fiber with high strength steel. Put conventional brakes on it. I bet they could end up with a ~$30-35k, 2100 lb, 70-100 mpg car that normal people could afford. And with more than 100 hp and around 200 lb-ft of torque, it wouldn't be crazy slow. I'd certainly be tempted.

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