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Volkswagen XL1 review, test drive

31st May 2015 4:35 pm

The VW XL1’s sole reason to be is to go as far as possible on a litre of diesel. Hormazd Sorabjee drives this extraordinary car.


  • Make : Volkswagen
  • Model : XL1

100 kilometres per litre. No other road-legal car can take you that distance or so cheaply on a litre of fuel; which is why Volkswagen’s super-streamlined XL1 is proudly tagged the ‘1-litre car.’ We all know about the ‘1-lakh car’ that established the Nano as a global benchmark for frugal engineering, but the XL1 – which costs many lakhs (74, to be precise, and that’s without customs duty) – has a different agenda. For a company that produces something as OTT as the Bugatti Veyron, the XL1 represents the other extreme. It’s Volkswagen’s, or more specifically, Ferdinand Piech’s way of showing the world that it can do Green better than anyone else. The XL1’s sole purpose is to burn as little fuel as possible and deliver a carbon footprint the size of an ant.

Because it’s a diesel hybrid, it’s cheaper to run than any bike, including the Hero Splendor iSmart which boasts a 100kpl-plus but sips pricier petrol. But before you get too excited about the XL1’s running costs, which are almost free in comparison to an Alto, there are a few things to consider. First, you would have to drive around 5,00,000km to recover the price difference. ◊ ∆ And, even if you can afford to get one, for an estimated Rs 1.5 crore with full customs duty paid, there’s the small matter of finding one.

VW made only 250 units, and they are all gone into the hands of some very rich and green owners. So, what’s the point then? It’s true the XL1 is old news (it was launched in 2013), but it’s still very much the future of motoring, which is why we are here at VW’s home in Wolfsburg to have a go in one.
There’s enough visual drama in the XL1’s shape to rival a supercar, and every bit’s been honed to cheat the wind.

In the sprawling parking lot used by thousands of Wolfsburg’s employees, it’s easy to miss the very tiny XL1, which is lower than a Lamborghini, narrower than a Nano (to reduce frontal area) and shorter than a Polo. But once you approach it, the space capsule-like shape has a visual drama that can rival any supercar.

Every bit of the XL1’s surface has been honed to cheat the wind. It’s a classic teardrop shape with the body tapering at the rear. The rear wheels are enclosed to make the car as slippery as possible through air. It has a drag coefficient of just 0.189, which must be a record for any production car.

But it’s not just the aerodynamic shape that contributes to the XL1’s staggering fuel efficiency. Weight, or rather, the lack of it, possibly plays an even bigger role. The ultra-lightweight carbonfibre monocoque and aluminium bits keep it down to a very impressive 795kg. I say very impressive because that includes a 60kg lithium-ion battery pack, air-conditioning and hefty crash structures to ensure a good Euro NCAP rating.

Everything about the XL1 is pint-sized to reduce drag and weight. Right from the weedy 115/80 tyres up front (145/ 55 at the rear) to the tiny cameras that replace the rear mirrors. Even the fuel tank, just 10 litres, is smaller than a bike’s.

Slipping into the XL1 is an event. The forward-hinged gullwing doors open with drama, stepping over the fat sill to access the cabin is quite a hurdle, and once you drop down into the slim driver’s seat, you realise you’re only inches above the tarmac.

The cleverly staggered seating layout allows for shoulder room for the driver in what is a very tight cabin.

The XL1 is a pure two-seater, but the clever bit is the staggered seating which lets the driver sit slightly ahead of the passenger. This is to allow a crucial bit of extra shoulder room in such a narrow cabin. In contrast to the exterior, the dashboard is very straightforward. It’s a simple design with lots of familiar VW switchgear from cars as basic as the Polo.

The 830cc twin-cylinder diesel, which produces 47bhp, works in series with a 27bhp electric motor.

The primary power source for the XL1 is our good old Polo’s 1.6 TDI engine cut in half and placed in a mid-engine layout behind the cabin. This 830cc twin-cylinder diesel, which produces 47bhp, works in series with a 27bhp electric motor. The total power output of 74bhp in a car so light results in a claimed 0-100kph time of 12.7 seconds.

Fully charged and ready to go, the XL1 starts off silently on pure electric power. You can drive this way for around 40km, after which the diesel engine kicks in. If there is anything low-tech about the XL1 apart from the mechanical window winders, it’s the way the two-cylinder engine sounds. It’s got a very rudimentary thrum, something like a cross between a tractor and an autorickshaw. In fact, there’s a fair bit of mechanical noise seeping into the cabin. Clearly, there isn’t much sound-deadening material, not because it’s too expensive, but too heavy for a car where every gram counts. The brake pads gripping the ceramic discs give off a scraping sound, the suspension sounds clunky, there’s a fair bit of tyre noise and the odd thud from the transmission can be heard as the clutch engages and releases.

There’s a practical side too – space for a few soft bags.

For a car with unconventional proportions and a titch of a powerplant, the XL1 is surprisingly fun to drive. On just electric power, performance is modest and just about enough to keep up with the fairly fast-moving traffic on the rural roads outside Wolfsburg. Use the diesel and electric motor in tandem, and you can get up to some serious speeds. There’s a nice shove in the back, especially between 50- and 100kph and it’s surprisingly capable on the autobahn too. The fact that you’re just inches away from the ground makes you feel like you’re going faster than you really are. The seven-speed DSG gearbox works seamlessly too and makes the most of both power units. It’s slowing the car down that is a bit unnerving because of the lack of a brake booster. Rearward visibility is also an issue and you have to rely on tiny screens in the door panels, which act as side mirrors.

You find yourself sitting mere inches above the tarmac.

The XL1 is a surprisingly nifty handler and actually fun to drive. Low slung and with a 5kWh battery pack placed at floor level, it has a centre of gravity that makes a conventional hatch feel like a double-decker bus. There’s very little roll and grip is good too, despite the weedy tyres and narrow track.

The XL1’s steering isn’t power-assisted (again, this is to save weight), but with very little weight
over the front wheels, it’s not too heavy and is accurate as well.

A lot of the tech in the XL1 is expected to find its way into mainstream Volkswagen cars. Now don’t expect your next Polo to drip with carbonfibre or come with enclosed wheels, of course, but it will be more fuel-efficient for sure. Now you know where VW’s inspiration to make cars that drink less comes from.

PRICE Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Price Range Ex-showroom - Delhi Rs 1.5 crore (estimated) - - - -
ENGINE Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Fuel Type / Propulsion Diesel - - - -
Torque to Weight Ratio (Nm/tonne) 12.2kgm + 14kgm (electric) - - - -
Hybrid type 2 cylinder, 830cc, turbo-diesel + electric motor - - - -
Power 47bhp + 26.6bhp (electric) - - - -
TRANSMISSION Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Gearbox Type Automatic - - - -
No of Gears 7-speed dual clutch - - - -
BODY Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Weight (kg) 795kg - - - -
Dimensions Petrol Petrol AT Diesel Diesel AT Electric
Length (mm) 3888mm - - - -
Width (mm) 1665mm - - - -
Height (mm) 1153mm - - - -
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