You are looking at the future of motoring. This is the VW XL1 hybrid; it weighs in at 800kg and will reach 0-100km/h in 12.7 seconds and top out at 160kmh.
You are looking at the future of motoring. This is the VW XL1 hybrid; it weighs in at 800kg and will reach 0-100km/h in 12.7 seconds and top out at 160kmh.
Streamlined styling means there is no rearward vision save for rear-facing cameras.
Streamlined styling means there is no rearward vision save for rear-facing cameras.
Cabin has decent leg room.
Cabin has decent leg room.

It’s quite ironic that Volkswagen chose to call its latest plug-in hybrid car the XL1. Unlike the name may suggest, the eco-friendly two-seater is anything but extra large.

What it is, according to the German carmaker, is the most fuel-efficient production car on the planet, with a claimed consumption of just under the magical one litre per 100km mark. The L1 was the concept in 2002 that was test-driven by the now Chairman of VW Ferdinand Piëch between VW’s hometown of Wolfsburg and Hamburg, with the 1 in that name alluding to the consumption achieved.

Eleven years later VW has unveiled the production-ready version, which the carmaker has dubbed its “technology lighthouse”. It’s powered by a two-cylinder 800cc TDI engine (think of a 1.6 TDI cut in half) producing 35kW, and an electric motor good for 20kW – both mid-mounted. Combined output is rated at 51kW, but with a kerb mass of just under 800 kilograms the lightweight XL1 will get to 100km/h from standstill in around 12.7 seconds before hitting its limiter of 160km/h.

LIMITED RUN OF 250 FOR EUROPE ONLY

But this car - which is being built in a limited production run of 250 units for Europe only - isn’t about performance; it’s about sustainability. With emission levels of just 21g/km (about one-sixth of a regular small hatchback), the XL1 should raise a few eyebrows.

And it’s quite practical too, offering a range of 50km in zero-emission electric mode from the VW-produced lithium-ion battery, and a charging time from a typical wall socket of two hours. Using the combined electric-turbodiesel power, in a combination of urban and highway cruising, the range is pegged at around the 500km mark - pretty impressive for a 10-litre fuel tank.

The XL1 can run in electric mode, or diesel mode, or a combination of the two. The battery isn’t recharged by the combustion engine, but it does benefit from energy recuperation through braking and coasting. The turbodiesel powers ancillaries such as the lights and aircon as well, to maximise battery range.

TAKING THE NASA APPROACH

To prove that all hybrids needn’t be as vanilla-flavoured as Toyota’s Prius, VW went to the other extreme and have produced quite a snazzy sportscar with not only a mid-mounted powertrain for better handling, but a slick body design with rear-wheel covers for minimal drag, and a low centre of gravity. In terms of size the XL1 is very compact - shorter than a VW Polo and lower than a Porsche Boxster.

At its recent media launch in Wolfsburg, it became apparent that engineers took the NASA approach with lightweight materials, throwing in a body made from carbon fibre, polycarbonate side windows and aluminium suspension – with total body weight quoted as 230kg. Even the roll bars are carbonfibre, and the rims are forged from magnesium.

The XL1 has gullwing doors, but entry and exit is comfortable thanks to the high roofline. The driver and passenger seats are offset to save space and avoid shoulders touching in the cabin (inspired by the Porsche 917), with the battery located under the passenger-side floor but not intrusive in the cabin. In terms of boot space your weekend luggage will easily fit beneath the hatched bootlid, behind the engine bay.

CLEAN AND SIMPLE DESIGN

The most surprising thing about the XL1 is how easy it is to drive, and you almost feel like you’re in some sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. The only inhibiting aspect is rear vision, and the side mirrors are actually cameras which show the rear view in door-mounted screens.

Other than that the cabin is very VW with a clean and simple design - sporty seats, steering and clocks, a low-slung driving position, comforts such as aircon and radio, and surprisingly generous leg room.

The powertrain is married to a DSG auto transmission which even in EV mode has sharp gear changes. Hit the little EV button on the dash and the electric motor is locked in as the power source, providing juice at any speed, but will give up when it gets down to 10 percent capacity or you switch the ‘box to Sport mode.

CRUISING AT WAY ABOVE 120KM/H

The steering is of the traditional mechanical variety, which we are told is lighter than fancier electronic systems, with the result being nice hard feedback. The XL1 is wider at the front for better aerodynamics, with wider rubber at the back versus the front. And though the tyres may look like marie biscuits, the handling feels safe.

The XL1, for all those small listed outputs, never felt underpowered – even in EV mode. It hums along in the city with instant surge, and with the lawnmower-sounding TDI flexing its muscle I was cruising at way above 120km/h on the German autobahn.

The end result, even with my heavy-footed driving? Just 1.4 litres per 100km, which is quite remarkable. We may not be getting the XL1 in South Africa, but look out for some of this fuel-saving technology in a hybrid Golf 7 next year. - The Star