Test-driving the world's most fuel efficient car, the VW XL1

15 July 2013

David Mole, Fundraising Manager, The Climate Group, takes the world's most fuel-efficient car, the VW XLR, for a spin around central London.

David writes:

Today I was introduced to the Volkswagen XL1. First unveiled at the Qatar Motor Show in 2011, the XL1 made its debut appearance in the UK this week, including being parked for the tourists' cameras outside Buckingham Palace. And the XL1 truly is a breathtaking car, easily competing for pictures with London's royal palace.


Peter Wouda, the XLR's Chief of Exterior Design, described the XL1's design to me as being crafted for aerodynamics based on the shapes of yachts -- and sharks.

Extremely low to the curb, the XL1 has a broad and assertive nose with ultra-energy efficient, slightly snarling LED headlights, set in a clean, angular array at the very lowest position legally permissible. The body then whips back over Lamborghini-esque gull-wing doors and enclosed rear wheels, to a narrow cut-off stern which suggests an entirely marine sense of speed and efficiency; a sort of Cutty Sark in miniature.

xl1 vw

For the car dubbed the most fuel efficient in the world (an incredible 315mpg), the XL1 utterly disabuses you of any notion that fuel efficiency means cutting corners in terms of looks.

Yet, listening to the engineers talk about the XL1, it's striking that the smoothness of the design was not fastened upon out of a desire to turn heads. Volkswagen's tradition, after all, is one of precise and innovative engineering. And so, everything about the XL1 is made with efficiency in mind -- it just so happens that the models given to us in the natural world, and by some of the most simple forms of human transport, are sublime guides.

The taillights nip tightly in; razor-sharp like a shark's tailfin. Any curvature would add unwanted air turbulence. To the extent that there aren't even wing-mirrors, which would only produce drag. These are replaced by tiny cameras embedded in the door panel, and give crystal clear images, which zoom in and out, adjusting their angles automatically to help with viewing surrounding traffic and stationary objects.

There is a little steel involved in the chassis construction, but one of the main goals of building the XL1 was to reduce fuel consumption by minimizing weight. The outer shell is made of carbon fibre, along with much of the interior work, while internal components have been made of magnesium alloys wherever possible.

Weighing 795kg, we started out parked next to a 1160kg Mini, which looked colossal by comparison. 


Hybrid technology

The diesel engine is an ultra-compact 800c, and sits directly behind the cabin along with a surprisingly spacious compartment for luggage. A 27hp electric engine complements the diesel, and charges fully in 90-140 minutes.

I was invited for a test drive with Patrick Mank, an XL1 engineer. Before getting into the car, he explained that the gullwing doors had a safety device enabling the occupant to remove the door from any angle in case the car rolled over in a crash. In such a circumstance he pointed out a tiny wire near the door hinge, which would activate a controlled explosion enabling the door to be removed without using the hinge and the driver or passenger to exit unharmed. I was overwhelmed.

Not only had it suddenly grown, but the Mini to my left now looked like a prehistoric hulk, a relic of a set of benighted ideas about how city transport should operate.

Staring down at the XL1, the plummy tones of Desmond Llewellyn echoed in my head, "and for once, do bring it back in pristine order, 007". I think I might have laughed out loud at this point, but I was soon brought round by Patrick staring seriously at me, deadpanning: "Well, you do have to think of these things".

Future transport

So we got in, stepping down into this low-slung vision of the future. The designers had warned me of there being a lack of insulation, a little excess noise, a little lack of comfort - all due to cutting weight from the body of the car. And yet, for all these concessions, I was essentially stepping down into a supercar of which only 50 exist globally.

At first I had expected the cabin to feel cramped, with the seats offset as they are; the passenger seat sits slightly behind the driver seat to enable the body to be narrower. And yet within a few seconds, I was completely comfortable. The cabin felt spacious, cleverly designed, crafted in a striking way that was neat, not overly showy, and inimitably VW. I expected to have my knees bunched up underneath my chin, however I was soon luxuriating in the ample legroom.

Pulling out of the enclosed courtyard into central London and, at the first T-junction, the smartphones of passers-by were immediately turned on us to take pictures of the XL1. Or perhaps the driver and passenger.

The caveats and warnings of the designers were mostly unwarranted. The XL1 feels like a normal car. The engine seem responsive, the steering lively. There are a few strange noises with the ceramic brake discs, but nothing that isn't just different from what we are all used to.


Driving on electric is nearly silent. Looking out of the windows at the milling vans and taxis that make up a London afternoon, I had a sense of looking back in time at a procession of antiquated vehicles, rather like driving in a standard car in the Midwest or in Pennsylvania and seeing an Amish buggy approaching along the highway.

The XL1 is, as Peter told me, a 'proof of what is possible'. The future for the next ten years, according to Patrick, is the ultra-efficient plug-in hybrid.

Low emissions

Enabling massive emissions reductions and not reliant on wide geographical adoption of charging technologies, such cars will be the bridge to a world where electric vehicles are the norm.

While it is unlikely that the XL1 will soon be produced commercially, the technologies embedded into the XL1 are going to be rolled out in VW's Golf, Up! and Polo models between now and 2016.

VW's plan to up-scale the vision of the XL1 is the Clean Revolution in action.

Volkswagen XL1: 0-62mph: 11.9sec; Top speed: 99mph; Economy: 313mpg (combined); CO2 emissions: 24g/km; Kerb weight: 795kg; Drag coefficient: 0.186; Engine layout: 2 cyls in line, 800cc, turbodiesel, plus 5kWh plug-in electric assist; Installation: Mid, transverse, RWD; Power: 47bhp (diesel), 26bhp (electric); Torque: 103lb ft (combined); Gearbox: 7-spd dual-clutch

Back to the Clean Revolution blog or visit the Sustainable Mobility blog

Read our report Plugged-in fleets: A guide to deploying electric vehicles in fleets

Learn more about The Climate Group's Electric vehicle program

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