Volkswagen (VW) XL1 Plug-in Diesel Hybrid (2014 Model Review)

Written By: Andrew H. 

How to Lasso the Moon - A Review of the 2014 Volkswagen XL1

                                                               2014 Volkswagen XL1

At the 2011 Qatar Motor Show, Volkswagen unveiled a storm more powerful than any Shamal sandstorm sweeping the desert dunes outside: the XL1. It was a low-slung, silver coupe mounted on a white, swiveling pedestal. Reporters gaped. Headlines boomed.

The XL1 sparked a nuclear response – not for any fuel cell legerdemain or photovoltaic magic, but for its 2.6-gallon fuel tank and 0.186 drag coefficient.

An ABC History of the Volkswagen XL1

The history of the XL1 began in 2002, when Ferdinand Piech, then Chairman of the Volkswagen Board of Management, drove to an annual stockholder’s meeting in a special 639-pound, 1-cylinder diesel-powered concept car. Volkswagen had a dream: to lasso the moon. It wanted a car that could drive 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel. That’s 235 mpg. Piech’s car was the first iteration of that dream.

In 2011, Volkswagen did it. The XL1 is the world’s most efficient production car, a diesel-powered plug-in hybrid. Manufactured – er, mostly handbuilt – at the Osnabrück factory, it is currently destined only for Europe. In June 2014, the initial production run of 200 vehicles was first offered in Germany for USD $146,000.

Why Build It?

Despite its six-digit price tag, the XL1 loses Volkswagen money with every sale – or so rumor has it. So why build it?

“It’s a lighthouse car,” said Volkswagen Group Research & Development chief, Ulrich Hackenberg. “This is the technology spearhead of the Volkswagen Group.” Taking a page from the textbook of Reaganomics, the company is trusting that lessons learned from designing the XL1 will trickle down to its mainstream automobile production.

And that is the most interesting question of all. The Volkswagen XL1’s achievements are mind-bending, but will the silver car ever drive off its white, swiveling pedestal?

The Art of Aerodynamics

The womb of the XLR was the wind tunnel. There is nary an exterior bump: no hood ornament, no rearview mirrors, no shark fin antennae. Even the rear wheels wear their own wardrobe. The teardrop-shaped coupe, which sits three inches off the ground, is shorter than a Lamborghini. No adult could enter through conventional doors without diving in headfirst, so Volkswagen added gullwing doors. With a drag coefficient of 0.189, the XL1 glides through the air like a Teflon bullet.

The XL1 plug-in hybrid looks as if someone tugged on the rear of the vehicle and stretched it out like taffy candy. The briefest glance at the coupe could mistake it for a track superstar: small, hunkered down, lightweight. A peek at the tires kills any such ambitions. The front tires measure 115/80R-15; the rear, 145/55R-16. They turn every speed bump into a thrilling Evel Knievel experience, and that’s as close to performance as the XL1 gets.

2014 Volkswagen XL1

The Love of Lightweight

The Volkswagen XL1, weighing just 1,753 pounds, is more altar than automobile. To it are sacrificed weight and all its causes: electric seat adjustments, rear seats, sound insulation and more. The steering wheel is small. There is no power steering. The transmission case and wheels are magnesium, and the dampers and brake calipers are aluminum. Rasp, rasp, rasp, sound the ceramic composite brakes. Most of the exoskeleton body is carbon fiber-reinforced polymer. The windows are fingernail-thin polycarbonate. Even the exterior coat of paint measures just 0.004 inches. The only heavy-weight objects in the Volkswagen XL1 are its passengers. Good thing they’re not American.

Though She Is Small …

In the United States, diesel fans usually drive heavy-duty pickups and laugh at people who pay for oil changes. The XL1 has a different sort of diesel: a turbocharged, two-cylinder, 47-horsepower engine about the size of a mousetrap. Its mate is an electric motor rated at 27 horsepower, 103 pound-feet of torque. Stashed in the rear of the vehicle is a 5.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that can solely power the vehicle for up to 30 miles at 44 mph. The combined maximum power of the system at any one time is 89 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque.

A Different Driving Experience

Lilliputian as those numbers may be, much of that power is never used. Volkswagen engineered the XL1 to draw just 8.3 horsepower when cruising at ideal conditions at 62 mph. Passing on the highway requires a football-style diagrammed play plan. Once the coupe has reached 75 mph, however, it is content to purr happily along. Top speed is limited to 99 mph. Dashing from 0 to 60 mph takes approximately 12.5 seconds, less with a good tailwind.

In other words, the XL1 is about as fast as a Smart car. Thankfully, their driving characteristics are at different poles.

Here are five things drivers like about the XL1:

  • Thanks to its mid-engine layout and firm suspension tuning, the XL1 corners with minimal roll and understeer.

  • SPORT mode offers regenerative braking and one-pedal driving. Ease off the throttle, and the XL1 quickly rolls to a halt.

  • At 21 grams of carbon per kilometer, the XL1 emits as much pollution as an endurance cyclist.

  • Ease off the throttle in Normal Mode, and the XL1 will coast on battery power until doomsday.

  • All this in the name of fuel efficiency: 313 mpg! – or not. Nor is it 300 mpg, 269 mpg, or any other outlandish figure swamping the Internet. In the European cycle, the XL1 Plug-In Hybrid achieved 261 mpg. Volkswagen engineers suggested that, in the American EPA testing cycle, the car might achieve 209 mpg. A few test drivers have suggested an average of 180-200 mpg in real-world, road rage driving conditions. White-knuckled hypermilers can squeeze out 250 mpg.

On the other side of the coin, here are five traits drivers dislike:

  • Even with the gullwing doors, squeezing into the tandem two seats would give trouble to a yoga instructor.

  • Since engineers stripped the coupe of most of its sound insulation, every scrape of the brake rotors can be heard. The chattering diesel powerplant sounds like a first-row seat to a NASA rocket launch.

  • Supplanting the rearview mirrors are two electronic screens hard to trust.

  • Even though the coupe has satellite navigation, radio and air conditioning, it lacks electric windows.

  • Speed – or a lack thereof.

The Future of the XL1

Yet the question remains: Will the XL1 ever drive off its pedestal and into American garages? “They will be sold and driven,” answers Volkswagen’s Peter Wouda. “They are not for collectors. But the XL1 is mostly about technology that will make its way down into our regular cars.”

Hello, 2020?