Remember the Volkswagen Nardo? A W12, mid-engined supercar unveiled at the 2001 Tokyo motor show, it's actually a car which the XL1 is slightly reminiscent of. Both represent an amalgamation of familiar VW design themes (albeit on a dramatic shape) with a powertrain of considerable intrigue. But the Nardo remained a concept, whereas the XL1 is a production reality; last week, we were fortunate enough to drive it.
Ability may be confirmed, price still isn't
The gullwing doors, aside from further adding to the visual theatre, do serve a purpose on the XL1. The diminutive stature means a conventional door would leave too small a slot for entry and exit. It isn't the easiest thing to drop into, but the XL1 is a breeze compared to something like an Elise for interior accessibility.
Two thirds F1
The lightweight (11.6kg) carbon seats are supportive and fantastically low, the passenger sitting slightly behind the driver like two thirds of a McLaren F1 to keep the car as narrow (ergo aerodynamic) as possible.
For the most part though, the XL1 has a recognisable VW interior, making it seem familiar and comfortable almost instantly. The DSG has a regular shifter, the detachable infotainment unit is a modified Up item and the ventilation controls are largely identical too.
Note offset seats, a la McLaren F1
Following a silent electric start-up, it's the steering that immediately grabs the attention. The tiny 795kg kerbweight and narrow tyres (115/80R15s!) means power steering simply isn't necessary; though this initially means more weight than expected at walking speed, it's a long way from unmanageable. Once up to speed, it offers a lovely sense of connection; there's weight and feel that would embarrass many a so-called sports car and is a great reminder of the benefits of low mass. Ditching power assistance also means the entire steering system weighs just 5kg.
Fit for purpose
The performance available from 27hp electric motor is the next surprise. City traffic can be tackled comfortably without the assistance of the diesel engine, the instant torque allowing smart take-off from junctions. Furthermore, the accelerator has been extremely well calibrated so that different levels of electric performance are available, rather than it simply acting as an on-off switch for the engine.
Big enough for two cases of beer, apparently
With the throttle depressed further, the two-cylinder diesel instantaneously fires to boost performance. Producing just 47hp, it doesn't suddenly sling the XL1 down the tarmac but, confined to the streets of central London, it proved more than sufficient and enjoyable fun. Combined torque is 103lb ft, making the XL1 seem faster than its 12.7-second 0-62mph time.
Whether this will be adequate on larger roads remains to be seen. Crucially though, being sat so low intensifies the sense of speed hugely. Later one of VW's engineers mentions a production-spec XL1 hit 125mph (!) in testing; the top speed is limited to 100mph so that heavier, stronger components aren't necessary.
The polycarbonate windows offer a fairly decent view out, augmented by rear-view cameras with displays in the doors. Whilst there's an ever-present sense of vulnerability from sitting so low, it never feels unduly compromised.
London's tourists given a new must-see
The low mass predictably dominates the driving experience, every control bristling with responsiveness. The brakes (280mm carbon-ceramic discs all round) are particularly noteworthy; despite working in conjunction with the regenerative facility of the batteries, they feel completely natural and progressive. The fact I was left-foot braking after just a few miles is the biggest indicator to their ease-of-use. The solitary gripe is that both pedals are slightly offset towards the cabin.
The carbon tub emits a few vibrations into the interior, and these are all the more evident with the car running on electricity predominantly. But that's all part of the experience, a reminder of the lengths VW's engineers have gone to in the pursuit of efficiency.
The diesel hybird ... supercar?
Everywhere we go, people stop and stare at the XL1. They're inquisitive and appreciative and it garners positive attention from all. Along with the new breed hybrid hypercars, the XL1 should represent a new level of desirability for hybrids.
Aero good, rear visibility iffy
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to the XL1 is that it feels like a typical VW product. It could easily be used everyday like a Polo, such is its level of user-friendliness, whilst also offering a level of engineering intrigue unlike any other car. It asks for no unrealistic compromise in its quest for 313mpg (meaning over 600 miles from a full 10-litre tank!), which is arguably its greatest achievement.
As a finished product the XL1 is utterly beguiling. Like the Bugatti Veyron, it represents the reality of an enduring desire from Ferdinand Piech to create a landmark car, a milestone to be remembered even if it can't be experienced by the majority. The price (still unconfirmed) of the first XL1s is likely to guarantee it remains exclusive, but the future applications of its technology promise to be very exciting indeed.
Engine: 800cc two-cylinder turbodiesel plus electric motor
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): c. 67@5,700-6,700rpm (diesel engine - 47hp, electric - 27hp)
Torque (lb ft): 103@ 1,750-5,500rpm
Top speed: 100mph (limited)
MPG: 313 (NEDC combined)
1 / 6