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Volkswagen XL1 First Drive Review

Is Volkswagen’s XL1 the car of the future? We test drive the amazingly efficient plug-in hybrid in London to find out

The XL1’s been in gestation for over a decade, which is a long time even by automotive standards. What started as the 1-Litre tandem two-seater later evolved into the L1 concept and finally became the XL1, which will be delivered to customers early next year.

The numbers

The XL1 is able to achieve an astounding 313mpg and emits a paltry 21g of CO2. Yep, you read that right. The Toyota Prius, for reference, spits a comparatively filthy 89g/km.

The XL1 sources power from a two-cylinder 800cc diesel engine mated to a 5.5kWh lithium-ion battery that sends a total of 69bhp to the rear wheels via an electric motor. The combined power rating may not sound impressive, but consider this: the XL1 weighs in at a scant 795kg.

Volkswagen’s achieved this incredible weight saving by building the tub and body panels from carbon fibre and fitting polycarbonate windows (that’s plastic if you skipped science), a magnesium gearbox and wheels, and carbon ceramic disc brakes.

Why does the XL1 look like a spaceship?

The XL1’s design flips the ‘form follows function’ mantra on its head. Everything about the aerodynamically optimised bodywork has been precisely calculated to maximise efficiency.

The low front end has been designed to guide air at specific points around the body and its front track is wider than the rear’s. VW has swapped side mirrors in favour of drag-reducing lipstick cameras, and the rear wheels are covered to prevent air entering the arches. The rear end has been tailored to not only reduce turbulence but also redirect air underneath the bumper to cool the mid-mounted powertrain.

All this means the XL1 has an astounding drag coefficient figure of .189Cd – far lower than the 0.30-0.40 figure for a typical car.

What’s the VW XL1 like inside?

Climb through the half-gullwing doors and over the wide carbon fibre sill and you’re welcomed into a cabin that exudes Volkswagen quality. It’s missing some creature comforts such as power windows and a rear window, but none of this renders it claustrophobic.

The carbon fibre seats – covered in Alcantra and perforated leather – are offset to provide maximum shoulder room for occupants, and as the passenger seat is set further back and fixed in place you’ll never have to worry about the person sitting in it obstructing your view when you pull out of a junction.

The lack of a rear window and narrow side windows doesn’t cause any problems with rearward visibility either thanks to wide-angle side view cameras that never need to be adjusted. They even provide a wider angle when the car is in reverse.

What’s the XL1 like to drive?

Manually adjust the XL1’s driver’s seat and the small, flat-bottom steering wheel falls to hand. Now press the start button. Nothing. My passenger from the engineering team in Wolfsburg tells me it’s running so I select D in a smooth action and venture out of the hotel entrance and onto Westminster Bridge.

Behind the wheel, the XL1 feels just like any other Volkswagen product. Its ergonomics are ideal: its gauges are clear and its controls within easy reach and of high quality.

Although there’s no power steering, the XL1’s light weight and narrow tyres mean the wheel doesn’t feel much heavier than that of a sports car. The ride is on the firmer side, but not jarring, and the car coasts smoothly when you lift off the throttle instead of snatching power back for the battery. So far so good.

If there are any cavils it’s with the noises that the XL1 emits when it’s not in EV mode – there are no sound deadening materials as they’re considered too heavy.


With the two-cylinder diesel engine behind your head, its clatter is quite alarming when it first kicks in. Thankfully it becomes quieter once it’s had time to warm up. That’s also the case with the carbon ceramic brakes, which make a grating sound when applied. Though the symptom gradually diminishes as the discs warm, it takes time given the nature of this car.

What was most surprising was the XL1’s pick up speed. At the behest of my co-pilot, I selected ‘Sport’ mode in the seven-speed DSG gearbox (no crippling CVT here) and hurtled down Embankment. Coupled with the electric motor’s 103lb-ft of torque, low weight and ride height, it felt faster than its 12.7 second 0-62mph figure would have you expect.

But to judge the XL1 on that kind of performance would be missing the point.

On our brief drive through the streets of London the combination averaged over 220mpg at an average of 9mph — astounding figures given the circumstances.

So what will all this cost?

Volkswagen has not yet released pricing on the model, but given the materials used in its construction its fair to say that it won’t be cheap. Only 250 will be built, and many have already been spoken for.

Simply put, the XL1 is one of the more phenomenal technical achievements in the motoring world to date. It’s efficiency figures are an incredibly accomplishment and the fact that Volkswagen has managed to achieve them without alienating customers already used to their products is impressive.

Key Specs

Model tested: Volkswagen XL1
Engine: 800cc four-cylinder
/ 5.5kWh electric motor
Power: 69bhp 
Torque: 140Nm
Acceleration: 0-62 in 12.7 seconds
Top speed: 100mph
Economy: 313 mpg
Emissions: 21g/km CO2
Price: n/a


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