A carbon fibre monocoque, mid-engined hybrid drive, two seats, seven-speed DSG: the wind-tunnel shaped Volkswagen XL1's specification reads like the current crop of hyper-cars, but its performance goals are rather different.
In the Metal:
Shaped by the wind-tunnel before any stylist got anywhere near it, the XL1 is a product of purpose, that being to slip through the air as efficiently as possible. All that dictates its teardrop shape, aping nature; Volkswagen's designer likens its shape to a shark's. Despite that efficiency-is-everything goal there's some really neat detailing. Indeed, the XL1 manages to look like a Volkswagen despite its radical economy goals, the headlights, cool LED taillights and crisp detail lines, fared in rear wheels - and impossibly tight shut lines - lending it a sculptural quality that adds hugely to its desirability. It's narrow and low yet very solidly proportioned - it might be light, but it doesn't look or feel like it.
That's true inside too, where it feels every bit the series production Volkswagen. The driving position (the XL1 will be built in left-hand drive only) is spot on, the fixed back lightweight seat being extremely comfortable. It's simple, yet classy, with no signs of Volkswagen's obsessive weight savings. The passenger is offset to your right, and there's no central mirror - as there's no rear window - while the only real hints to the XL1's future-looking status are the video screens in the doors displaying the rear view, courtesy of two door-mounted cameras.
Dropping in through the butterfly-door, access is an occasion itself, the door's shape, the roof cut out and even the small window opening reminiscent of a McLaren F1. The driving position isn't far off, either, though you're not sat in the centre of the car. The centre console contains the same Maps and More screen you'll find in the up!, it showing the status of the drivetrain, while a button below it allows the XL1 to be driven on electric power alone. Do so and it'll cover about 30 miles, though if necessary the twin-cylinder TDI diesel unit will kick in if you ask for more acceleration than the electric motor alone can give. Officially it'll achieve a quite staggering 313mpg, though in the real world, with real driving - without any concessions to economy - will obviously see numbers less spectacular than that, yet still easily in the 200mpg and above range.
Driven in pure electric mode it's quick and quiet; it'll coast when there's the chance to do so, while it'll also recuperate kinetic energy when conditions allow. There's the ability to increase the recuperation by selecting S mode on the seven-speed DSG automatic, which might as well only have one ratio given how discrete it is in its operation. The two-cylinder TDI engine kicks in via an electric pulse from the hybrid powertrain, there being only the slightest of hesitation when doing so, though the two drive systems work well in unison, and give the XL1 decent performance.
Brisk rather than quick, it's more than enough for keeping up with town and motorway traffic, the XL1's lack of bulk assisting in its acceleration despite its relatively modest 70hp combined output. It rides well, and its width helps by giving you more road to avoid imperfections in the first place, though even when you to hit ripples and bumps there's little intrusion into the cabin. With its unassisted steering the wheel is unusually rich in detail, and any concerns that those skinny Michelins might lack grip prove entirely unfounded on the road. Indeed, the XL1 corners very well indeed, its narrowness allowing you to pick the neatest line, which also helps you carry speed more effectively - lessening the burden on the drivetrain and ultimately aiding its overall economy. It's a different kind of driving, certainly, but there's a lot of enjoyment to be had reading the road ahead and using momentum and forward planning to maximise the XL1's economy.
What you get for your Money:
In Germany Volkswagen is asking €111,000 for the XL1, which might seem preposterous, but given its exotic specification - carbon fibre and lightweight materials don't come cheap - Volkswagen will be taking a hit on each sold. You're buying exclusivity too, as Volkswagen is intending on building just 250, 50 of which it will be keeping itself for ongoing evaluation. Given its forward-looking tech, its super rarity (Bugatti has sold more Veyrons) and of course its incredible economy potential it doesn't look so ridiculous.
We could fill an entire page of 'worth noting' on the XL1 but a couple of things particularly tickled us. The aerodynamics are such that the movement of the air around the back of the car actually helps push the XL1 along. It's a tiny contribution, but helpful nonetheless. Those rear-view cameras in place of mirrors help smooth the airflow and they should never fog up, the small amount of heat produced by the camera itself preventing them from doing so. Those top-hinged doors feature explosive hinges like Mercedes-Benz's SLS AMG, should you manage to roll your XL1, too...
Arguably the most interesting, and enjoyable car we've driven for a long time, the Volkswagen XL1 might not be hugely radical in its technology, but its honing of existing thinking to the maximum underline what's possible. Impressive as the numbers are though, it's the cohesiveness and finish of the entire package that really startles, the XL1 feeling entirely production specification in the way it looks, feels and drives. We'd have one in a heartbeat, though do like the sound of the Ducati 1,000cc engined example that a Volkswagen engineer let slip they'd built just for the hell of it...