Cohort Classic: 2015 Volkswagen XL1 – This Was The Future, Once

Small sales volume does not mean failure or insignificance. This car, a 2015 VW XL1 posted on the Cohort, may be one of only 28 sold in the UK and of just 250 built, but it is £98,500 of some of the most advanced thinking of its time, put into the public domain with little, or no, expectation of real commercial return, but risking public technical failure, distraction and consumer confusion. It takes a confident business led by a confident leader to follow that path, and VW had that leader, in Ferdinand Piech.

But let’s look at the car; I suspect doing that will show what I imply about Ferdinand Piech.

The car was the final iteration of the VW 1 Litre car project – as in 1 litre of fuel for 100 km. Fuel consumption is normally measured in litres per 100km in metric Europe, so small numbers are good; 1 litre per 100km is 282 miles per Imperial gallon, or 235 miles per US gallon. The project first appeared in public in 2002, when Piech, then Chairman of VW, drove the first iteration of the car, then known as the 1 Litre Concept to the company’s AGM, below.

This first car was clearly a concept, an ideas car and a statement that VW were starting a journey. The intention was to demonstrate that the 1litre car could be achieved, and that VW intended to be leading the way.

To that end, VW built a car that took many contemporary and emerging trends, and spun them together with something that was then a VW speciality, and something VW of which were arguably the leading exponent – the diesel engine. The car featured a magnesium sub-frame with a carbon fibre body that clearly followed aerodynamic principles for low drag closely. Materials like carbon fibre, aluminium, titanium and ceramics (for the brakes) featured, all focussing on weight reduction.

To reduce the car’s cross section and thereby the drag, the seats were in tandem formation, the rear track was narrower than the front, the under belly was flat and the wheels were covered with flat discs. The drag coefficient was reported at 0.16, still a very low number now.

Mechanically, the car was driven by a 299cc single cylinder diesel engine, and of which VW were then arguably the leading European exponent. This engine was connected to a six speed automatic gearbox, and with only 9bhp the car proved surprisingly lively and could reach over 70mph. Weighing just 650lb no doubt helped, but even so the car had ABS, airbags, and crumple zones.

This iteration remained, as intended, a concept as did the next, the 2009 L1, but it a major advance in the powertrain. It used an 800cc turbo diesel, effectively half a VW Golf TDi engine but it was now linked to an electric motor with plug-in charging capability for extra power during acceleration and also capable of powering the car for short distances.

A diesel plug-in hybrid then, with performance of close to 100mph and a 0-60 of around 12 seconds, alongside 260 miles per US gallon. VW spoke of production by 2013, but events took over.

In 2011, VW showed what proved to be the ultimate version of the idea, the XL1. Key things remained the same – a similar 800cc turbodiesel and plug-in hybrid drivetrain with a 5.5kWh lithium ion battery, aerodynamic dominated styling, carbon fibre body and high technology material structure and the tapered plan form. The gearbox was now a seven speed DSG system. But now there was side by side seating, and the glider like styling of the VW 1 litre concept was totally lost to a form that whilst still modern and different, bore so many contemporary VW design cues that production for public sale was clearly now on the agenda.

The interior was now fully finished in line with contemporary VW styles and materials; perhaps the only convenience concession to weight were the manual window winders. The interior had side by side seating, as noted, but with a slight stagger rearward for the passenger to save width at shoulder height. You wonder – did Alec Issigonis or Dante Giacossa ever think of this?

The seats were lightweight carbon fibre mouldings, the doors close to gullwing form (McLaren like, rather than DeLorean) and body had a definite teardrop form. The engine was mid mounted, the battery under the passenger foot well and there a measurable boot at the back. Length was close to that of a contemporary VW Polo, though clearly the car was much lower. The rear-view mirrors were replaced by cameras and screens.

There was a 10 litre (2.6 US gallon) fuel tank, which with the battery, gave a range of perhaps 300 miles in real life conditions. Your mileage may vary of course – driven gently in non-urban environments, the consumption would improve significantly. Even so, close to 200mpg in urban areas was achievable, and 150mpg readily achievable.

The car was sold in Europe only, at a price of around €110,000, and was assembled at the previous Karmann plant in Osnabruck, by VW, around an outsourced carbon fibre monocoque. A total of 200 cars were offered for public sale and a ballot was needed to identify the winners, who paid a deposit on a binding contract.

In terms of driving experience, it was seemingly a mixture of the familiar, the expected and unusual. There was a familiar VW feel of the interior surfaces and ergonomics – look at the interior details and count the Golf and Passat items. The noise levels varied from almost silent under electric power to actually fairly rowdy under diesel power, especially during acceleration, as little weight was carried in sound insulation. The ride was firm but acceptable for a size and weight of car, especially one so low, and the handling, with the rear wheel drive and mid engine, was better than many would have expected given the car’s background. Skinny tyres and unassisted steering may be an unusual combination nowadays but it worked well here, especially in urban environments.  There are many references in various places to this being a compact modern sports car, and whilst that was not the intention, you can see how the conclusion could be drawn.

Autocar reported that the car was rock steady on a wet Swiss motorway, and that a day’s driving including the motorway work and crossing mountains passes was covered at 160 US mpg/188mpg Imperial. The regenerative braking system was also reported to make actual conventional braking a rare event, as the regeneration did much of the slowing if not the actual on demand stopping, even if the ceramic discs were noisy.

Around 30 were sold in the UK; 23 remain registered and they are now starting to appear in various museums. The Lane Museum has one, as does the UK’s National Motor Museum.

2015 marked the end of the XL1 and 1 Litre project; was this linked to the exposure of dieselgate and VW’s pivot to an electric future? The timeline fits, but I suspect it’s more complex than that. Dieselgate or not, the XL1 drivetrain was never going to meet the zero emission (as opposed to ultra-low emissions) standards, even with the plug in hybrid format. But VW had shown what could be done, and what VW could do. No one else went close. Perhaps the closest parallel is the GM EV1, but those were taken back and crushed, not placed in museums, still in use on the road and celebrated on the manufacturer’s websites.

And Herr Piech? How to summarise one of the most influential motor industry figures of the last 50 years? He was, of course, a grandson of Dr Ferdinand Porsche, and was “father” of the Le Mans winning Porsche 917 in 1969, before leaving the family firm for Audi in 1972. The Porsche family determined, to avoid rivalries, that no family member should be employed in a day-to-day operational role. At Audi, he was the engineering force behind the Quattro drivetrain and then led Audi’s drive upmarket, before assuming the role of Chairman and CEO of the entire VW Group, a position from which he created the modern VW Group. He led the acquisition of Bentley, Lamborghini and Ducati, the full integration of Skoda and SEAT, and reformation of Bugatti and the development of the Veyron, a car so dissimilar to the XL1 the relationship is almost difficult to fathom. At least, until you look at them as engineering exercises brought to the market, albeit in limited numbers, in each case a meeting a complex set of seemingly conflicting requirements.

The VW XL1 and the Bugatti Veyron – not quite twins under the skin, but I’d suggest there’s a parallel there.