What is it about the Volkswagen Group that produces wild, insane, magical engineering projects like the Lamborghini Veneno, Bugatti Veyron and Porsche 918 Spyder? The 261 MPG Volkswagen XL1 isn't in the same league as those cars in terms of speed, but it's every bit as amazing. But there's one problem: Most Americans will never experience it.
Sadly, Volkswagen is only making 250 of these tiny, spaceship-like diesel hybrid two-seaters, and they're only going to sell them in Europe where they retail for about $150,000 in our currency. That's kind of a shame. Even if super eco-friendly hypermiling hybrids aren't your thing, the XL1 is fascinating from a technological standpoint.
Here's a quick refresher on the specs, in case you forgot: the XL1 is a mid-engine, two-seat, rear-wheel drive car with a an 800cc turbodiesel engine coupled to an electric motor that gets power from a 5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. It only has 74 combined horsepower and weighs 1,700 pounds thanks to carbon fiber, magnesium wheels and other lightweight materials. It also trades side mirrors for video cameras mounted in the doors.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen is taking three XLs on tour around the U.S. at the moment, and while they're extremely limited in where they can go on public roads for a variety of reasons, your Jalopnik staff talked VW into letting us all take the briefest of spins around Manhattan. Here's what we all thought of it.)
Patrick: I don't live in New York, and until this thing came along I had never even driven a car in Manhattan before. Now I can say the first car I drove in the Big Apple was a fucking Volkswagen XL1, and that's pretty neat.
You sit low in the car, and ahead of your passenger for packaging reasons. Thanks to its size, it's incredibly maneuverable in traffic, which is where I spent most of my drive, sadly. (It's New York, what did you expect?)
The car has two modes: spaceship and school bus. It hums along silently in electric mode, but when you push the seven-speed DSG selector into sport mode, the diesel engine kicks in and propels you forward at a moderate rate of speed. It's a deep, industrial, truck-like engine sound, but it's cool. The car isn't fast, but it gets the job done.
Honestly, my favorite feature was the power steering — the lack of it, specifically. Volkswagen kept the steering manual for weight saving reasons and it's awesome. The last manual steering car I drove was a 1960s BMW, and this was vastly easier to drive, but just as engaging and fun. Forget all the eco stuff for a second. Volkswagen built a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive car with manual steering. That alone makes the XL1 fantastic.
Oh yeah. I can't talk about the XL1 without talking about how people react to it. It's kind of like what Matt and I experienced in the Bugatti Veyron, but better.
Most people have no idea what the hell this thing is and they lose it when they see it. There was the woman in the Subaru Forester who rolled down her window (It took a while to figure how to do the same in the XL1, which has a hidden manual window roller) to tell me the car is "JUST ADORABLE!", or the elderly Army veteran who explained to his nephew that the rear wheels are covered "Like that old French car, the Citroën," or the man walking down the street whose reaction was priceless when I told him the car gets 261 MPG in Europe.
"It's gonna put the oil companies out of business!" he said. Well, not quite, but it can't hurt.
Zac: We probably spent 20 minutes driving the XL1 (because that's how long it takes to go two blocks during a weekday in Manhattan) and I briefly forgot I was driving something this crazy. The outside is outrageous, but in a straight line while sitting in traffic and talking to a passenger, you're staring at a gauge cluster from a Beetle with corporate HVAC knobs below a stick-on Garmin. It may look like the future, but it's still a Volkswagen. It's solid, fun-to-drive and pretty well-sorted.
Of course, you realize this after getting used to the sound of the engine behind you. It may only be an 0.8, but it sounds like a FedEx truck. Yeah, it's charming. Another strange sensation is your passenger sitting very far behind you, as there isn't much width to the thing.
You still don't want to be a large person riding in the XL1, though. I'm 5'10" on a good day and headroom isn't exactly plentiful. Getting in and out needs a how-to guide that dangles from the door handle so you don't strain any muscles if you do it wrong. Oh, and seeing headlights is a problem. In a city where drivers behind you honk if you aren't rolling into the intersection as lights turn green, you'd better bring your head lower down.
And when people ask you what it is, you have to tell them after lowering the mailbox-slot of a window BY HAND!
That just adds to the cool, though. It's such a happy car, and it makes you feel happy and as long as you're not crashing and hopping over a lumpy city street. Therefore the future is happy, but it's as easy to use as a Golf. Just stretch before you get in.
Jason: Finally, a car that works well with my silver lamé jumpsuit.
I was delighted to be in a VW with the engine behind me again, first of all. And it does look fantastic, I think — one of the few genuinely modern looking cars. Scissor doors, teardrop shape — all kinds of people were stopping to look at it, and asking me who will win the 2025 World Series.
I love the Tatra-like windowless rear, but it wouldn't kill them to stick a camera back there and another video screen where your eye normally expects an inside rear-view mirror. I know the weight-and-drag-obsessed engineer told me that there was no way in cream-filled hell they could do that, but they agreed to have aero-ruining 3D VW badges front and rear. If they managed that, they could swap those out for flush decals and give me the camera I need to not run over dogs and toddlers.
The engine bay is fascinating to look at, especially all the hot-rod style stuff like the twin hand-welded aluminum coolant tanks— they said it was too low volume to cast plastic ones, so lucky owners get these beauties.
Overall, I really like it. They need to make a version without the doors for an open T-top variant, and relax about the MPGs a bit. Also, that tiny turbocharger is adorable.
Travis: There's not much that I can add beyond what everyone else has said. It feels futuristic and common at exactly the same time. Everything is so light, thanks to the carbon fiber. What I really dug was XL1 was embossed in the trunk, not as a decoration, but to add rigidity to the structure.
Yes, great steering. What I did love are a few small details. The undertray is this felt-like fabric. The side windows are made of polycarbonate. The interior door pulls are straight off an Aventador, which is the right kind of parts sharing. The manual windows are a fantastic touch.
In NYC traffic, I did find myself pining for a rear view mirror. Unfortunately, it doesn't have one. What was also interesting is that the lens for the rear-view cameras is very wide angle, so wide angle that it can't see the edge of the car. So VW has added a virtual little cutout of where the car is. Very clever.
Truly one of the craziest cars I've had the honor of driving all year.
Raphael: In spite of the bleeding-edge diesel/hybrid technology, in spite of the carbon fiber construction, in spite of the streamliner body, the two things that really stick out when you drive the XL1 are the most ordinary things in the car: the seats and the mirrors.
The seats are staggered, so it means you can't really see your passenger.Holding a conversation means you're constantly turning around, which works in stop-and-go NYC traffic, but not really in the rest of the world. I can't imagine things are much easier for the passenger, and I'm sure the lovely PR lady next me wasn't thrilled about staring at the side of my head wile I blabbered about how cool diesel engines sound.
And the mirrors. There are none. There are little screens instead, embedded inside the doors and linked to outside cameras. You might think that if you yourself got a chance to drive an XL1, you'd spend the whole time thinking about the future or moonshot fuel efficiency. Nah. You spend the whole time double checking what's around you because the screens aren't where the mirrors are supposed to be. And the cameras can't angle down, so parallel parking is a bit of a bitch.
That's not to say that the XL1 doesn't feel like the future, or whatever other way you want to think about this colossal engineering effort condensed into one car. It's just you can't help but focus on the extremely ordinary, banal, obvious stuff.