As far as modern rarity goes, the Volkswagen XL1 is on the same level as the McLaren P1 and the Ferrari LaFerrari. In fact, it's actually even more rare than those two, as only 250 XL1s will be produced, while 499 LaFerraris will be prancing about and 375 P1s will be scouring tracks across the world. That's why, full disclosure, when offered the chance to review one, I practically ejector-seated out of my chair and did a Super Mario jump of joy.
Being in New York City, I've come to expect that many "test drives" are going to be whittled down to a drive around the block. That's what this was. VW had a rectangular route set up on the west side of Manhattan that went across a couple avenues, went down a street and came back. It wasn't a ton of time, but I was still able to see for what the car was like.
As I came around the corner and saw the XL1 on the street for the first time (there were actually two lined up), it was pretty surprising how out of place this thing looked. It legitimately seems like a vehicle that belongs in Minority Report. It's insanely small (it measures 153.1 x 65.6 x 45.4 in.), pod-like, and super low to the ground. I can just picture it driving itself back to its home, which happens to be a wind tunnel, snuggling up next to its wall charger and powering down for the evening.
Oh, right, if you didn't know, the XL1 is what Volkswagen claims to be the "world's most fuel-efficient production car." It's a plug-in hybrid that can get up to 261 mpg, based on European fuel cycle measurements (0.9 liters used per 100 km, with battery recharged every 100 km). It houses a two-cylinder 0.8L TDI Clean Diesel engine that makes 48 horsepower and is paired with a 27hp electric motor. All of that said, it can technically get 31 miles in pure electric mode and 310 miles on a single fill up of its 2.6-gallon tank.
Gallons and miles don't really matter, though, because this car is only being sold overseas, not in the U.S. That's why it was so funny to see a Michigan plate slapped on the boot. Talk about a tease.
Just by getting into the car, it was already an entirely novel experience. It has butterfly doors. The passenger's seat is positioned slightly behind the driver's seat. There are no mirrors, only two small screens (one on each door) that are connected to small aerodynamic cameras on the outside panels. Even the carbon-shelled seats don't lean back, only slightly forward or backward, so what you have is what you have. This was sort of a problem for my 6'2" frame, as my eyes were about even with the bottom roofline. However, even though It's a tiny car, the interior is so simple that it actually feels pretty open.
After answering questions from the numerous gawkers lining the street, it was finally time to head out onto our long journey that would take a grand total of about 13 minutes. Above all else, despite the technology and extreme look of the XL1, this is an extremely raw car. VW did everything it could to take every bit of extra weight off, dropping down to a scant 1,753 lbs. There is no power steering, there is no sound deadening, there is no extra comfort. You really feel everything in this car, which kind of gives it an old soul. But that's why it's so awesome. It's such a ludicrously extreme contrast between what you know you're driving and what you feel you're driving.
Having no power steering might seem like a pain, and it's certainly heavy, but it's not as bad as you might think. It's not like you're getting a workout while driving, it just requires a bit more effort than usual. Regarding power, the ECU in the car senses your speed and adapts based on the amount of energy you are demanding. Because I was mostly driving less than 35 mph, it switched from electric to diesel a couple times, a transition that you probably wouldn't pay attention to if it weren't for the sound -- going from silent, secret-agent mode to loud, is-there-a-boat-motor-in-the-car? mode. The engine is right behind you, and without the sound dampening, it makes for an experience you'd never expect from a modern car.
That was all heightened by the fact that you felt pretty much every bump in this thing. Its low-to-the-ground, carbon structure allows you to virtually feel the road. Even when you're stopping, the large ceramic brake discs made a loud wooshing sound that give off a palpable sensation.
As I said, I thought all of this was fantastic. I was driving one of the most technologically advanced cars in the world (I don't think I've mentioned that it has a 0.19 drag coefficient), and I was able to really get a grasp of all the mechanical parts of what made this machine so special. It's one of the most pleasantly visceral driving experiences I've had yet. That's why the low production number and $145,000 price point (moot, because they're already all sold) are a bit of a disappointing taunt. Regularly seeing this type of car on an American road is a far, far distant reality, but there's no doubt the XL1 will help drum up heavy interest.
By Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)