Volkswagen XL-1

Startling to behold – and a real taste of the future

Engine: 0.8 litres, 2 cylinders, turbocharged
Power: 67bhp n/a rpm
Torque: 89Ib ft @ n/a rpm
Transmission: seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
0-62mph: 12.7sec
Top speed: 100mph
Economy: 313mpg CO 21g/km

If I told you there was a Volkswagen that anyone could buy, but that it would cost £92,000, seat just two, fail to keep up with a Polo, be a nightmare to repair and be available only with left-hand drive, would you want one? Probably not. But what if I then told you that, all unrealistic official figures aside, if you drove the car briskly on a blend of urban and country roads and dual carriageway, it really would return a genuine 120mpg? Would that change your mind? Me neither.

But that is the proposition placed before you by the new Volkswagen XL1, a genuine, fully crash-tested production car on sale now, albeit in very limited quantities. VW said it initially planned to build 250 but made sure it had the capacity for 5000. Now it is “95 per cent certain” that just 250 will make it into production and, given that the largest single group of customers are museums and that an unspecified number remain unsold despite vast publicity, you can see why.

But whether a car with 67bhp could ever be worth a £92,000 price tag is hardly the point. The sensible way to look at the XL1 is as a test bed that VW is placing into the public arena so it can test in real time with real people living real lives on real roads. It will then take its myriad technologies forward into cars you and I can afford.

These include a carbon fibre-reinforced monocoque, its tiny 800cc, two-cylinder diesel engine, associated hybrid electric drive and many refinements incorporated to minimise aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance.

The car is as extraordinary as it looks. It is by a vast margin the most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly car in production. It has a drag coefficient of below 0.19 and, if you believe the official blurb, will do 313mpg or, to quote the official target, require less than one litre of fuel to cover 100km. It weighs just 795kg, or less than a Lotus Elise. And while it might not do 313mpg in normal driving, 200mpg is achievable if you’re gentle.

To drive it is oddly entertaining. Once you’ve slid past the carbon gullwing door and fallen into your carbon seat, the inside is actually reassuringly normal, save for the rear-facing cameras in the door skins that replace the exterior mirrors. As the car is little more than a metre high, the driving position is reclined, but it takes all 6ft 4in of me easily enough. To get going you just press the start button, select drive and squeeze the throttle whereupon the electric motor will glide you silently forward. With barely any weight at all on the front wheels and a 115/80 section front tyre, the XL1 neither needs nor has power steering.

It’s quick enough to keep up with the traffic even just using batteries, happily zinging along at 60mph. Its shape is so efficient it requires fewer than 8bhp to maintain that speed. Take your foot off the accelerator and it barely slows at all, so even on the flat you can coast for what seems like miles. On a twisty road it even handles reasonably well.

It’s let down by the uncouth nature of the diesel when it cuts in, the lack of over-the-shoulder visibility and limited luggage space, but what more can you expect from a mobile laboratory?

So should you rush to be one of the 250? I wouldn’t, but wait with interest to see how much of its technology makes it into the mainstream and when. My bet is a lot, and soon.