x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The world’s most economical car is a Volkswagen, but it will be highly coveted

We live in a country of consumption on an epic scale. So why is Volkswagen in Dubai showcasing the world’s most economical production car?

Just 200 models of the Volkswagen XL1 will be made. Courtesy Grayling
Just 200 models of the Volkswagen XL1 will be made. Courtesy Grayling

We live in a country of consumption on an epic scale and that’s never more apparent than when we look at the cars on our roads. While car buyers the world over get more concerned with fuel economy and low emissions, whether that’s because of an environmental conscience or simply a tightening of the purse strings, by and large these are things that do not concern the majority of us in the UAE.

So why, then, is Volkswagen in Dubai showcasing the world’s most economical production car? How could it possibly strike a chord in a marketplace where the last thing on our collective minds is saving money and natural resources? Easy: the XL1 is a limited-edition, mid-engined, carbon-fibre-constructed marvel that looks like it’s either come from some 1950s comic book or the distant future, depending on how old you are.

Yes, this is a car that you can actually buy (albeit it for an expected price of about Dh550,000). But you’ll need to be quick with your deposits because, once production is over at the end of this year, it will make a Bugatti Veyron seem positively common. Just 200 will be made and, as an example of Volkswagen’s technical and engineering might, it’s every bit the Veyron’s equal.

Keeping the car company in Dubai and guiding interested parties around its startling form is Andreas Keller, who flew in from Germany just hours before we meet. Keller was one of the engineers who worked on developing the XL1 and he shows me a short video presentation that explains some of its technical highlights, such as the carbon composite tub, its low rolling resistance and incredibly narrow tyres, its completely flat undertray, its low weight and beyond-slippery teardrop shape. It’s a distillation of its maker’s knowledge on how to make the most economical car that there is. How long, I ask him, has this project taken from conception to production?

“Sixteen years,” comes his answer and I’m flabbergasted. “It’s been through fits and starts and the physical look of the car was basically settled back in 2002, but it has been refined since then. For instance, when we spoke with potential XL1 customers, it became obvious they wanted a conventional seating arrangement [the first two design concepts featured two tandem seats], so that meant widening the structure, but we had to do so without increasing weight or reducing aerodynamic efficiency.”

The XL1 in final, production form is shorter than a VW Polo yet lower than a Porsche Boxster and it boasts a coefficient drag of 0.189 – almost half the figure of what’s generally considered acceptable. Its physical form is wider at the front than the rear and nothing is present that isn’t absolutely necessary. There are no holes in its front end, it has flat wheels and the narrower track rears are enclosed by spats. The rear mirrors are tiny cameras rather than the conventional type that we’ve seen for decades and they feed high-resolution screens in each door card.

It also weighs 795kg and that’s why the interior is a masterclass in minimalism. The emphasis here is on clean, understated design and function. It has, says Keller, air conditioning, but it’s not really powerful enough for 50°C UAE-summer heat. “It’s fine between -10°C and 40°C, though.” The seats are manually adjustable, covered in cloth and Alcantara (it weighs less than hide) and the backs are fashioned from carbon composite. And, as if the exterior wasn’t startling enough, the doors are scissor items, hinging on the A-pillars “to make getting in and out easier because of the car’s low ride height”.

The drivetrain is a plug-in hybrid system, with a battery pack and an 800cc, two-cylinder, turbo diesel engine. It takes two hours to charge the battery from flat and it will cover up to 50km on electrical power alone. Working in conjunction with the engine, the range from 10 litres of fuel is about 500km. Yep, you read that right – the XL1 consumes at a rate of 0.9 litres per 100km and emits 21g of CO2 per kilometre. All very worthy, you’ll no doubt agree, but in Dubai there’s one reason alone it will find buyers: it looks like nothing else out there.

khackett@thenational.ae

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