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April 03, 2014

Volkswagen XL1 finally in the UAE

Volkswagen XL1 finally in the UAE

Ferdinand Piëch walked into the room and said, “I want a one-litre car.” And then he walked out.

A week later he walked back in, “Right, what’s the progress?”

It was around 1999 and the order from the very top of the Volkswagen Group for a car that consumes just one litre of fuel every 100km was preposterous. Almost as preposterous as that time, also around 1999, when he walked into the room with a pencil and paper, drew up plans for the Bugatti Veyron’s 16-cylinder, 10-radiator, quad-turbo, thousand-horsepower engine and handed it to the quivering engineers. And just about each week he returned to check on the progress, and Piëch’s hypercar premiered in 2005. The year before, the most powerful production car on the market was the McLaren SLR, making about 600 horsepower. It wasn’t unlike Usain Bolt running a nine-seconds-dead 100m at the Olympics, and still finishing three seconds after some German has already towelled himself off.

“The man’s a genius,” development engineer Andreas Keller tells me, recounting these and many other anecdotes on life in Wolfsburg — the
town that grew from a pin on a map, pinned smack dab in the centre of Germany for purely strategic reasons by Adolf Hitler as the site for his People’s Car production. There was nothing there then, but now there are a quarter of a million people toiling away for Volkswagen’s cause, in some way or another.

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What Piëch wants he gets. Most of the time, anyway… His grandfather — you might know him as Ferdinand Porsche — was chums with Rudolf Hruska, who was a legendary Alfa Romeo lifer well into the Seventies, and naturally little Piëch grew up with an affinity for those red cars from across the border (Piëch, Porsche, Hruska; all Austrians). Who wouldn’t, and who hasn’t at some stage daydreamed of owning, say, an Alfa Romeo 90 Cloverleaf — sorry Alfisti; Quadrifoglio — complete with the infamous glovebox briefcase. It’s just that Piech wanted the lot; as in the whole company. This was four years ago. I imagine him walking into that fateful room: “I want to buy Alfa Romeo. See you boys next week. And have the progress report ready…”

On this rare occasion the coup failed, so to satisfy his Italian craving, Piëch’s shopping spree simply extended to Ducati with a buy-out in 2012. Keller is excited about the prospect of a lightweight two-seater car with a 195 horsepower motorcycle engine revving to 10,750rpm.

But right now we’re not relaxed enough to talk about future sportscars. Yes, he works in what he calls the ‘Future department’ but today Keller’s on babysitting duty, for me as well as the car he developed — the Volkswagen XL1 that began life in ‘The Room’, with a casual order from the don, 15 years ago…

Keller is visibly stressed. We’re about to drive the boss man’s precious one-litre car through all seven of our emirates, and we have seven hours to do it and a tank of diesel specially flown in from Germany to nourish the fickle twin-cylinder engine.

“The route is too long. Are there any uphills? What about speed bumps and road conditions, surface variations, traffic? No, can’t be done…” This comes at me as 
a verbal barrage not two seconds after we’ve exchanged greetings inside Volkswagen’s Dubai service centre. To be honest, I’ve been disarmed. Only an hour ago, at 7am, I stumbled into the wheels office to map a hasty route. I printed four copies, in colour, and handed one each to Keller, Stefan the snapper, Imran the chase car driver, and kept one on hand for myself. The route was roughly 500km, but ‘roughly’ is not in Piëch’s subordinates’ lexicon. This here in front of me is a man who had sleepless nights over individual screw and bolt weights.

Nein! We are to carry emergency supplies of diesel in jerry cans, and we are to shorten the route and all steep hills are verboten. Right. Half an hour of wrestling with the chase car’s (our long-terming BMW 750Li’s) navigation system and we’ve managed to whittle it down to just over 300km, which means we’d barely kiss the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Fujairah.

We have Keller and the XL1 until exactly three o’clock, and with an eight o’clock start time that neatly gives us the seven hours and the coincidental angle for this story. Whether we make it with the
10 litres of fuel on board — which means it’s filled to capacity, by the way (how
nice it must be to roll to an empty diesel pump and fill ’er up for Dh37) — remains to be seen. [Ed: they’ve already seen the cover, genius].

We are half bananas, because humans share 50 per cent of their DNA with bananas. In that sense the XL1 is then more closely related to a Honda HF2622 ride-on lawnmower than a Golf. Both have diesel two-cylinder engines. But our one seats two. Just. Keller takes the first stint to familiarise me with the car and immediately we take the wrong turn from Rashidiya heading on Al Khail Road towards Hatta instead of our designated waypoint. Obviously Dubai is emirate one, and that’s already taken care of, so the next stop should be Abu Dhabi. Though not Abu Dhabi; Al Ain, which is in Abu Dhabi. Keller demonstrates remarkable capacity for jostling with the early-morning International City rush hour and eventually Imran clears the way in the Alpina towards E66 and the Al Ain road.

Keller keeps the car in zero-emissions all-electric mode. Since it’s a plug-in hybrid (the battery can be charged from any household outlet in a couple of hours) the XL1 can cover up to 50km burning no diesel. I’ve driven plenty of hybrids and plugin hybrids and the novel thing about the XL1 is that it cruises in EV mode at up to 140kph, perfect for E66. At precisely the 80km mark our exit towards Al Shuwaib comes up and we make our first stop. That’ll be Abu Dhabi ticked off the list.

I haven’t taken the wheel yet, there are five emirates to go, and already I can tell we’ll be making plenty of stops — the XL1 is loud! Its laughably narrow motorcycle-dimensioned bespoke Michelins are good at only three things — roll resistance, making an incredible racket and amplifying every painted line on the road into a speed-bump-sized disturbance. In fact, they are very good at these three things.

We take a breather and sip roadside cafeteria coffee while Keller graciously lets every startled passer-by screech to a halt and sit inside the car. In front of a rickety garage the XL1 looks like a spaceship’s landed in 1950. Keller considers everyone — regardless of what V8-engined SUV they just got out of with a bewildered expression on their face —
a potential efficiency-convert and patiently explains to each person the technological innovations of his creation.

When he catches a break while the audience exhausts their phone camera memories, Keller rattles out XL1 trivia on an oral conveyor belt — that’s the Wolfsburger in him.

“The engine was by far the hardest part of development. You can say it’s a half-cut VW 1.6-litre four-cylinder TDI. But then again, you really can’t, because it’s such a totally new development.”

The 800cc 47bhp lump sits on the rear axle, balancing weight distribution with the front-mounted battery pack. Its cooling intakes are up front, featuring electrically controlled louvres. It’s jam-packed with the 26bhp E-motor, and another EV novelty, a seven-speed double-clutch transmission, along with the ceramic brakes at the rear axle made of die-cast aluminium. Those stoppers at the back account for all the brake-force regeneration since the E-motor is right there, instead of the job being left to the bigger, front brakes. With a maximum of 140Nm of torque on tap, the XL1 will keep up with traffic from rest to 100kph in 12 seconds, although Keller reckons that to be conservative. Step on it with the gear lever down in ‘S’ and he might have a point — the diminutive size of the car means it’s easy to be fooled by 12 seconds seeming more like, say, 10. Hey look, we totally had that Yaris.

What’s more with the accelerator pedal flat I can’t help but nostalgically recall my memories of my granddad’s old Beetle, the two-pot diesel’s racket blaring a bit of 
an air-cooled tune (the engine is enveloped in carbon fibre, with properties that don’t soak up sound, instead amplifying it and echoing the rin-din-din all over the cabin). This could be the true 21st century Beetle; the People’s Car of the future.

And future it’ll have to be because right now it costs around Dh700K. But this has to start somewhere — VW is committed to internal combustion for at least the next 20 years while lowering C02 emissions to below 100g per km across the fleet. Five XL1s have been sold in the UAE already, mostly for their exotic and exclusive status as much as for the technological statement they make. One customer plans to use his daily, and Keller reckons buyers of these means also have the means to import their own designer-diesel, and advises it — his strict instructions to us were not a drop of local diesel in the XL1’s tank.

Next stop is Masafi to tick Fujairah off the list. It’s a fair way off, more than 100km, and all along it’s a nervous affair dodging SUVs with camera-phone-wielding drivers who are more concerned with UFO-spotting and photo composition than our safety. One guy follows us for 20 minutes. Some of the road surfaces along the Omani border fence threaten to shake us and the XL1 loose and so far my investigation into the dynamics of the car are relegated to emergency manoeuvres dodging camouflaged potholes.

The Hajjar mountains are out east, to our right, and I tell Keller that’s where I drive all the interesting cars wheels gets on test. He reckons we could do with some corners — with a 795kg kerb weight, 50:50 weight distribution and a low centre of gravity he’s quietly confident of the XL1’s dynamics. The best we get all day is the said potholes, winding highway esses where crosswinds threaten to send this spaceship flying, and plenty of roundabouts. Push the XL1 hard into a bend and there’s no body-roll, but those Michelins protest loudly, somehow finding a few extra decibels on hand to screech with.

The monotony of the desert roads means I spend most of the time fiddling with the different drive modes and checking out the real-time power displays, but one of the more stand-out aspects of the XL1 is how much it inherently feels like a sportscar — you lie down in it; the unassisted steering is more natural and tighter than in a GTI; it’s nervous over the tarmac with so little weight to help it grip and you could mistake the tyres’ 
performance uselessness with ‘communicative feel’. If it wasn’t so obsessed with efficiency, the XL1 would almost be a credible mini-cross between a Porsche 911 and an Audi R8, since the engine is neither in the middle nor entirely in the rear.

We merely skim Masafi before turning back towards Ajman’s Al Manama, and it’s only later that I realise Masafi is half in Fujairah and half in Ras Al Khaimah, so, er… Keller reckons we’re good, on account of he’s hungry and the tank’s half empty. A quick stop at a petrol station eatery and Keller instructs me to find a shady parking spot. “Why, is that good for the batteries?” I ask. “No, it’s good for us.”

It’s past noon and the temperature’s creeping over 30 degrees. We’ve gone less than halfway, but with the AC on its second-strongest setting it may as well be a wheezing asthmatic struggling to breathe in your face. I’d try the windows but the lightweight polycarbonates 
only open a little, generating less cooling than noise.

He offers to take the wheel again yet I’m genuinely enjoying this alien experience, the unassisted-steering and the endless coasting capability (despite the typical drivetrain drag of part-electric power) thanks to a CD of just 0.189. It’s the most aerodynamic car in the world (Toyota claims 0.25 for the Prius) and when you lift off the throttle it takes ages for the speedo needle to budge down. And like a true engineer, Keller is clueless on design: “During development we focussed so much, but only on the technical side. So the designers came in and said, ‘This is ugly’.” I reckon they did a stellar job; the XL1’s silhouette is actually beautiful, and apparently the aerodynamicists were influenced by dolphins. I name thee Flipper.

The show goes on, literally, as locals swamp us wherever we go — in Al Dhaid (Sharjah, tick…) our lack of Arabic and their non-existent English means we’re relegated to hand signals.

Everyone laughs and points at the 115/80 R15 tyres but, equally, everyone is mesmerised by this oddity mixing it with Toyota’s Abu Shanabs and Capsulas. They’re curious about the obvious — price, power, top speed, all irrelevancies when it comes to the XL1. Instead Keller and I discuss the 11kg seats, offset to accommodate the battery in front of the passenger’s outstretched feet and to avoid any man-touching — the car is 125mm narrower than a Golf, and even the mirrors have been shunned for the first time ever in a passenger car in favour of cameras and LCDs. A legislative nightmare, Keller tells us.

Apart from the deafening noise inside, I quite like the interior. It’s nice to have a loving family, since the VW Group raided its parts bin for assembly. The drive display comes from an up!, the air conditioning from a T5 van, various switches from the Passat, the Beetle lent its instruments, and the gullwing door handles are out of a Lamborghini.

That’s where any performance similarities stop. “We don’t want to go
to Formula 1. Our Formula 1 is this; the one-litre car.” Except at no point in our 200km, so far, have I made a single attempt to conserve fuel. We’re merely rolling along with the rest of the highway traffic, dodging camera madmen and ticking emirate after emirate off the list. All the while the car is on and off between using juice and charging its battery, even when you’re on the throttle and we seem to be hovering around 40 per cent capacity. In any case we’re looking good to make it back home on one tank. “You simply can’t use up more than three litres of fuel per 100km, and that’s in sport mode,” says Keller.

The best part is there’s no range anxiety. Well, there is, here, because we aren’t allowed to fill up, but technically there isn’t. The battery never dips below a 
5 per cent charge — it needs that to start up again — and you can potter about on diesel all the time anyway, never plugging the car in, if you choose. With a focus on the European market, the XL1 can survive in temperatures between -10 degrees and +40, and Keller is interested to learn from local customers what happens during our hellish summer. There are no intentions to sell in America at all, mainly because of US legislation and safety regulations.

“The scariest thing for us in development was the safety aspect of the car. But in the end we met all the crash requirements and for all the crash tests we used the same carbon-fibre monocoque.”

The entire cell weighs less than the two-pot engine, and it’s a major step towards the future — the specialist XL1 plant (they also build the Porsche Boxster under the same roof) can do 24 carbon monocoques a day, but a crucial focus for Keller and his team is development of a process for mass production of carbon-fibre components, as currently it’s a slow handcrafting method. Still, XL1 manufacture is limited to 200 units: “We can produce way more than 200 units, no problem, but anyway, word came from above and we are doing 200 and that’s it.”

Getting back to safety, I’m quite interested to know what would happen if a Patrol decided to imprint its mug into the side of Flipper. Keller says that in the case of a rollover a signal is sent to the screws and hinges and the whole door just comes off. Furthermore carbon-fibre sandwiches account for the crucial crash-structure points in key locations — it’s a layer of carbon fibre, a layer of foam, and another layer
of carbon fibre.
 A giant Oreo.

The noise, the rock-hard ride, the noise, the dodge-em games, and the noise are getting to me. I walky-talky Imran to step on it and we speed towards the big Ras Al Khaimah roundabout, before cruise-controlling down E311 towards Dubai at 140kph. Umm Al Quwain (tick) is a formality on the Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road, and Sharjah proper is a procession. Once through the needless traffic jam, Burj Khalifa looms into view. In a little over 320km we’ve ticked off all seven emirates, averaging more than 40km per litre, even if Fujairah might be up for discussion…

Flipper, by now down to 15 per cent of battery charge, creeps silently into VW’s Rashidiya service centre almost precisely seven hours since we set off. It’s only now we confirm we’ve used up exactly seven litres of diesel.

For all the impromptu roadside shows we put on for the public, we could’ve easily done it in half the time, yet for us the mission is accomplished. For Keller, it’s a long trip back to Wolfsburg, and a tense walk into ‘The Room’. Piëch no doubt wants a progress report.

Image credit: Wheels.ae



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