The lean, the mean & the green: three electric supercars put to the test

Stuff’s steeliest pilots whizz from coast to coast to find out which of the new eco-supercars is the most future-friendly
Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed

It began as a noble endeavour: drive three practical electric cars from coast to coast, and put everyone’s range anxiety at ease.

Then we looked at which cars to take, and we realised we didn’t just want to save the planet: we wanted to zoom around it in a fleet of next-gen dream machines that outpace their old gas-guzzling forebears on a whiff of petrol and a gulp of lightning.

So, we rounded up three different approaches to the eco supercar – the BMW i8 hybrid supercar, Volkswagen’s retro-futuristic XL1 hybrid and the all-electric Tesla Model S – for a low-carbon cruise across England’s middle. 

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Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed

STARTWeston-super-Mare, birthplace of John Cleese (whose family name was originally Cheese) and gateway to the Bristol Channel.

Stop 1Cheddar Gorge, birthplace of actual cheese and a number of goats. The goats seemed particularly interested in nibbling the white paint from the middle of the road.

Stop 2Tilshead, on Salisbury Plain. Londis sandwiches all round.

Stop 3Clacket Lane Services, M25, home to a high-voltage charging point that put enough sparks in the Tesla to take it all the way to Whitstable. 

FINISHWhitstable: oysters (hmm…), fish and chips (better!) and England’s largest village green.

Tesla Model S P85 (£69,000)

Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed

The i8 and XL1 are cheat cars. They’ll run forever because they run on petrol. Admittedly a much smaller amount of petrol than the average car, but everyone knows petrol’s going to cost £450 per teaspoon soon. When that happens, batteries will be the only way to power your car, and the i8 and XL1 have got about as much battery power as a Sony Walkman.

It’s a big ’un The Tesla’s different. This thing has a massive 85kWh battery that it reckons is good for 312 miles. It may look less radical than the other two, but underneath it’s a technological marvel, and arguably represents the true future of motoring.

And boy is it big. Nerve-rackingly so when your first experience of it involves the close confines of the labyrinthine Westfield. The 720p feed from the parking camera that’s fed to the ginormous screen in the centre console does come in handy for reversing, though.

Driver specs

Last car owned: Honda Civic Type R

Fuel: Lucozade, Cornish pasty

Favourite UK road: A939 near Tomintoul

Driving hero: Jean-Luc Picard

Tech specs: Power: 85kWh battery • Top speed: 130mph, 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds • Weight: 2100kg • Claimed fuel efficiency: infinite (but a 312-mile range per charge)

Volkswagen XL1 (£98,000)

Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed

Choosing a Tesla or an i8 for this challenge is like using a fork to eat a bowl of soup: frustrating and wasteful. That’s why I parked my behind into the driver’s seat of the VW XL1 – a concept come to life that Volkswagen claims is the most fuel-efficient hybrid available. How could I possibly be beaten? 

Cut ’n’ shutThe XL1 looks like two cars stuck together. I like to think the squared-off rear end makes it look like Ferrari’s ‘Breadvan’ 250 GT but in all honesty it’s probably more like a futuristic hearse, albeit one with only enough space for a generously sized dog.

It accelerates a bit like one too (a hearse, not a dead dog) but with everything about it designed to reduce drag and extend its range – from the covered rear wheels and compressed cardboard interior to the lack of power steering – the XL1 is clearly all about efficiency, not power or luxury. It even eschews airflow-disrupting wing mirrors for cameras. Only the i8’s head-up display is more sci-fi than that.

Driver specs

Last car owned: Toyota Corolla GL Executive

Fuel: Beefeater mixed grill and a banoffee sundae

Favourite UK road: A272

Driving hero: Inspector Clouseau

Tech specs: Power: 800cc diesel plus 20KW electric • Top speed: 99mph, 0-60mph in 12.5 seconds • Weight: 795kg • 313mpg

BMW i8 (£95,000)

Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed

There are plenty of examples of clever, bespoke technology that make the i8 a singularly brilliant car, but the most important thing is this: it looks like the Batmobile. Driving it is like walking through a busy shopping centre with a levitating clockwork monkey made of gold: everyone wants to know what that expensive-looking thing is. Cars slow down and speed up to be alongside it, usually with a phone held to the window. 

Goat-bothererThe i8 doesn’t just look like the Batmobile; it also moves like it’s just emerged from a cave through a waterfall. While Cheddar Gorge’s population of goats dawdled in front of every other car on the road, for the i8 they stepped aside – partly because it looks like it might eat them, and partly because of the noise it makes. When you push it out of its near-silent electric roll, the i8 leaps forward with a cackle-inducing robot growl that is one of the most satisfying noises in the world. 

Our second stop, a deserted bit of road somewhere in Somershire or Borset or something, was a good 50 miles of mini-roundabouts and country lanes away. After a bit of mucking about with the sat-nav, I was guided by easily the best heads-up display I’ve seen in a car: directions and speed limits are projected onto the windscreen, floating steadily in your field of view. While naturally I observed the rules of the road, I arrived at our next rendezvous with time to buy and consume a chicken sandwich and a 250ml bottle of chocolate milk before the next car turned up. 

Driver specs

Last car owned Vauxhall Astra 1.4

Fuel: Coffee, beef crisps

Favourite UK road: B3212

Driving hero: Michael Knight

Tech specs: Power: 357bhp • Top speed: 155mph, 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds • Weight: 1785kg • 134.5mpg

The Winner - Volkswagen XL1

Best electric cars test - BMW i8, Volkswagen XL1, Tesla Model S reviewed
The lean, the mean  & the green: electric car supertest

We’d be foolish to suggest that the XL1 offered more visceral, foot-down driving excitement than either the Tesla or the BMW, but this test was all about making it across the country in the most efficient way possible – and considering the Model S couldn’t manage it without lengthy recharging and the i8’s 40mpg average is about as eco-friendly as a heavy smoker coughing in a kitten’s face, the VW almost wins by default. 

In terms of space it’s pretty much equal to the BMW, while the Tesla’s seven seats mean nothing if your answer to “Are we nearly there yet?” always has to be: “We just have to stop again to charge it.” 

For an all-electric car to be practical for a journey like this we need more fast chargers at the roadside – not those that take eight hours to hit 100%, but something that brings charging an electric car in line with filling a tank of petrol. 

We got an average of 133mpg from the XL1. That’s some way off the claimed figure but we spent most of the journey driving it like any other car. With a few new habits we reckon we’d have it comfortably over 200mpg.

Just add a couple more seats and this would be the ultimate green machine.

Photography by James Lipman

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