Test Drive: 2006 Volkswagen EcoRacer Concept

Here’s a car that takes some of the doom out of one doomsday scenario. If oil prices rise to heretofore unseen heights, the Volkswagen EcoRacer shows that sports cars can still be fun-even if they’re powered by a diesel engine that gets 80 mpg.

The EcoRacer uses a carbon-fiber monocoque worthy of a Formula 1 machine. The engine, mounted amidships, is an early version of a new common rail diesel due in 2007. The result is a two-seater that pushes the sports-car envelope one full step beyond the likes of Lotus, Westfield, Caterham, and Ariel. Not only does it accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and top out at 143 mph, according to VW, it also averages a miserly 80 mpg. The only reason to sniff at the EcoRacer is the scent of diesel exhaust, which adds pungence to the open-air driving experience. We took the orange-metallic head turner for a spin on the Pau Arnos circuit in the south of France.

The EcoRacer isn’t as pretty as forerunners such as the Concept R design exercise, but the hardware beneath the skin is spot-on. The weight distribution of the 1874-pound machine works out to 39/61 percent front to rear. The control-arm front suspension is made of lightweight aluminum, and the body structure can be had in three material alternatives. VW has also incorporated several production Golf parts, such as steering, brakes, rear suspension, and wheel bearings.

The engine, though, is all new. The 1.5-liter, turbocharged direct-injection, four-cylinder diesel develops 134 hp and a maximum torque of 184 lb-ft, which is available between 1900 and 3750 rpm. The particulate filter- equipped common rail turbo-diesel is mated to a six-speed, twin-clutch DSG transmission.

Unfortunately, the packaging of the most radical Volkswagen this side of the memorable one-liter car is as painful as a live act in a bondage show, both because of the belts that strap you tight to the bucket seat and because of the confined cabin space. With the roof in place, your hairstyle gets squashed flat; with the top removed, your coiffure switches to shock-headed.

The engine behind the cockpit starts at the push of a button, the gearbox responds promptly to paddle-shift inputs, and the accelerator offers instantaneous response. The cockpit layout is ultrasimple, and the shift lever meets your hand with a pleasant blend of leather and aluminum.

Although the EcoRacer is a handmade prototype, it drives as well as a preproduction car. The steering is light and eager and full of feedback. The brakes have bite and balance. The chassis bypasses the typical understeer intro and dives straight into a long, neutral dialogue with the road. Even with the stability control system switched on, there is never any doubt about which end of the car will come unstuck first. Like the Lotus Elise, this VW can play the games of turn-in and lift-off or power-on and unwind with as many variations as the driver wishes to induce. Like the , it squats and hugs the tarmac with rare tenacity when you accelerate out of a third-gear bend. And like the Renault Sport Spider, it pushes dimples into your cheeks above 60 mph. Responsive and balanced, firmly planted and light-footed, intuitive and totally pragmatic, this VW leaves a lasting impression.

There are downsides, however: The ultra-stiff ride, the cement-mixer sound track, and (with the three roof panels in place) the submarinelike visibility. But what the heck-the EcoRacer is more fun than a fleet of Golf R32s. So get your act together, Volkswagen, and figure out a way to make such a car financially feasible and more appealing cosmetically. The time is right for a fuel-sipping sports car.

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