When a manufacturer builds a sports-oriented car, it’s generally accepted that there will be a trade-off for greater performance in the form of weaker fuel economy. This is not to say it’s impossible to achieve reasonable mileage from a sporty car, but it’s rare that it is a priority in the designing of the vehicle. In 2005, in an attempt to combine both performance and eco-friendliness, Volkswagen set about designing a concept car that was capable in both fields: the result of this was the EcoRacer.
Unveiled to the public at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005, the EcoRacer was a small, rear-wheel drive two-seater sports car. The Volkswagen Group had previously built ultra-economical cars in the form of the VW Lupo 3L and Audi A2 3L, but both were restricted in their success by their high costs. For the EcoRacer, the aim was to match the economy of these cars while providing an exciting driving experience that could justify a higher price. The EcoRacer was also used as a method of promoting VW’s diesel engines in a period where they were immensely popular: something that seems a rather distant memory in the present day.
To achieve the intended fuel economy the EcoRacer was powered by a 1.5 litre diesel, turbocharged four-cylinder, which was mid-mounted. It produced 136hp and 184lb-ft of torque, while also managing to achieve an average fuel consumption rating of 83mpg. The EcoRacer also featured a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission which, in its economy mode, helped contribute to that fuel mileage. Despite the less than earth-shattering power output, the EcoRacer could achieve a 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds and reached a top speed of around 140mph. This was largely thanks to the impressive 850kg kerb weight of the car. A carbon fibre tub was used in the construction of the EcoRacer, and many of the body panels were also made of carbon fibre, which made this weight possible.
Much of the running gear for the EcoRacer was borrowed from other VW models. The rear suspension and steering rack were lifted from the contemporary Golf, and the brakes were also taken from the parts bin. The double-wishbone front suspension was specially designed for the EcoRacer however, and the Golf-sourced rear suspension was tweaked for its new purpose. Testing was carried out at the Nürburgring to develop the suspension set-up for the car, which helped establish that the EcoRacer was indeed intended to be a proper sports car. The tyres fitted to the vehicle were a little more compromising however: 175mm-width in the front and 225mm in the rear were somewhat small, however these did contribute to boosting the fuel economy of the car.
The interior design of the EcoRacer was fairly simple on the most part, with a large amount of bare carbon fibre visible. There was no traditional gauge cluster fitted, with a large digital display instead being implemented. This display featured the usual gauge cluster information, as well as all of the infotainment features and the navigation system. One of the more interesting features of the system was the ability to tailor the car’s settings for different drivers. The power output and top speed of the EcoRacer could be limited, and driver aids could be forced on if the car was being driven by a less experienced driver. Other features of the car included LED headlights and taillights, keyless entry, and an electronic handbrake, borrowed from the Passat.
Alongside the unique choice of power-plant, the other key distinctive feature of the EcoRacer was its removable bodywork. Essentially, the car could have three different main body styles. By default, the EcoRacer was a coupe: in this style the hatch panel behind the rear window could be removed to achieve an alternate coupe style. In the coupe form, there were flaps on both sides of the roof that would automatically raise when the doors were opened to make entering and exiting the vehicle easier. The roof could also be removed to turn the car into a roadster, and the entire windscreen and A-pillars could be removed and replaced with a smaller screen to turn the EcoRacer into a proper speedster. This configurability has been seen in other cars (the Citroën C3 Pluriel springs to mind), but it did help contribute to the quirkiness of the EcoRacer.
After its appearance at the Tokyo Motor Show, journalists from across the world were invited to test the EcoRacer on track. It was generally received positively, with its handling particularly praised and reportedly not that far off the level of a Lotus Elise. However, the EcoRacer was never really intended for production. It would have been very difficult to produce it at a price point where it could actually sell in decent numbers, and so it was instead used primarily as a research vehicle. Despite this, it was still an interesting experiment to create a diesel sports car, and is something we will almost certainly never see again.