In recent months, Volkswagen has toyed with different notions of the future of motoring, from green-tinted performance to overengineered efficiency. Whether fast or frugal, the brand seems particularly interested in being ahead of the curve.
In that spirit, Autobytel was invited to spend some time with some ultrarare Volkswagens at a specially prepped test course just south of downtown Los Angeles, following media days for the L.A. Auto Show.
We had the chance to drive the Volkswagen XL1 prototype, a seventh-generation Volkswagen GTI, the Design Vision GTI concept car, and one nutty Beetle.
Follow the jump for our thoughts on each car.
The first thing you notice about the futuristic Volkswagen XL1 is a pair of butterfly-style doors that flank the wedge-shaped car that seems to wear a very wide smile. Move past the styling details, however, and you're looking at what could become the most efficient production car to ever hit the streets.
The XL1 excels at exceeding perplexed expectations. Fire it up, for example, and there is no sound. The gauges do not flutter in excitement. In fact, it seemed so evident that the XL1 prototype, rumored to cost over six figures to build, was dead, that an engineer had to reassure us that it also had an electric motor -- explaining the silence and lack of revs. Oh.
The XL1 is a diesel-electric hybrid: the supposed paragon of efficiency. A tiny, 47-hp engine works with a 27-hp electric motor to move the sub-two ton XL1, which is constructed primarily of carbon fiber. On the road course, the XL1 started up in EV-only mode and only switched to the diesel engine when the kickdown foot pedal was engaged. At that switchover moment, nothing can hide the clatter of the rear-mounted diesel engine, right behind the driver's head. The seven-speed DSG operates solely as an automatic, but not to the detriment of drivers. The XL1 is about efficiency, not speed.
On the road course, the plug-in hybrid XL1 was rather light on its feet. Zero to 60 is not the metric for success, though, as the small but mighty powertrain takes its time. The rear-wheel-drive XL1 notably lacks power steering, making for a decidedly old-school experience hustling it around a track. (One journalist was even bold enough to induce a tail slide.)
The cabin is much more of a cocoon than a cockpit, with enough room for two occupants and, uh, that's about it. It is sparsely decorated, with familiar VW trim and an awesome, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The thin seats are made of lightweight materials, but do an admirable job of offering comfort and supporting the driver and passenger.
The XL1 is remarkably fun to drive, and it's a shame that Volkswagen has no current plans to sell it in the United States.
Lasting impression: If this is what the future of motoring has in store, sign us up.
Driving the Super Beetle for the first time is tantamount to one’s first time mounting a mechanical bull: You’ve heard astonishing things about the SEMA show car's ability to knock your socks off, but gaze at its rather tame exterior with some skepticism.
On the road course, the experience was rather brash, put bluntly. Selecting first gear is a difficult chore in itself, what with depressing a clutch pedal that feels more like a brick than it ought. With a light touch of the throttle, there’s enough power to get the Super Beetle going through the first several gears. Dip a little deeper, however, and a laggy turbo system suddenly spools up with enough thrust to knock you (and a happily mollified product engineer passenger) back into your seat. Grip is plentiful. The turbo boost is accompanied by a twitchy, lightning-fast jolt of forward motion. It’s a nice sensation in an open parking lot, but it might not be so welcome in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Its alarming propensity for speed is all you really remember about the Super Beetle, which began its life as a stock Bug before receiving the SEMA touch. Its matte blue exterior finish is alluring, but feels slightly cheap to the touch, although it transitions nicely into its whale-tail rear spoiler. Its wheels seem to be straight out of a customization pack from a Gran Turismo-esque video game. On top of visual changes performed to make the Super Beetle look as tough as possible, the interior remains basically stock.
Lasting impression: Cute on the outside; scary from the inside.
So obviously a Volkswagen GTI, and at the same time so obviously a concept car. With the MkVII GTI just revealed, however, what does the Design Vision GTI seek to show off about the future of the brand?
The Design Vision GTI has quite a lot to tell about the versatility of the GTI yet unavailable in North America. The striking design befits a concept car, which it is, what with more side strakes and combs than one might fit in a traditional barber shop. The wide front clip is practically screaming, while the rear profile is not dissimilar to that of the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette. The icing on the cake is a set of wheels that elevates the strong, one-piece look of the current GTI's. Overall, it looks the part.
For as put-together as the Design Vision GTI looks on the outside, the interior tells a much different story. A non-functioning dashboard, just for show, is a cool touch for a prototype, but likely won't make its way into an eventual production car.
The most impressive part about the Design Vision GTI goes far beyond its show-car looks. Its powertrain is the most stunning element. A 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 replaces the standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and produces a whopping 503 horsepower -- equivalent to more than twice the power of a stock GTI. The red, racing seatbelts and grippy front seats are a healthy indication of the power under the hood.
And that power manifested in an experience that can best be qualified as "stupid fun" on the road course. Off the line, all the power is readily available; unlike the Super Beetle, which felt laggy under hard acceleration, the Design Vision GTI was smooth throughout, if not heavy and mechanical-feeling. Unbounded by the refinement necessary for production cars, the Design Vision GTI was loud and brutish -- so much so, that heat from all parts seeped back into the cabin.
Yes, it has brakes, too, which were useful on the road course, and unlike so many concept cars, this one is a fully drivable prototype. The tremendous power from the 500+ horsepower engine seemed, at times, to overpower the chassis, but we bet that a fully fleshed-out Design Vision GTI for the road wouldn't be a bad thing at all.
Lasting impression: As concept cars go, drivability trumps durability.
In addition to the crazy Design Vision GTI concept car, Volkswagen also brought out a much more realistic vision of the future: a seventh-generation GTI hatchback tuned by partner APR. Could it stand up to the cars on display that had twice the power?