The 2011 Frankfurt motor show's theme was clear to see: urban mobility. And while Audi and Opel brought very cool and interesting sub-car concepts, the one that deserves your greatest attention is the VW Nils.
Why? Because this isn't concept car hocus-pocus. It's the result of a VW research programme, supported by the German government, that's been running for years. Look closely and many motorshow concept cars feel very home made - you can smell the glue and spot where the paint has run. Not the Nils. It looks incredibly finished, and suspiciously ready for production. It's even been put through simulated crash testing - VW reckon you could batter this one into the back end of the proverbial bus and walk out fine.
So what is it? Hard to categorise, and not really a car, it's a 1-seat "vehicle", that weighs about a third of a regular car, is 3 metres long, just over 1-metre wide and runs on an electric battery. There's space for shopping too and - befitting of VW's attention to detail - you open the "boot" by tugging on the VW badge - just like you do on a Golf.
VW's design team have really thought about this car in the context of the city. Find yourself dozing off and fail to notice a pedestrian stepping out in front of you? Don't worry, there's a laser that detects it, that will slam on the brakes if you don't, just like on the Volvo S60 we drove last year.
You can even set the Nils to follow the car in front at a set distance and it'll automatically brake and accelerate to maintain the gap. And those huge, double gullwing doors are not only cleverly designed (made from just three pieces of material with special built-in side-impact crash protection) but they open within the footprint of the wheels. So if you can physically squeeze the Nils into a parking space, you know you can actually get out of the car.
Inside, the experience is radically different to a normal car. You sit low, and it's weird having the doors immediately either side of you. But the cockpit experience is a bit like being inside a glider, and anyone who's ever flown in one of those will know how special it feels. VW has kept the dashboard elements to a minimum, yet the Nils is still stuffed full of tech.
Behind the tiny steering wheel, there is a 7-inch TFT display, which acts as an instrument cluster. Speed is shown digitally in the middle and the battery energy flow is shown as bar elements, while another part shows the range.
Sitting to its right is an HTC Desire HD Phone. Volkswagen calls this its Portable Infotainment Device (PID), and it's similar to what it's employing in the new Up! small car. Essentially, it adds navigation, radio, media, phone and trip information functions into the car in a form that can be removed when the car is parked, and if the Nils ever makes production we'd expect the HTC to be replaced with something that's VW branded and costs a bit more than your average smartphone.
All of which might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but in a typically Volkswagen way, it's executed so beautifully and logically that once you step away from the razzmatazz of the motorshow floor, it starts to make a lot of sense.
Yes, a "car" that can seat only one might seem like madness, but when 80 per cent of commuter journeys in Europe are made alone, and with fuel costs spiralling out of control, if you have a commute of less than 30 miles each day, ask yourself if you wouldn't be up for an emissions free, tax free vehicle, which would cost less than a pound to "fuel" each day and which comes backed up by all the reassurance that V and W stuck to the front brings with it. It's an interesting proposition and we hope we'll be getting behind the wheel of a car like this, very soon.