It’s all in the concept – at least for many automotive show-goers who can’t wait to check out the latest concept vehicles that are on display at this year’s North American International Auto Show.
Nearly a dozen new ones are making their debut this year. Some, like the new Toyota FT-1, are pure fantasy, designed to stretch the minds of automotive designers and the public alike. Others, like the Acura TLX Concept, are thinly disguised production vehicles that will reach showrooms in a matter of months.
“They’re one of the best reasons to come to a show like this,” said Charlie Vogelheim, a California journalist who stuck around after the official NAIAS Media Days this week to get a second, more casual peek at some of the vehicles making their debut in Detroit.
Concept vehicles date back to the earliest years of the auto industry, some of the first developed in a bid by automotive pioneers to raise money for their fledgling ventures. General Motors’ legendary design chief, Harley Earl, introduced the 1938 Buick Y-Job, generally considered the first true concept car, in 1938. And ever since, automakers have offered up their own in an effort to tempt and tease.
The Volvo Concept XC Coupe earlier this week won the Eyes on Design Concept Award given out each year by a panel of 30 of the world’s most respected automotive chief designers.
The show car represents, “a great step forward for Volvo, but there is still the recognizable heritage” of the Swedish brand,” said Ralph Gilles, the chief judge for the Eyes on Design Awards, and the head of design for Chrysler. Other jurors described it as a “quiet, elegant statement,” and a vehicle that gives a hint at where automotive design is heading in general.
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The Volvo show car is expected to strongly influence the upcoming coupe version of the Swedish maker’s XC90 crossover-utility vehicle. And it falls into one of two distinct categories of concept vehicles, those that are close to real production vehicles that already may be in a manufacturer’s pipeline. Indeed, some so-called concept cars may be only thinly disguised. When the Acura TLX returns later this year, it’s expected to have only a few minor tweaks to its mirrors and lamps.
Other cars in this category include:
- The Mercedes-Benz S-Coupe, a soon-to-market 2-door version of the big German flagship, the S-Class sedan;
- The Audi Allroad Shooting Brake, a fancy name for a wagon-like version of the new Audi A3;
- The Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge, a more sporty version of the sedan the Japanese luxury maker launched for 2014.
The Eau Rouge, like many close-to-production concept vehicles, will help Infiniti gauge customer reaction to a new design or company direction – in this case, the idea of adding an entirely new high-performance sub-brand, similar to the BMW M line, or Mercedes’ AMG.
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Volkswagen is testing the waters with two of its own new concepts debuting in Detroit, the Beetle Dune and the Passat BlueMotion. The former is a modern interpretation of the ‘60s-era VW dune buggy, while the latter focuses on what’s under the hood, a new powertrain concept that could deliver near-hybrid mileage using gasoline power alone.
There are still, however, a fair number of what former Ford Chief Designer Jack Telnack liked to describe as “fantasies in chrome,” show cars designed to tantalize and entice. In decades past, these included the likes of General Motors’ fighter jet-inspired, double bubble-topped Firebird III.
This year, add the Toyota FT-1. There’s no plan to put the sports car concept into production, acknowledged Kevin Hunter, head of the maker’s California-based CALTY design studio. But it is “emblematic” of the more “passionate” design direction the maker plans to take with its mainstream models going forward.
Other concepts in the wild and wacky category this year include:
- The Kia GT4 Stinger, a 2+2 sports car prototype intended to enhance the public’s perception of a brand long known for building cheap, dull vehicles;
- The Honda FCEV, a hydrogen-powered sedan that might have been developed for a sci-fi movie like Bladerunner; and
- The Cadillac Elmiraj, a stunning, long-nosed luxury coupe.
Even here, the Elmiraj, Stinger and FCEV are intended to telegraph that something significant is in the works. Cadillac is working up a variety of ideas for a new flagship model and the big coupe just might be among the options. And a more conventional take on the FCEV will appear a year from now when Honda launches its new fuel-cell vehicle.
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So, even if you’re attracted to some of the more extreme concept vehicles, don’t give up hope. What you see may yet be what you get in your local showroom sometime in the not-too-distant future.
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