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What A Concept

Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

What you see just may be what you get. Or so car enthusiasts might hope after paying a visit to one of this year's upcoming auto shows. In a burst of creativity unseen since the industry's pre-war Golden Era, automakers from around the world are rolling out a compelling array of concept cars, trucks and crossover vehicles that have even the most jaded motorists wide-eyed in appreciation and anticipation.

That's no surprise, considering the competitive state of today's auto industry, where manufacturers are fighting for every point of market share. And that means a renewed focus on product, rather than gizmos and gadgets.

General Motors' legendary design chief, Harley Earl, introduced the Buick Y-Job, generally considered the first true concept car, in 1938. And ever since, automakers have used these fantasies in chrome to tempt and tease. But in contrast with the past, the more than 30 show cars that debuted at Detroit's North American International Auto Show this January were more than mere flights of fancy.

Take the G6 that had crowds waiting in line at the Pontiac stand. "It's just a thinly-disguised version of the next Grand Am," hinted GM's "car czar," Bob Lutz. And it wasn't alone. Since a surge of public support convinced Volkswagen to put the New Beetle show car into production a decade ago, manufacturers have been using auto shows to gauge reaction to new design themes and technology. "We watch very closely" how crowds react to show cars, adds CEO Carlos Ghosn of Nissan, which brought to the 2003 Detroit show a production version of the FX45 SUV that originally made its own debut in concept form.

Which of the 2003 concept crop will eventually show up at your local dealership? Like the G6, several are already slated for production. With others, it's too early to tell. But here's a guide to some of the hottest that debuted in Detroit and which you'll see more of in the months to come.

 

CADILLAC SIXTEEN

Even the auto journalists who thought they'd seen everything gasped audibly when Cadillac's sweet Sixteen took its bows. And by virtually every measure, it stole the show. Sleek, sultry, seductive, with a 1000-horsepower V-16 under the hood, it evokes the days when Cadillac had rights to bill itself "standard of the world." The Sixteen brings a warmer, more mature interpretation of the automaker's edgy new "Art & Science" design theme. It also hints at some of the high-tech hardware Caddy's ready to roll out. Despite its size and power, the 20-foot sedan with a 13.6-liter engine should get 20 mpg, more than most compact SUVs. Officially a show car, Lutz says the Sixteen "evokes" Cadillac's new, upmarket aspirations. Reading the reaction Sixteen has received, insiders say GM is already exploring ways to race this ultra-lux sedan into production -- probably at upwards of $250,000.

 

MUSTANG COUPE

Call it retro, if you will, but Ford's design director, J Mays, prefers to think of the Mustang Coupe as a "timeless statement." It's the latest forward-into-the-past product to emerge from Ford's Living Legends studio, following in the tire tracks of the popular Thunderbird roadster. From the day the Mustang debuted at the New York World's Fair in April 1964, few cars have had such an impact on popular culture. But Ford chose not to redo the original '64-1/2 'Stang, crafting instead a tasteful tribute to the 1967 edition, considered the most beautiful by most critics. This is one show car you won't have to wait long for. A production version is slated for launch early next year as an early 2005 model.

 

CHEVROLET SS

As the upcoming introductions of the Mustang and Pontiac's reborn GTO clearly illustrate, muscle is back. But in an era when even minivans are boasting 240 horsepower, it takes some real style and performance to stand out. There's no question the curvaceous Chevrolet SS succeeds. It revives one of the legendary badges from the GM's division's high-performance past, but unlike the Mustang, the SS is anything but retro. However, the SS does revive one critical muscle-car feature. The show car features a 430-horsepower, all-aluminum V-8 that powers the rear wheels. This is another car with a potentially bright future, according to sources. The body is bolted to a modified version of the Corvette platform, and one GM insider suggests "it would not be very hard to put this into production."

 

DODGE MAGNUM

The folks at Dodge prefer to call this a "cross-tourer," but it's a lot easier to say "wagon." The Magnum is not the big, wood-covered cruiser that Baby Boomers grew up with. Rather, it's more in line with the high-performance European sports wagons that are carving out a niche with import aficionados. The long nose and sleekly sloped roofline suggests power, and this Magnum opus has plenty of it. The show car features a 430-horsepower version of Chrysler's legendary Hemi V-8. Design Director Trevor Creed reveals that "eighty percent" of what you see is what you'll get when a production Magnum hits the road next year. Based on the automaker's new LX platform, it will be offered with a variety of engine options, as well as either rear- or all-wheel drive.

 

ASTON MARTIN AMV8 VANTAGE

"In the past, Aston Martin was viewed as a British eccentricity, at best, and at worst a hopeless business case," says Mark Fields, head of Ford's premier automotive group. The new AMV8 could offer reason to revise that thinking. A small, sleek two-seater expected to cost a bit over $100,000, the new coupe will go into production two years from now. If it meets expectations, AMV8 could transform Aston by more than tripling current sales, which hit a record 1,500 last year. With a 350-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-8 hidden behind its classic Aston grille, the new coupe can blaze at autobahn speeds, but designer Henrick Fiscker adds that "We really want to make this an everyday car." Look for a variety of longer, shorter, wider and almost certainly more powerful spin-offs once production starts at a new Aston plant in Gaydon, England.

 

DODGE TOMAHAWK

Over the years, Chrysler has come up with some of the oddest -- and most intriguing -- concept designs, and the Tomahawk clearly lives up to expectations. This is an absolutely over-the-top, 450-horsepower, four-wheeled motorcycle. Slip into the saddle and you'll be sitting atop a V-10 lifted from the automaker's tire-spinning Dodge Viper sports car. Only in this configuration, the vehicle is capable of launching from 0 to 60 in little more than two seconds and topping out at something north of 300 mph. That's if they could find someone capable of holding on. Chrysler President Wolfgang Bernhard is promising to have a Tomahawk ready to roll during the summer's Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, and there's also word of a limited production run, perhaps 100 copies at $250,000 each.

 

PONTIAC G6

We've already revealed the most important news: the G6 really will make it to market in the middle of 2004. But this built-for-show sedan reveals more than what the next Grand Am will look like. It's also a good indication of the broader changes sweeping through General Motors' performance division. The look is more dramatic, with none of the clumsy cladding that cluttered up the design of Pontiac's past, such as the abortive Aztek. The G6 boasts a coupe-like four-door design, a styling theme you'll be seeing from a lot of manufacturers in years to come. The swooping shape envelopes a 285-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, and its novel Displacement on Demand feature boosts fuel economy by disabling three cylinders when power demand is low. Look for that in a variety of GM production models in the near future.

MERCURY MESSENGER

Only a few years ago, former Ford CEO Jac Nasser gave serious thought to killing the Mercury brand, and it could take divine intervention to revive the troubled division. But this show car "carries the message that Mercury is back," declares Mays. With a fluid, aggressive shape, 20-inch rear wheels and a 4.5-liter V-8, this sports coupe is definitely not what you'd expect from Mercury. But that could change as part of a crash product development program aimed at transforming the lineup. For his part, Mays would only say Messenger "might" have a place in the Mercury fold. But there is serious interest in the prototype, a clear winner with the Detroit show crowd.

 

INFINITI TRIANT

The also-ran of the import luxury segment, Infiniti's gotten a jump-start with the addition of its new G35 sports coupe. Now Nissan's upmarket marque could really get in gear. With its gull-wing doors, and a decidedly distinctive interior blending classic lines with very avant materials, Triant was one of the most visually distinctive show cars in Detroit. Actually, Infiniti officials prefer to call this gull-wing, 2+2 sports coupe a "styling exercise." Whatever that means, it could become the "little brother" to the automaker's new FX45 SUV/crossover, according to Nissan insiders. On the technical side, Triant's smart suspension system is designed to adapt to road and driving conditions. It can raise or lower itself more than two inches to improve aerodynamics or increase ground clearance.

 

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes www.TheCarConnection.com.

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