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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cars, adds CEO Carlos Ghosn of Nissan, which brought to the 2003 Detroit show a production version of the FX45 SUV that originally made its own debut in concept form.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


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