The most thrilling concept cars now stand a better chance of being made

The Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo draws admirers at the 2014 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

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December 24, 2015 – 12:01 am ET

NEW YORK — When an automaker unveils a concept car, it’s usually a chance to talk about its own brand and focus on the car’s special, unique future.

So lately, when automakers announce their concept cars, why have they spent so much time talking about … Tesla?

This year alone, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, among others, have hinted at, whispered about, or full-on introduced all-electric conceptual models they say are meant to tackle the exceptional Tesla Model S head-on.

There are a few reasons for this.

For one, Tesla has the best buzz of any auto brand. Elon Musk’s rabble-rousing company carries the eco-friendly sheen of the future, and other automakers hope to catch some of that reflected glory. But when it comes down to it, it’s the government that’s had a huge hand in sparking this habit.

“The trend towards electrification among concept cars is due in part to the success of Tesla,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book. “More importantly, it’s from the drive to meet future fuel-economy standards. For a lot of automakers, it’s crunch time.”

In fact, the prevalence of electrified and self-driving concept cars seen in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Los Angeles is part of an even more significant trend: The very idea of a concept car has changed. No longer is it primarily a design exercise. Many of these new flights of fancy will end up becoming reality.

“Today they are more technology showcases for alternative powertrains, autonomous driving, and connectivity,” DeLorenzo said. “They’re showing off what the car can do for you, rather than just working as a style exercise.”

Nissan’s Teatro for Dayz

Concept hotbed

The Tokyo Motor Show, in particular, has long served as a concept car hotbed, though more for nonluxury brands than otherwise. Tradition at the show dictates that the zanier and more technologically advanced the concept, the better. Mazda showed the RX-Vision there; Nissan, a cubelike Teatro for Dayz; Toyota, an Alphard Hercule vehicle that looked like a Christmas package half-unwrapped; Honda, a “wander stand,” which basically is motorized assistance for walking; and Suzuki, a Mighty Deck, aka a teeny pickup.

Of course, zany, but based in reality, was always supposed to be the point of doing a concept altogether — to show off experiments that would shape the future of an automaker’s products. But more frequently in recent years, concepts were made to theorize about what the brand could do if it wanted. If it had the money. And the time. And the backing. Ah, to dream! Usually, concept cars have no hope of ever getting made.

Concept cars for decades have been a mainstay in the auto industry. They started appearing in the late 1930s with vehicles like the Buick Y-Job convertible. In the ’50s, General Motors designer Harley Earl helped popularize the idea with his traveling Motorama shows, where middle-America car buyers would gawk at such revolutionary things as the pontoon boat-shaped Cadillac Cyclone and the Pontiac Club de Mer, which was shaped like a silver iPhone with a dorsal fin.

Fast-forward 60 years, and concepts still help test the waters with potential drivers and investors, whether it’s with a new technology idea, a new styling direction, or a new philosophy on transportation.

2 types

Mazda’s latest concept, the RX-Vision.

There are two main types of concept cars. The first is the kind that’s thinly veiled as a concept but that is actually close to full production. These vehicles are a way for automakers to do some final gauging of consumer interest and last-minute tweaking of the design and underpinnings.

Examples here would be the Bentley Bentayga and Tesla Model X. And fanboys galore are still eagerly awaiting nearly-there rides like the BMW i8 Spyder, Ford GT, and Lamborghini Urus models we’ve been promised based on their concepts.

The other kind is the insane, rocket-ship concept whose cartoonish design instantly communicates it’ll never see a showroom floor. That they may never make it to actual production — even in a form altered enough to comply with federal safety and regulatory standards — is beside the point. The value here comes in generating hype. And, again, in showing off — whether or not the car is even drivable (many are not).

Of course, there can be a downside to this. Much weeping has been shared among enthusiasts and auto critics that the silver bullet-like Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo, cool Lamborghini Estoque sedan, and open-top Aston Martin CC100 Speedster Concept never reached widespread production.

“Our concept cars show in a host of details what our customers can look forward to in future production models,” said Ola Kaellenius, a member of Daimler’s board of management. Meanwhile, if the concept cars attract enough attention, they’ll get buyers through the front door to check out the ones currently for sale.

What does it take?

It usually takes an automaker about a year to develop a concept car. It can be less, though, if the idea springs from somebody as powerful as GM’s former iconoclast Chairman Bob Lutz. And it can be several years if the concept is intended from the beginning to move toward a production model.

The process involves dozens of designers and engineers, and it costs millions of dollars. Kelley Blue Book’s DeLorenzo said concept and prototype cars generally cost from $ 5 million to $ 10 million to develop as one-offs, and even more for those earmarked for later production. In that case it’s notoriously difficult to quantify the price of just the concept, since that cost is wrapped into the sum involved with the entire making of the vehicle.

“We will spend more than £3 billion ($ 4.5 billion) this year on new product creation and capital expenditure,” said Nathan Hoyt of Jaguar Land Rover. The brand has 12 major new products it will launch in 2016.

“We [are] investing more now in product development than at any other point,” said Sangyup Lee, Bentley’s head of design, who worked on the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept coupe. He declined to give specifics about what we can expect in 2016.

Other automakers, including Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Lamborghini, either declined or did not answer requests for comment about the exact amount of money they spend.

Wins and losses

What makes a concept car successful? It’s a combination of generating hype, demonstrating close-to-realistic technology, and being either feasible enough to produce or revolutionary enough to inspire. At the 1991 auto show in Tokyo, the styling and design philosophy of the Audi Avus effectively launched the retro movement that included the new Beetle, Thunderbird, PT Cruiser, and Mini Cooper.

Also in 1991, the Mercedes-Benz F100 premiered pioneering bodywork, new safety functions, and a novel seating concept, which have all trickled down to modern models. And the limo-like Maybach Landaulet certainly helped smooth the way for recent incarnations of massive überluxe sedans like, say, the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Others, like the Chrysler M80 compact pickup concept, just didn’t excite enough fans to make it to reality.

“It looked way cool and got great public reaction, but the margins were so small and it was such a big investment that Chrysler decide to pass on it,” DeLorenzo said. “They just couldn’t make any money.”

Bill Ford and Ford CEO Mark Fields with the GT supercar in Detroit last January. Said Fields: “I think people want scintillating performance with this kind of vehicle.”

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Changing the way we drive

This year’s crop — in the luxury field, at least — focuses heavily on that electrified life. Porsche’s Mission E is powered by two magnet synchronous motors that reach the equivalent of 590 horsepower and get to 60 miles per hour in about 3.5 seconds. It has an electric-only range of more than 300 miles — and Porsche has said it will eventually produce the car.

Audi’s e-Tron Quattro Concept SUV will lead a whole family of electric vehicles; it uses three electric motors and a large lithium-ion battery integrated into the floor of the passenger compartment. What’s more, its drag coefficient measures just 0.25 — a best for the SUV segment, in which figures are usually well more than 0.30. Of course, the BMW i8 Spyder electric concept car has been around since 2012, and we still haven’t seen much by way of its production.

The Mercedes F 015 Luxury in Motion research car highlights the automaker’s vision for autonomous driving.

Others, like Mercedes’s F 015 Luxury in Motion, do away completely with the idea of active driving. they seek to redefine the entire industry. That car is built like a high-end jet, and it communicates and interacts with the outside world using LED fields. It can operate either by itself or with a human driver.

The F 015 is “vital for fueling the social discourse on mobility and the design of urban habitats,” said Herbert Kohler, the head of corporate research and sustainability for Daimler. Gorden Wagener, Daimler’s vice president for design, elaborated: “We wanted to design a luxurious vehicle with a lounge-like ambience in the interior. On the exterior, it had to signal its visionary and pioneering character at first glance.”

Don’t expect to see this one on the street anytime soon, the thinking goes, but it’s nice to talk about.

Enter gamers

In fact, a third genre of concept has emerged in recent years, which may even begin to replace the totally outrageous land cars we’re used to seeing from the likes of Bugatti or Lamborghini. It’s the Gran Turismo concept — yes, the video game kind.

Bugatti, Nissan, BMW, Mini, and Aston Martin have shown us some recent greats, such as the Bugatti Vision Gran Turismo, Nissan Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo, Aston Martin DP-100 Vision Gran Turismo, and Mini Clubman Vision Gran Turismo. Even though they have a physical body, they’re drivable only in virtual reality. But they do well to counterbalance the practicality minded and driverless trend with something way more exciting.

In the auto industry today, both sides are important.

“We are going through good times right now, so we do have concepts rooted in reality, but the Gran Turismos are filling the void of those old outrageous concepts that have fallen off,” DeLorenzo said. “We get mixed signals about millennials, that they’re not interested in cars. Maybe some of the passion has cooled. But my answer to that is all these Gran Turismo concepts — they are still saying what if.”

For an expanded version of this story with more art, lists and links from Bloomberg News, click here.

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