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Concept cars go from expensive toys to on-the-road favorites

How many times have you seen fashion-show photos and wondered who the heck would buy those outrageous-looking clothes?

The truth is, those wacky wardrobes aren't sewn to be sold. Instead, they're created to catch the eye and to preview fashion trends -- how short skirts are going to go and what fabrics and colors will be popular over the next couple of years.

In the automobile industry, concept cars provide a similar function. The amazing, confusing and sometimes ridiculous-looking vehicles are the haute couture of the wheeled world, and by studying them, you can get a good idea of what you might be driving a few years down the road.

Concept cars actually started out as fancy toys for the big boys at some of the world's largest carmakers. The first widely acknowledged concept was the 1938 Buick Y-Job, which legendary General Motors design chief Harley Earl created.

"The car was a sporty two-seat convertible that Earl used as his own personal car for several years," says Paul Duchene, a national automotive writer based in Portland, Ore.

"It never made it into mass production, but Earl considered it a design exercise, and the vertical grill lines he introduced on it remain a Buick trademark even now."

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Now, a concept car's purpose is much more important. Even the least-expensive economy car costs millions to design, build and market, so automakers want as much assurance as possible that they're building a sure thing. There are no guarantees, as the ill-fated Pontiac Aztek proved, but the car companies believe the best way to judge the marketplace is by testing out their designs and technologies.

"The carmakers like to put their concepts out there and see which ones create a buzz and which ones don't," says Duchene. "If the press and the public are really drawn toward a certain style or type of vehicle, that can have some impact on where they go from there."

Sometimes, though, a concept car proves so popular that it goes into production almost unchanged. The Chevrolet Corvette first appeared as a concept in 1953, and was such a hit that it was built almost immediately. Among the most recent show-to-showroom success stories are the Dodge Viper, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Hummer H2 and, coming soon, the futuristic-retro Ford Mustang GT.

The latest automotive predictors
So what do current concept vehicles tell us about the future? Quite a bit, actually.

Honda's HSC concept car
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At the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show in October, Honda made a big splash with its low-slung, forward-canted HSC concept car. It looked like a perfect successor to the Acura NSX sports car, and soon after the show, Honda officials confirmed that the car would go into production.

Nissan followed suit in Tokyo, where it debuted the Fuga concept vehicle. Built on the same platform that supports such models as the Nissan 350Z sports car and the Infiniti G35 coupe, the Fuga is a tall four-door sedan with lots of legroom and headroom, four-wheel steering and a plush interior. It is destined to become the next generation of the Infiniti M45, which will raise the stakes in Nissan's competition with Toyota's upscale Lexus brand.

Speaking of Lexus, General Motors hopes to reposition Buick as an upscale brand along the lines of Lexus, and its Centieme concept vehicle might play a big role in that effort.

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Buick turned to Bertone, the famous Italian auto design firm, for the Centieme, a crossover vehicle that is part luxury sedan and part SUV and likely to replace the current Rendezvous SUV.

The Centieme carries the traditional Buick grille, but is low, wide and long, and features huge wheels and brakes to handle the 400 horsepower produced by its 3.6-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine.

Pontiac G6
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Sports cars always make popular concept subjects, and the Pontiac G6 concept shows that the GM brand might soon try to attract BMW buyers.

The all-wheel-drive G6 takes a lot of its visual cues from the Pontiac Grand-Am, the vehicle it is likely to replace, but is outfitted with a supercharged 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 285 horsepower.

Judging by its racy Concept R car, Volkswagen wants to play that game, too. The zippy little Concept R looks a bit like a Porsche Boxster and is certainly no Beetle. VW officials say its 262-horsepower V6 engine can propel it from 0 to 60 mph in a tick over 5 seconds and hit a top speed in excess of 150 miles an hour.

Concept trucks dominate the other end of the spectrum, and none is potentially more important than the full-size Chevrolet Cheyenne concept pickup, as Chevy tries to keep pace with the new entries from Ford, Nissan and others in this high-profit segment. The bed in this titanic truck has been lowered deeper in the body for even more cargo capacity and to make it easier to load and unload. The tailgate can be converted into a workbench, and if walking all the way back to the back is too much of a chore, you can get into the bed via a pair of small cargo doors right behind the cab.

The Dodge Kahuna most likely will never be built, but some of the features on this fun-looking, youth-oriented minivan most surely will be integrated into future models. Among them are a retractable canvas roof that folds up like an accordion and a design that allows all the windows on the side and rear to disappear down into the body to add to the open-air feel.

Jeep Treo
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The next step in the evolution of small so-called urban vehicles might come from wilderness king Jeep. Its Treo (pronounced "trio") looks like a dune buggy from outer space, has room for only three people and specializes in hauling bicycles or other cargo in the hatchback or on the rear deck.

And Suzuki's new Mobile Terrace concept van comes with standard sliding minivan door panels on both sides plus gull wings on top to allow in even more air. On top of that, the front seats spin around to face the rear ones, and the flat-panel instrument display flips down from the dashboard in between the seats to serve as a table.

The birth of the Batmobile
As exciting as all these concept vehicles are, none could ever match the impact of the 1955 Lincoln Futura. It reigns as the most famous concept car ever built, not because of what it was but what it would become.

Inspired by the sharks he encountered on a scuba-diving trip, Lincoln Mercury chief stylist Bill Schmidt created a dream car with a gleaming full-width grille, hooded headlights and aggressive tailfins on a long and low body. The $250,000 vehicle was the hit of the big car shows in Chicago and New York, and even appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

But despite the buzz it generated, the Futura was never built, and eventually wound up in the possession of "carmaker to the stars" George Barris in Hollywood.

In 1965, ABC commissioned Barris to create a super car for its upcoming "Batman" TV series, but with one catch: He only had three weeks to produce a finished vehicle. Barris dusted off the Futura, slightly modified its nose and tail, added a bunch of bat shapes, and voila! The Batmobile quickly became one of the show's most popular features, not to mention a favorite of an entire generation of model-building kids.

John P. Holmes is a freelance writer based in Florida.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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