Feature The current crop of concept cars are designed to amaze, amuse and bemuse the motoring public. Georgia Lewis runs the rule over the latest releases.
What a concept
Designing and developing concept cars is an expensive and time-consuming process but one that pretty much every automaker indulges in. Some concept cars are, frankly, ridiculous such as the Rinspeed Squba that can be driven underwater. This weird-mobile is roofless so occupants can get out of the car quickly if required but this would also mean the occupants would need to be kitted out in scuba gear. But other concept cars will end up on the production line and in garages around the world. Automakers use concept cars to test out design and technical ideas, and present the ideas to the public and the media to see if the concept has real potential to go into mass market production. When a car goes from concept to production, it doesn't usually look exactly like the fanciful model paraded at a motor show. Instead, a user-friendly, production cost-friendly version that retains the design DNA of the concept is generally what ends up in the dealerships. "Design studies serve to stimulate a close dialogue with customers and to gauge the public reaction to new ideas for cars," says Frank Bernthaler, the sales and marketing director for Mercedes-Benz Middle East.
The most headline-grabbing concept car of 2008 was the Tata Nano, unveiled at the New Delhi Auto Expo, right before the Detroit Motor Show. This cheeky launch managed to eclipse much of the attention the Detroit show otherwise would have received, being the world's most famous auto show. Tata is a wildly successful Indian car manufacturer with a dream of providing an affordable car to more families in India's growing middle class and in other developing nations. The Nano has a planned pricetag of just US$2,500 and if it goes into production, it could be a car that actually changes Indian society. While its 33bhp, 624cc engine will not have the four-door Nano breaking any land speed records, it does have the potential to get many an Indian family off the motorbike and onto four wheels.
Still, the process of going from concept to production for Nano has not been without its hiccups. In the wake of rising manufacturing costs, a global increase in fuel prices and disputes over the West Bengali land earmarked for the Nano factory, Tata's dream machine may end up costing more than originally budgeted and the original October 2008 launch date has passed. Now Tata has announced the Nano will not be manufactured at the West Bengal location and a plan B is being sought. The state of Karnataka is strongly lobbying Tata to set up the Nano factory there. Tata already has land in Dharwad, acquired in 1996 for the manufacture of earth-moving equipment.
Tata's press releases on the land dispute were upbeat and optimistic about a swift resolution between the company, the West Bengali government and opposition and the local residents until the decision to pull out of the state altogether was announced. Tata chairman Ratan Tata did not mince his words when he made the announcement, thanking the government for its support but blaming the Trinamul Congress opposition for the problems. "Despite the support of and facilitation of the state government, the great agitation from the opposition parties is the sole reason for moving out," he said. "We were caught in a political crossfire."
But Tata is a company that is known for its determination and tenacity to succeed so it would be foolish to dismiss the Nano as a concept that will never see the light of day. Here are some other concept cars that have great potential to become a production line reality in the next few years provided market forces, public opinion and economic conditions all smile upon the manufacturers.
The LRX was first unveiled to a curious posse of Middle East motoring journalists in London in November 2007. In a swanky photography studio, a satiny sheet was pulled off and a "baby Landie" was revealed. At first glance, it looked like an obvious and cooler-looking competitor to the 4x4s favoured by school run mums. Once we were allowed to get close to the LRX and sit inside, we were told there were no details as to what was under the bonnet but the team of designers were on hand to discuss the aesthetics of the vehicle in great detail. The suspended leather seats, the knife blade styling of the door handles and wing mirrors, the different coloured interior lighting depending on what mode the car was set to, the Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet appearance of the grille and the Ski Dubai-like slope of the centre console were all discussed and dissected. The first hint as to what this car's real surprise was came with the designers telling us about the fabric inside the doors being made form recycled plastic bottles, all leather being vegetable-dyed and that most of the car's materials were recyclable or re-usable.
At this year's Detroit Motor Show Motor Show, the final piece of the puzzle was unveiled with Land Rover revealing that the LRX would boast an advanced hybrid diesel-electric engine that is capable of using biofuels and does an impressive 60 miles to the gallon. At low speeds, the car can be driven as a fully electric model and will have off-road capabilities. It is Land Rover's first real foray into green technology in its vehicles which have a reputation for being super-reliable, sturdy off-roaders but not necessarily eco-machines.
When will we see it? The LRX is expected to go on sale in 2009 but it is uncertain as to when it will be rolled out in the Middle East. Will it sell in the UAE? With the popularity of small 4x4s in the region, the LRX can expect to do well especially as it is blessed with striking good looks that will appeal to this country's image-conscious auto market. The engine's green credentials are impressive but whether there will be a market for such an engine in this petrol-mad region remains to be seen. Still, if Dubai Taxis can run a trial of hybrid vehicles with GM then anything is possible - but the infrastructure for refuelling hybrids will need to become widespread if more hybrid vehicles are to succeed here.
The very name of this concept car sounds so friendly and adorable and that's pretty much what the powers-that-be at GEM, a Chrysler company, have in mind. In a big, green marketing push, GEM now stands for GreenEcoMobility and the company has already made 38,000 zero-emission cars. The concept version of the Peapod, their newest fully electric car, was unveiled at GEM's Auburn Hills Michigan headquarters in September and is the first in what the company hopes is a long line of new-generation, fully electric, zero- emission cars. There are also plans for an electric commercial truck and a bigger electric car with more range and better performance than the Peapod. The Peapod only has a top speed of 40km/h and a range of 48km per charge which is not likely to blow anyone's socks off but it can be recharged at any time at a standard 110-volt outlet with a recharge time of six to eight hours. It is street-legal in 40 US states.
The styling of the Peapod is definitely eye-catching - like the name suggests, it's a small car shaped like a pod. The little round headlamps and curved grille gives the front of the car a look that's reminiscent of the smiley face T-shirt and there's an additional cheeky smile on the rear bumper. The cute and curvy lines continue on the side of the car with no sharp edges to be seen on the doors. It's a soft, fluffy, uber-sweet looking car that will draw cries of "Oh, isn't it cute?" but the GEM head honchos are quite serious about the Peapod, for all its gimmickry, is part of the company's bigger mission.
"These vehicles use no gasoline and emit no pollutants," says Peter Arnell, Chrysler's Chief Innovation Officer and leader of the Peapod's design. "So whether it's a trip around the neighbourhood or the drive to school or work, the Peapod is the ideal way to contribute to a greener planet." High optimism indeed. When will we see it? The Peapod will be on sale in 2009. Will it sell in the UAE? It is doubtful that a car that only do 40km/h will ever take off in the UAE with speed limits of 60 and 80 being commonplace in city neighbourhoods. It may be a useful little car for university campuses and golf courses but it's difficult to imagine even the most eco-conscious driver being keen to take on the Corniche with such a sluggardly top speed. Still, GEM does have plans to launch a bigger, more powerful electric car with a greater range - if that one comes to the Middle East, it might suit the needs of wannabe green commuters.
Mini has jumped on the crossover bandwagon with the Crossover Concept. Launched at the Paris Motor Show in October, it proves that not even a marque with a name that means "small" is immune from wanting to make something a little bit bigger. The Crossover is the fourth body type in the new generation of BMW-owned Minis with the two-door hatch, the convertible and the Clubman with the barn-style rear doors already on the market in the UAE. It is more than four metres long, has four single seats and it sits up a little higher than other Mini models.
The entire middle length of the car has underdone a radical design makeover with the centre rail that extends from the dash to the tailgate. Along this rail are entertainment and communication devices, cup holders and storage units that can be moved up and down the length of the car. It looks a bit like a sushi train inside the car. On the dash itself is a centre globe - as the name suggests, it's a globular central display unit to control entertainment, communication, navigation and the basic car functions. It may take a bit of getting used to for some drivers but it cannot be denied that it looks rather cool. Under the bonnet is a 1.6L, four-cylinder engine that was developed in a joint venture between BMW and PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Other design details include genuine wood trim and hardened, romantic-sounding "lagoon-blue" glass in the door linings and the surrounds on the air vents. Mini is making no apology for deviating from the small car platforms that have been part and parcel of the Mini's success. "The concept car features many of the typical Mini characteristics such as the unique, emotional design, inside and out," says Phil Horton, the managing director of the BMW Group Middle East.
When will we see it?At this stage, the Mini Crossover is slated for a 2010 production date. Will it sell in the UAE? The new generation of Minis has sold reasonably well in the 4x4-mad UAE. In 2007, 612 Minis were sold and 329 have already been sold in the first half of 2008. While some purists may view the new BMW-made line of Minis as overpriced and deviating too far from Mini's humbler origins as small, economical-to-run, cheap-to-buy runabouts, that doesn't seem to be an issue out here where it's all about image. A Mini that still looks cute but offers a slightly higher driving position can almost certainly be expected to be a viable seller for the BMW group here.
The covers came off the Nissan Nuvu as this year's Paris Motor Show and it is part of the Japanese automaker's bid to appeal to eco-conscious urban consumers. It's an electric car that Nissan's designers hope is also practical in terms of driveability and interior space. As well as being electrically powered - something of a novelty for petrol-addicted consumers in the Middle East - the Nuvu has solar panels across the all-glass roof to generate power to the battery. To further capitalise on the relentless drive for green credentials, Nissan claims that natural, organic and recycled materials are all used within the interior.
Design-wise, it features a grille that registers wide-eyed surprise and the rooftop solar panels are described by Nissan as "leaves" but look more like the swirly shapes that Austin Powers would choose for his boudoir wallpaper. From behind, the brake lights are big loops in the rear window and there's a large expanse of metal. While Nissan describes the design as "witty", it's a look that may take a bit of getting used to. Inside, the curved lines look futuristic, the way we imagined cars of the future might look when The Jetsons was on television.
It's super-easy to drive and park, making it a great little car for getting into a parking space made tighter by guy in the SUV who can't park within the lines. The Nuvu seats three - two in the front and one in the back with the option of folding down the rear seat to make more room for luggage - or at least a few extra bags of shopping for this is won't be a car that will be commonly used for the epic drive to Salalah or a trek over to Bahrain via Saudi.
The Nuvu has a top speed of 120km/h making it a more realistic proposition for an electric highway car than the Chrysler Peapod. When will we see it? Nissan has plans to introduce the Nuvu to the US and Japan in 2010 and mass-market it globally in 2012. Will it sell in the UAE? With petrol being comically cheap here and oil still in good supply, it will be interesting to see if drivers here embrace the electrically powered Nuvu in 2012. For drivers who are not interested in off-roading and just want something for running around town, it makes sense but it could take a serious marketing campaign on the part of Nissan to educate consumers on the Nuvu's strong points. A top speed of 120km/h will not thrill speed demons but it's perfectly fine for commuting. The solar panels on the roof should appeal to the environmentalists in the region who are constantly appealing to the powers-that-be to make better use of the year-round sunshine by embracing solar power.
The curiously named Concept FASCINATION will probably have a much simpler letter-and-number name once it goes into production. Launched at the 2008 Paris Motor Show, it is an attempt by Merc's designers and engineers to fuse style, practicality and some impressive under-the-bonnet technology. The design is based largely on the E-Class models but with the sleeker lines of an elongated two-door coupe.
The absence of B-pillars on either side of the car and rhomboid double headlamps give it a dynamic look with the continuous appearance of the side windows and the flared rear fenders make the car look a bit more aggressive. Opinion among motoring journalists in Paris was divided as to whether this is a stunning car or an auto eyesore. The Concept FASCINATION retains the passenger and luggage space that the E-Class line-up is famous for and there are additional bells and whistles such as a refrigerator and humidor.
When will we see it? Not sure. At this stage, it is still a concept and there has not been any production date set. A source at Mercedes told The National that design elements of the FASCINATION may end up on other models. Will it sell in the UAE? If the UAE can, during the next few years, become better-equipped for running diesel passenger cars, there is no reason why this wouldn't do as well as other Mercedes models, if it became a production car. Mercedes has been a massive success story in the UAE and as long as the FASCINATION was marketed so consumers were made aware that is has green credentials without suffering a loss of power, it would have potential here. It will also depend on whether the public decided that the arresting design is appealing.
Saab convertibles of the future may have a sassy new roof if the Saab 9-X Air is any indication. Another Paris Motor Show reveal, Saab has dubbed the 9-X Air's new roof as a flat-folding "Canopy Top" with a wraparound "glasshouse" that incorporates the rear window. While still a two-door coupe body shape, the 9-X Air seats four adults comfortably. It is also part of Saab's push to be eco-friendly - the engine is nott big, just 1.4L, but performance and green responsibility come via a turbocharger. As a result, it puts out a fairly impressive 200hp and does 0-100 in 8.1 seconds. It is also a hybrid that can use E85 bioethanol fuel. General Motors, Saab's owners, have been active in the development on hybrid cars. Design-wise, the body has clean lines with no unnecessary frills to distract the eye and this carries on inside with a very modern, sleek interior.
When will we see it? It is strongly believed that the 9.X Air is a preview of the 9-3 convertible which is planned for production in 2011. But there is also talk that the 9-X Air will also go into production and Saab watchers are eager to see if any spy shots will emerge to confirm the rumour. Will it sell in the UAE? If the infrastructure for fuelling up hybrids and the public education campaign can convince people to let go of their petrol engines, the 9-X Air could indeed be a fine, eco-friendly way to enjoy open top motoring in the Emirates.
BMW's X-series of flash Euro SUVs have become increasingly ubiquitous on UAE roads and the X1 is the German automaker's first foray into the premium compact SUV market. The styling is unmistakably BMW with round headlamps cut off at the top and the body lines are sharp making it look less bulky than some of the SUVs of other European manufacturers. With a wheelbase of just 2.76m, it's definitely going to fit into smaller spaces than the bulkier but very popular X5 or X6 but the interior is still fairly roomy. The launch featured dizzying press material that waxed lyrical about the body design while only giving vague hints as to what might be going on under the bonnet, but there will be a range of four and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines with a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.
When will we see it? BMW intends to launch a production model within one year. Will it sell in the UAE? Most likely. It's got the height that plenty of drivers prefer for fighting traffic here, it'll have plenty of power and while it won't find much support from serious off-road enthusiasts, that doesn't really matter. The X-Series of BMWs have always been a car that's about image rather than dune-bashing. And with BMW sticking to petrol engines, there will be no need to re-educate the public on hybrids, electric cars or diesel, which is a challenge that other automakers are preparing to face here.
Audi's A1 Sportsback is a little bit compact SUV, a little bit sporty and a little bit eco-warrior. At the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, Audi revealed the A1 Metroproject quattro, a two-door city hatchback with green credibility and the A1 Sportsback, unveiled in Paris, is the chunkier, sportier, more aggressive-looking brother. The headlights stare menacingly and the grid-style grille has a touch of the South Central basketball court fencing about it but for Audi, the big story is the engine. It's a 1.4L turbocharged engine with 240Nm of torque and an addition 27hp electric motor that can deliver an extra 150Nm when you put your foot down. This hybrid powertrain may well become standard on this model in the future, but it seems that a choice of petrol or diesel engines will most likely roll out first. As well as the potential for a hybrid, the A1 Sportsback will save fuel with an automatic stop-start function and a brake energy regeneration system - these are believed to reduce energy consumption by 15 per cent. Despite the green technology, the A1 Sportsback can go from 0 to 100km/h in a relatively swift 7.9 seconds.
When will we see it? It is believed that the Audi A1 Sportsback will make its debut as a production model in 2010. Will it sell in the UAE? The petrol engine model with a turbocharged engine will be a strong contender in the UAE's ever-growing compact SUV segment.
Could it be that Lamborghini has gone all sensible on us and launched a family car? Something for mum, dad and a couple of kids in the back? The Lamborghini Estoque Concept might have four doors, room for a family, the dog and luggage and the engine may be mounted up front unlike the sportier two-door Lambo sportscars but that's where the family values end. Named after the rapier used by matadors when facing a bull, there's still plenty of room for aggression with this Paris-launched concept car. The Paris reveal was all about the design and no clue was really given as to what might power this might beast. However, it has been suggested that it could use a V10 like the one that powers the brilliant Gallardo LP 560-4 or a turbocharged V8 version of the same engine.
When will we see it? There is no production date set. Will it sell in the UAE? There is no reason why extremely wealthy UAE or Gulf residents would not be interested in taking this car for a test-drive. It offers the style that sets Lambo apart from the pack and it's a teensy bit more practical than a two-door sportscar with an engine mounted right behind your head.
Lexus, let's face it, is not the most exciting of car manufacturers. Sure, their cars are reliable, safe and nicely finished, a few luxurious steps up from the average Toyota, but they're not cars that are going to float the boat of someone who genuinely looks for loin-stirring lust in car. As such, their concept cars just look like reheated designs of models they already have on the road. But Swedish designer Jon Radbrink decided to design an eye-popping, jawdropping blade-like swathe of a car that he has christened the Lexus Nuareo. It was his final piece in a his vehicle design course at the Royal College of Art and he has aimed to "communicate ecological efficiency through an architecture inspired by aerodynamics." Lexus has not officially endorsed this car - Radbrink just took it upon himself to give the Nuareo the Lexus moniker. The resulting machine looks like the lovechild of the Batmobile and the Concorde.
When will we see it?Who knows? Will Lexus embrace the Nuareo and bankroll its development? Will it sell in the UAE? If it ever became a reality, the sheer attention-seeking style of the Nuareo would guarantee cashed-up buyers would want a piece of the action. Lexus has done very well in the UAE so if the luxury automaker were to endorse the Nuareo and put it into production, people would probably buy this crazy car.