Car Design

The Coolest Concept Cars of 2009


The concept car—it's as much a part of automotive tradition as racing or girly calendars. Each year, car companies do a little peacock strut, showing off their design skills to each other and the auto-show tribes. The prototype vehicles give engineers and designers a chance to experiment with new visual languages, gauge customer reactions to new features and models—and chase their wildest car dreams.

This year's crop of concept cars runs the gamut. The vehicles range from cheap and practical to outlandish and extravagant. Most will never be mass-produced. In fact, concept cars rarely make it to market. You can bet, however, that certain aspects of these vehicles will be incorporated into future offerings. In effect, these prototypes are a window into the automotive future.

Take the Scion iQ (TM). It was released to much fanfare at the New York Auto Show in April. The car is a souped-up Toyota iQ, a brisk-selling model in Japan. It sports pushed-out wheels and fenders, a funky front end, and trippy hatchback. Since its debut, unidentified sources told Motor Trend that Toyota Motor will, indeed, produce the car in the U.S., but in a toned-down version. The three-seater, which gets around 53 mpg, is also expected to be an inch and a half longer and six inches shorter.

All ElectricNissan's Leaf (NSANY), introduced on Aug. 2 at the company's new headquarters in Yokohama, is nearly identical to the production model slated for late 2010. It's meant be the first mass-produced, all-electric vehicle marketed in the U.S. The midsize hatchback will seat five, top out at 90 mph, and run 100 miles between battery charges. When the car hits showrooms, experts predict, the only features missing from the prototype will be its unique paint job and high-end interior.

And then there are the concept cars you will never, ever see on the road. The Cadillac World Thorium Fuel Concept, aptly nicknamed the WTF, is beyond conventional description: 24 tires, a grille as wide as the car's Stealth-bomber body, and an engine that's nuclear powered.

Harley J. Earl, who created the first concept car in 1938 (the Buick Y Job), once said: "As in the case of the automobile, mechanical improvements, too, have contributed to improved appearance. In fact, it is rather an accepted principle that as a product is improved functionally, it tends to become better artistically." He wouldn't be disappointed today.

See 20 of the Coolest Concept Cars of 2009.
Joseph is an innovation and design writer for BusinessWeek.

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