Lifestyle

Driving the Ford Interceptor Concept


First unveiled in January at the Detroit motor show, Ford's "four-door Mustang" is a concept that should become reality

You hear it well before you see it; the deep, throttling burble of a big V-8, barely at idle, like a startled stallion ready to run.

The metaphor is fitting for the Ford Interceptor, the striking, four-door concept vehicle that has been called "the four-door Mustang." First unveiled at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, last January, the Interceptor has been working its way across the country, but now, with auto show season winding down, Ford put it to pasture, so to speak, making it available - along with two other, recent concept vehicles - for TheCarConnection.com to drive.

It's not uncommon for some manufacturers to make these show cars available, though it's a bit more unusual for Ford, so we jumped at the chance to take a spin around the automaker's Dearborn ( Michigan ) Proving Grounds in not only the Interceptor, but also the strikingly stylish Lincoln MKR and Ford Airstream show cars.

"When you see a car outside and moving, it's a completely different look from what you see on the show stand," suggested Peter Horbury, Ford's North American design director, who accompanied us as we checked out the one-of-a-kind machines.

Each of the three fills a different role for Ford, but collectively, they run from the probable to the highly unlikely. The bulbous Airstream fits the latter description. To borrow the words of former, longtime Ford design boss Jack Telnack, the RV-like van is little more than a "wet dream in chrome."

"In the future, we have to go in a different direction," cautioned Horbury, adding that "especially with tight budgets," Ford can no longer afford many of these wild and wacky concepts. "We're not going to waste time and money showing something that has no chance of being put into production."

So, don't be surprised the see both Interceptor and MKR resurface, even if it's just the influence of their dramatic lines showing up on future Ford brand and Lincoln products.

This chopped four-door is designed to "celebrate the best of American muscle," said Horbury. It also shows how you can take the iconic Mustang and make it just a bit more practical.

We could hear the roar of Interceptor's 400-horsepower Ford Racing 5.0-liter Cammer V-8 - which is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox - even before it rounded the corner at the Dearborn track and emerged from behind a grassy knoll.

Yet it's hard to prepare for the dramatic impact of the brutish sedan. Our first glimpse revealed an oversized version of the chromed, three-crossbar grille that has become a central element in Ford's newest designs. Rigidly upright, the nose sharply angles into the hood, both opening, clamshell-style. The hood actually forms a massive V, wrapping around the fixed cladding atop Interceptor's shaker-style powertrain.

Critics have compared the Interceptor to Chrysler's popular 300 sedan and there's a bit of truth to that. Interceptor also boasts a chopped, hotrod-style greenhouse that gives it a bit of a customized look - and enhances its menacing stance. The upper body is offset by unusually broad shoulders, another striking element we'd like to see in future Fords.

And we just may, according to Horbury, who says the approach is "entirely feasible," though likely in less exaggerated form. "Even a shoulder two-thirds the size would look pretty dramatic."

There've been plenty of rumors about Interceptor's future, though with tough new, federal fuel economy rules a virtual certainty, is there any logic to building a car like this, the antithesis to what Horbury impish calls the Toyota Pious? There are still plenty of people who remain connected to the car as "more than just transport," he argues.

2007 Ford Interceptor ConceptOn the show stand, Ford claimed Interceptor would be fueled by renewable E85. Of course, it wouldn't hurt to offer alternative powertrains, either, perhaps a hybrid-electric tweaked to emphasize performance, or one of the high-performance diesels some Ford insiders are championing. And then there's the upcoming TwinForce V-6, which Ford claims will deliver V-8-like performance and excellent mileage.

After driving the big Cammer engine, it would be hard to accept anything else, though. We had relatively little time behind the wheel, not surprising considering the way show cars are cobbled together. But there was no question this muscle car would love to launch off the line with tires squealing. We can only hope to get our hands on a production version someday soon.

With its long, round shape and the orange accents framing each window, the Airstream looks a bit like the Oscar Meyer-mobile. The formal explanation for this distinctly oddball design is that, in Horbury's words, "brings together the company that put America on the road and the company that let them stay there."

There are some practical elements to this show car. As Ford has learned all too well, minivans are the most anti-emotional of automotive designs. The company is abandoning its traditional model, the unloved and unlovely Freestar, and going with a more distinctive "people mover" design, the soon-to-launch Flex, which is itself a production version of the popular Fairlane concept vehicle.

Don't expect to see Airstream on a Ford assembly line, concedes the company's advance design chief, Freeman Thomas, but some styling elements could influence future people movers. The unusual swing doors, up front, and the tall, rear barn doors, are good examples.

The rear two-thirds of the passenger compartment, meanwhile, abandon the classic row-upon-row minivan orientation. Instead, Airstream passengers sit in a sort of mobile living room, with a unabashedly bidarre, circular, high-definition video, er, device, as its centerpiece. It could serve as a fireplace, TV monitor or videogame console, apparently.

Oddly, while Airstream was designed to explore ways to enhance minivan styling and functionality, it features two of the most inaccessible front seats we've ever struggled to experience. The driver has to climb up on a running board and sort of flop into the sort of deep bucket seat popular when Andy Warhol was doing Campbell Soup cans - all the while squeezing under the steering wheel. Worse, the power door, we were warned, could suddenly decide to close on our extremities if we didn't move quickly enough.

Our brief drive was enhanced by Airstream's massive forward glass space, though rear visibility was severely limited. Instead, the traditional mirrors were replaced by rear-facing cameras that displayed on a large LCD popping out of the center stack.

Interesting, but this concept has about as much chance of seeing mass production as the Wienermobile.

Okay, let's get this out of the way immediately: Ford corporate planners, puh-leeze give up on the silly naming strategy for Lincoln products. We don't care if family heir Elena Ford likes the idea, no one else does, and even some Lincoln owners we know forget the name of the models they have.

With a better badge, the MKR would be home run, an absolute must-have in the lineup, and even now, it comes close. Unfortunately, it appears Ford is not planning to build this trick sedan, with its classic, suicide rear doors. We'll have to settle for seeing it strongly influence future models from this seriously ailing luxury brand.

Pulling up to our start station, the first impression is of what Horbury calls the "Bow Wave" grille. The folks who actually penned this concept prefer the less colorful "split grille," but whatever you call it, the look was borrowed from the original Lincoln Zephyr, a highly influential design that long kept the brand afloat.

The chamfer line - the chromed shoulder, if you prefer - rides high, creating a chopped look not unlike that of the Ford Interceptor concept. Proportionately, MKR is 2/3 body and 1/3 glass, very much like another Lincoln classic, the wildly popular 1962. Then there's the cantilevered C-, or rear pillar, intentionally evocative of the late '80s Marks, the last really successful members of that breed. And like many classic Lincolns , the MKR makes plentiful, if tasteful use of chrome accents.

Some readers might, at this point, hold their noses and declare, derisively, "Oh, no, another Ford retromobile," but somehow, it's anything but when it all comes together.

"We didn't want to make it a retrospective," designer Gordon Platto asserted. Though Lincoln is intentionally seeking to revive classic cues, like the bow wave grille, he added, "We wanted to make it very modern." Intention was underscored by more current cues, including the lack of protruding bumpers, as well as the full-length glass roof, with the Lincoln emblem molded in.

Sadly, as we slipped into the MKR, we noticed some duct tape wrapped around the door and B-pillar. A previous driver had forgotten the first rule of driving a concept car: things fall apart, in this case, an aggressively slammed door wouldn't stay shut. And as we wound our way around the Ford track, the portal kept popping open. Considering the concept's lack of air conditioning, that wasn't an entirely bad thing on a 98-degree day, by the way, but it did make it a little more difficult to really get a feel for how the MKR drives.

But it felt great to sit in, with the lavishly finished instrument panel, the panoramic glass roof and the center console sweeping the full length of the cockpit. In an era when luxury cars are beginning to look more and more alike, outside and in, Lincoln may be onto something here. The MKR simply needs to find a place in the line-up, and soon.

Intriguingly, it wouldn't require much of a stretch, in key areas. Like Interceptor, MKR borrows liberally from the Mustang, here using a platform that has been stretched 6 inches, most of that used to provide a truly functional rear seat.

Ford, if you're listening, you've got two winners here and a third concept good for some entertainment value. Maybe it's time to be thinking about market potential. We'd bet there'd be plenty of opportunities for Interceptor and MKR.


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