Lifestyle

The Year Concept Cars Came On Small


Concept cars in 2007 signaled two important trends: increased fuel-efficiency and a shift of focus to overseas markets

We have seen the future, and it is small. At least it is if today's concept cars are anything to go by.

That future holds more gasoline-electric hybrids, even more crossovers, and some cars that resemble nothing on the road today. What came out of the design studios in Stuttgart; Toyota City, Minn.; Auburn Hills, Mich.; and elsewhere ranges from far-out, futuristic concepts such as Nissan Motor's (NSANY) funky Pivo 2, which can drive sideways and has a "robotic agent" residing in the dashboard, to thinly veiled production cars, like the gas-sipping Chevrolet Beat.

With gas prices through the roof, fuel-efficiency is a characteristic most of them share, although there are exceptions, such as the Concept Ocean Drive from Mercedes-Benz, which stood out simply on looks alone.

Besides their intrinsic qualities, some concept cars are also significant for where they were introduced, such as the racy BMW Concept CS, which was unveiled in China at the Shanghai Auto Show last April (BusinessWeek.com, 4/23/07). "More and more of that will be happening" as the Chinese auto market grows, says Stephanie Brinley, senior manager, product analysis, for AutoPacific. Mainland China is already a major export market for European luxury cars such as BMW (BMWG.DE), Mercedes-Benz, and even Rolls-Royce and Bentley.

Online Feedback

Closer to home, parent General Motors (GM) displayed the tiny Beat at January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit (BusinessWeek.com, 1/7/07). The Beat hatchback was one of three Chevy minicar concepts, along with the Groove, a tiny, four-door panel truck, and the Trax, a midget SUV. Following the auto show, the Beat was the most popular choice in a worldwide online poll that attracted more than 1.9 million voters over several months, according to Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager.

Chevy announced Nov. 14 at the Los Angeles Auto Show (BusinessWeek.com, 11/15/07) that its partner GM Daewoo will build the Beat in South Korea, which is expected to be an important market for the car, starting in mid-2009. Spokesman Terry Rhadigan says Chevrolet hasn't decided yet whether the Beat will be offered in the U.S. "We're going to start where there's already a mature market for this sort of car," he says.

The timing suggests that even last January plans to build the car likely were pretty far advanced. But it's possible that a strong enough negative reaction at that point could have killed the Beat, and polling consumers is a nice way to use the concept car as trial balloon.

Unexpected Combinations

Automakers also utilize concept cars to get feedback on design concepts that are further in the future. Mazda, which is a subsidiary of Ford Motor (F), showed four concept cars from November, 2006, through October, 2007, including its Nagare design concept, which is Japanese for "flow." Another example is the Hakaze concept car, which was shown at the Geneva Auto Show in March (BusinessWeek.com, 3/5/07). "This is a new design language for Mazda, and that makes it significant," says Brinley of AutoPacific.

Besides its distinctive styling, the Hakaze performs another concept car function, in that it shows how Mazda designers might combine the attributes of a couple different product segments that are not usually thought of together—in this case, a sporty car with a removable roof, with the utility and higher seating position of a small SUV. The lines between product segments are already pretty blurry. For instance, several cars on the road today—such as the Mercedes-Benz R-Class—combine the characteristics of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. But that leaves a lot of less likely combinations, such as the Hakaze.

Toyota's (TM) FT-HS, which was displayed at the Detroit show in January, is another seeming contradiction: a high-performance, gasoline-electric hybrid. But its appeal is much easier to figure out. You just want to jump in and floor it.

Click here for a look at the best concept cars of 2007.

Jim Henry is a reporter covering the automotive industry and automotive trends in BusinessWeek's New York office.

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