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Kia GT4 Stinger. (Darren Mcgee/The Globe and Mail)
Kia GT4 Stinger. (Darren Mcgee/The Globe and Mail)

Brand Strategy

Concept cars: the new reality show Add to ...

Do not dismiss concept cars as the dreamy imaginings of car designers searching for inspiration and indulging in wish-list creativity without goals, boundaries or cost constraints. Car companies do not often bother with pure dream machines, not any longer.

Concept cars such as the Nissan BladeGlider, the Kia GT4 Stinger, the Volkswagen Beetle Dune and Jaguar’s C-X17 have a mission and a purpose. Dream machines? No. The notion of a 21st-century concept car died with the great recession of 2009-2010.

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Instead, concept cars are the product of car companies operating with clear intent and financial discipline. The goal of making money is never far from an auto executive’s thoughts; therefore even the most interesting and entertaining concepts are often near to a sell-able production model.

“We make two types of concept cars,” says Andy Palmer, head of product development at Nissan Motor. “One type includes the cars that are ‘in-plan’ or under development. We use these concepts as a signal to the marketplace.”

Palmer says that with these cars, Nissan is “looking for an early reaction” from auto show visitors and media consumers and commentators. The Nissan Sport Sedan Concept, for example, is a signal of something soon to go on sale. In this case, you’re likely looking at the next-generation Nissan Maxima.

And then there’s the second type of concept.

“These are wilder,” says Palmer. “With a car like the BladeGlider, we’re testing for reaction. What we’re doing here is saying, ‘Okay, let’s reinvent the sports car. Let’s take EV [electric vehicle] technology and use the advantages that it gives you. You don’t need the engine block [up front]; you can put the electric motors in the wheels …You can take race-inspired technology and bring it to the road for the customer who loves sports cars but wants a car with a guilt-free edge.

“So concept cars allow our designers to show you a sports car of the future and yet what we’re doing here is very real, very much possible with the technology we have within Nissan.”

Car designers are serious about their art. It’s a business for them.

Jaguar design chief Ian Callum, for example, considers himself the living repository of Jaguar’s corporate history and culture, both of which are central to the models driving Jaguar’s comeback as a viable business. With every concept and production car coming out of his design house, Callum asks himself, “Is this something [Jaguar founder] Sir William Lyons would do?”

And yes, he would almost certainly approve of the C-X17 shown at last month’s Toronto auto show. That’s a concept crossover wagon with “production car” written all over it.

“The key is that it’s a Jaguar,” says Callum. “You ask if Jaguar can build a crossover. Yes, if it’s a Jaguar. This [concept] is sculptural; this is sensuous.

“And if we want to grow up in the world and become a truly global brand, this is the sort of thing we have to do. This is what people really want. So we have to put this [concept] out there and see if people will go there.”

Car companies rarely introduce a concept car without a purpose in mind and, more often than not, that purpose is to use auto show visitors as the final focus group. By the time a concept hits an auto show stand, it has been tested in countless private focus groups and undergone internal design reviews. Concept cars on offer at auto shows are a reliable signal of things to come.

And even when a concept cannot possibly morph into a production model with only modest changes, the ideas packaged in a so-called “design study” almost always speak volumes about future plans. Mazda’s Shinari concept was never intended to become a production model, but the “Kodo” design language embodied in the car is making its way into production models like the Mazda3.

This is certainly the story of Toyota’s most interesting design study in years – the FT-1 sports car. “FT” stands for “Future Toyota,” and the number “1” represents what Toyota says is “the ultimate” – as in “the ultimate expression of a Toyota coupe design.” Toyota’s designers reached into the company’s “sports coupe heritage dating back to the 2000GT, Celica, Supra, MR2 and most recently Scion FR-S.” Without question, the FT-1 hints at a future Toyota Celica Supra.

It also exists to reinforce Toyota’s ongoing effort to put an enthusiastic spin on Toyota’s image. The FT-1 is the latest expression of Toyota president Akio Toyoda’s insistence on creating new models with eye-catching designs and exhilarating performance. The FT-1 is the embodiment of what Toyoda insists are key brand values – sending the message “no more boring Toyotas.”

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