According to an old Japanese proverb, the biggest risk is to take no risk at all.
For General Motors Corp., that’s been demonstrated by the company’s slumping market share. Though there are plenty of reasons behind that decline, the automaker has earned plenty of scorn for its strategy of turning out a succession of conservative designs that have frequently gotten lost in a crowded and competitive market.
If a crop of new concept cars is any indication, though, that’s about to change. The Car Connection has gotten an advance look at nine new prototypes that certainly back up the promise by senior GM execs that half of the new entries in their markets will break ground, either in terms of design or their technical features.
"Fifty percent of our new vehicles will be innovative entries," declared Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and its chief product planner. "If you looked at our product portfolio five years ago, there would have been less than 5 percent innovative" products.
For the moment, the following concept cars, trucks and "crossover" vehicles are simply fanciful, pie-in-the-sky projects designed to explore all sorts of alternative concepts. But GM insiders strongly hint that some of these may soon show up in production form. And others could influence future product designs.
That’s in line with a general shift in the automotive industry. For decades, concept cars were little more than what former Ford Motor Co. design chief Jack Telnack liked to call "wet dreams in chrome." But in recent years, more and more companies have begun using their concept cars to test market reaction to designs and features they were hoping to bring to market.
The former Chrysler Corp. was a prime example, originally introducing such models as the Dodge Viper, Plymouth Prowler and Chrysler Concorde in show-car form. Slow to take to this trend, GM has nonetheless announced that it is likely to build the futuristic Cadillac Evoq roadster, which first appeared as a concept car at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Many industry observers expect the Pontiac Aztek prototype, which also debuted in Detroit, to go into production, as well.
The nine GM concept vehicles were shown in virtual form, using digital data and advanced, 3-D projection techniques to create lifelike images. "Hard" versions will be rolled out during next year’s Detroit, Geneva, Chicago and Los Angeles auto shows. Eight of the designs were produced in the U.S.; the ninth is a product of GM’s Opel subsidiary, which serves as the automaker’s primary global brand.
Nearly all are what have come to be called "segment busters," vehicles that don't neatly fit into any single automotive category. Like the popular Honda CR-V and Lexus RX300, several are car/sport-utility vehicle hybrids, but others, like the Pontiac Piranha and the Opel Compact Van Concept, blend attributes of pickups, vans, and sports cars, as well as SUVs and sedans.
With some of the GM concepts, overall design is secondary to specific design details. The Saturn CV1, for example, has a bi-fold, or accordion-style, door. And others have slide-out compartments in what you might call the trunk, to enhance access to cargo.
Here’s a closer look at GM’s nine new concept vehicles:
Saturn CV1 is, as the name suggests, the maverick GM division’s first concept car. In the words of designer Kate Zak, it’s designed to create "a safe, friendly, flexible place for your stuff." The CV1 blends elements of a station wagon, a minivan and an SUV. It boasts seating for five adults, though there are two child-size jump seats that fold down from the back of the front seats. The unusual bi-fold doors are perhaps the most noteworthy element, from both a technical and design standpoint. CV1 is powered by a 2.2-liter in-line four-cylinder engine mated to a Continuously Variable Transmission.
Oldsmobile Profile is intended to be "confident, assertive, individualistic," declares designer Phil Zak, (coincidentally Kate Zak’s husband). Profile is the most carlike of this concept crop, though certainly not conservative. This four-door, five-passenger prototype has a muscular look, with sculpted fenders and an unusual, power-operated rear hatch. Under Profile’s hood is a supercharged V-6 mated to an all-wheel-drive powertrain. And it features a range of high-tech, voice-controlled electronics, including a navigation system offering real-time traffic advisories, Internet access, and the ability to link up with your palmtop computer.
Buick LaCrosse brings back the portholes this GM division was long known for, though according to designer Dave Lyon, they serve a very real purpose, providing air for engine intake and cooling. "We wanted to evolve the American luxury sedan," Lyon says of LaCrosse, its long, cat-like hood sharply contrasting the last decade’s trend toward "cab-forward" design. It also features a hatch-like rear end designed to make it easy to store anything from skis to groceries. And, like Profile, LaCrosse comes with a sophisticated electronics package designed to be controlled either by voice or a single "Jog Shuttle" control. The most unusual feature is the absence of a conventional instrument panel. All gauges appear on the lower windscreen through a Head-Up Display system.
GMC Terradyne’s hard-edged exterior could have been crafted for the film Blade Runner. It’s a "mega-cab" pickup with a shortened bed, says designer Carl Zepfel. The angular, machine-like styling is meant to project a high-end look, helping differentiate GM for its more workaday cousin, Chevy Truck. To create even more room for passengers, the front end was shortened, and the cab roof was raised 7 inches compared with a conventional GMC full-size truck. The "Easy Glide Doors" slide forward and back, much like the rear doors on a minivan. A unique, retractable tailgate "allows you to convert the box from 6 foot to 8 foot," says Zepfel, "only when you need it."
Opel Compact Van Concept marks the first time the European brand will debut a prototype at the Detroit auto show. With fuel prices steadily rising and roads becoming increasingly crowded, European designs are moving up, rather than out, as this micro-minivan clearly demonstrates. Martin Swift, the Vehicle Line Director in charge of the CVC, calls it a" Winter Recreation Vehicle," a claim enhanced by its all-wheel-drive system. Expansive glass roof panels are offset by a series of overhead storage compartments "that function like the compartments in an airplane."
Chevrolet SSR is a curvaceous concept truck that is both sexy and solid. It also operates like a "functional sports car," suggests Ed Wellburn, director of GM’s Corporate Brand Center. Inside and out, there’s a twin cockpit theme for this two-seater, which features a fold-down, child-size center seat. The SSR is powered by a new, high-performance, 6.0-liter diesel V-8 and offers all-wheel drive. There’s plenty of storage tucked into the vehicle, which also features a lockable rear storage cover. The most unusual feature is SSR’s hard-top convertible roof.
Chevrolet Traverse underscores the steady market shift from cars to trucks, notes designer Joel Piaskowski. It may look like an SUV, but "Traverse is Chevy’s reinvention of the traditional family sedan." It boasts the all-wheel-drive powertrain, functionality and "command seating" of a truck, but delivers a smoother, more manageable ride with its passenger car-based chassis. The rear seats can be moved forward and aft a full 7.5 inches, and then folded flat into the floor to provide a cavernous cargo compartment. The "Smart Back" tailgate actually has dual doors to improve access to the vehicle’s rear.
Pontiac Piranha suggests just how many options designers can come up with when they abandon traditional segment restrictions. Piranha is a blend of sport-ute and sports car, with "lots of aggressions" in its styling, says designer John Mack. The four-seat vehicle has full-size front doors and suicide-style rear doors. It’s small, but has a "big bite," says Mack. There’s a supercharged, 2.0-liter engine under Piranha’s striking snout. But in contrast to conventional, cramped sports cars, there’s a roomy cargo bin, which can be reached by a hatch-like entry. The cargo hold slides in an out, and can even be removed, then stored away. One of the Piranha’s more creative touches is the use of interior fabrics that can be removed and replaced to reflect an owner’s personal tastes and changing moods.
Cadillac 2000 Concept is a "global, four-place luxury sedan," says designer Tom Kearns. It features a locomotive-like front end that shares many of the same, edgy cues with last year’s Evoq concept car. This is the "Art & Science" look that will transform Cadillac in the coming years. Designed in England, the 2000 Concept has a "distinct European feel," notes Kearns, reflecting the division’s desire to become a global player over the course of the next decade. The vehicle is distinguished by strong, vertical headlamps and fin-like taillights. Instead of a sunroof, there are tilting, electrochromic glass panels. The interior is a very intimate, twin-cockpit design, and the 2000 Concept features an array of high-tech electronics. This prototype will debut at next year’s Geneva Motor Show