First Drive: GM '01 Concepts

Over the decades, carmakers have competed to come up with the most striking concept cars. Chrysler dominated this competition through most of the 1990s, but in recent years, General Motors has fielded a surprising assortment of distinctive and downright intriguing prototypes, such as the Buick Bengal, Chevrolet Borrego and Pontiac Rev.

Up on a show stand, bathed in the spotlights and surrounded by beautiful models, almost anything can look good. Even the much-maligned Aztek received praise in show car skin. So, no matter how we might worship some cars, it’s always best when they come down off the pedestal. What matters is what happens, to borrow the old cliché, when the rubber meets the road.

How do the newest of the GM show cars do when they’re placed in a real-world setting? TheCarConnection got the opportunity to find out when it was invited to drive six of the automaker’s latest around the temporary track set up for this year’s Detroit Grand Prix.

Readers should note that these hand-built prototypes are designed for the stand, not for the street, so we were willing to make plenty of allowances in judging GM’s efforts. Top speeds were limited to about 35 miles an hour. Tires designed to look macho at the auto show don’t necessarily offer much grip on the wet course we negotiated. And most of the gauges, switches and other accessories were disabled or never really designed to work in the first place.

Then what’s the purpose behind this exercise? Years ago, concept cars were little more than fantasies in chrome, with little connection to the vehicles a manufacturer built. These days, however, they’re more likely to show you precisely the direction a carmaker is taking. Indeed, some show cars are little more than thinly disguised versions of production vehicles that will hit the showroom in the next year or two. So, with General Motors struggling to revive its fortunes, these six vehicles tell us a lot about the automaker’s future.


Cadillac Vizon conceptThis fall, the struggling luxury marque launches an all-new version of the Catera. The CTS introduces a new and edgy design theme, dubbed Art & Science. The Vizon provides a look at where Cadillac is headed next. It’s a massive hybrid that has the heft of a sport-utility vehicle, yet its stance is more like that of a sport sedan.

Cadillac Vizon conceptIn sharp contrast to some luxury vehicles, which overwhelm the driver with an array of gauges, switches and controls, Vizon is elegantly simple. Even the door handles are hidden, a discretely-placed finger sensor giving you access. Inside, the leather-wrapped interior looks like furniture—at least until you turn on the power. Suddenly, with a thump, covers on the stair-step IP pop open, revealing a series of Bulgari-inspired gauges and video monitors—which replace conventional rear view mirrors.

Shifting into drive is accomplished through the use of a rotary dial on the center console. It serves double duty, allowing the driver to toggle the car’s computer through its many functions, including climate control, audio and cellphone.

Based on Caddy’s new, rear-drive Sigma platform, Vizon is powered by the venerable Northstar engine, so even the show car has plenty of power—and got us up to the speed limiter all too quickly.

“Sooner or later, you have to step out of the box,” says Vizon’s young chief designer, Mike Torpey. There’s no question the Cadillac prototype has achieved that goal. It is a polarizing design that either wins you over or leaves you wondering what the automaker has in mind. And it is a rolling crystal ball. Vizon offers a very good hint of what to expect with the upcoming Cadillac LAV.


Hummer H2 conceptOf the GM concept cars making the show circuit this year, the H2 is clearly the one closest to production. The automaker has already provided extensive details on its plans for this design, which hits market less than two years from now, and which it hopes will dramatically grow the military-born brand.

Despite an assortment of mechanical elements—ranging from the powertrain to the instrument cluster—borrowed from existing GM products, the H2 is very definitely a Hummer. One doesn’t just step into the H2, you climb up to it.

Standing at the curb, it is one very menacing vehicle. Yet it proved more nimble than one might expect. The concept actually feels better to drive than the existing Hummer H1.

The interior has a sort of high tech, aerospace feel, enhanced by the liberal use of chrome and aluminum. We’ll watch to see how the final product is executed, as some of the “metal” appliqués in the concept vehicle had a plasticky feeling that didn’t match the overall vehicle.

It’s too bad some of the technology of the prototype won’t make it to production. The Night Vision system has proved perhaps the most popular feature on the H2 show car. A roof-mounted camera can be pointed just about anywhere, providing an enhanced, infrared image you watch on the oversized video monitor in the center console.

Still, if the prototype is any example, the H2 is likely to prove one very popular vehicle when it hits the street.


Buick Bengal conceptThere was a time when Buicks were among the most elegant vehicles in the vast GM stable. Those days are long past. But Buick’s reputation could be ready for a phoenix-like rebirth if recent show cars are any indication. Last year’s sleek LaCrosse leads to this year’s Bengal, and it’s an appropriate name for this cat-like, four-door convertible.

Buick Bengal conceptLow and sleek, the design is striking, whether the roof is up or down. The dominant theme is oval, a shape that extends to every detail of the Bengal. Though not overtly retro, it does harken back to some classic Buick themes. There are portholes on the hood, and porthole-like air vents inside. Bengal’s body is coupe-like, though a pair of “suicide” rear doors offer enhanced access to a reasonably roomy rear seat. One of the more unusual features is the transparent rear spoiler.

Buick Bengal conceptThe interior is as comfortable as it looks, much like sinking into some comfortable living room chairs. Like the Vizon, the rosewood and cordovan leather interior feels like furniture, with few visible gauges or switches. Unlike the Cadillac prototype, there are no pop-up clusters and controls. Instead, virtually everything in the car is controlled by voice command. There’s a small, head-up-display, or HUD, to provide essential read-outs.

Not everything came together while driving. The Windows 98 screen that popped up as you start the car is a bit disconcerting. With Microsoft’s less-than-robust reputation, we could only hope the car crashed less often than its operating system. The high-mounted rear view mirrors seemed perfectly placed to obstruct our view of the road, especially traffic that might be coming from either side at an intersection.

Still and overall, the Bengal has a sweet appeal that apparently has led GM’s senior management to give the go for a production version of this prototype.


GMC Terracross conceptThere’s something about the name. It’s obviously meant to imply this high-styled sport-ute can surmount any obstacle. Yet to our ears, it has the ring of some primitive and dangerous animal. We’d certainly get out of the way if one of these brutes showed up in our rearview mirror.

The Terracross is perhaps the crudest of this year’s GM concept vehicles, its doors not fully closing, and noises coming from just about every corner of the vehicle as we headed out on the mile-long test track. Even so, the feel of the vehicle on the road seems more, well, delicate than you’d expect from a big truck.

The primary purpose of this styling exercise seems to be aimed at giving GMC a distinctly different appearance than its corporate cousin, Chevy Truck. But if this defines GMC’s take on “professional grade,” we’re at a loss for what that means.

Overall, Terracross feels unfinished, as if it’s grabbing at ideas that don’t necessarily work together. The instrument cluster is a good example. It’s actually a rectangular LCD screen that pops up when the engine starts. Unfortunately, it’s precisely the wrong shape to be viewed through the steering wheel. It probably doesn’t matter with the prototype, since the gauges didn’t work, anyway.

One of the nicest features is the vast glass roof of Terracross. The roof, incidentally, rolls almost all the way back, creating an experience somewhere between a sunroof and a true convertible.


Chevrolet Borrego ConceptThe Borrego has the feel of a small truck that’s been reworked into sports car form. It’s got the appeal of a Jeep Wrangler, yet on the road, it feels nimble and truly sporty.

The crossover vehicle is designed for an active lifestyle, with plenty of room and what its designers call a “wash-out interior.” Using materials like neoprene, you can literally hose the Borrego out after a camping trip.

Chevrolet Borrego conceptThe cabin is divided into twin cockpits, but the feel is more spacecraft than fighter jet. Up above, the roof is a black camouflage net. There’s a zipper bag, instead of a glovebox, and similar storage pouches are woven in all around the youth-oriented Borrego. Chevy designers paid a lot of attention to detail with this show car.

One of the most intriguing elements of the Borrego’s design is its shifter. Rather than anchoring to a single pivot point on the floor, the handle connects to a sliding bar. It takes a moment to get used to, but then feels surprisingly intuitive.

Borrego’s aggressive stance is matched by its feel on the road. Even in prototype form, this is a vehicle we had a lot of fun driving.

Reaction on the show circuit has been overwhelmingly positive, so we’re not surprised to hear this is another one of the prototypes that could soon be heading for production.


Pontiac Rev conceptSame theme, different take. The Borrego and Rev have a lot in common. But where the Chevy “is like a truck that’s evolved to become a sports car, the Rev is a sports car that has evolved into a truck,” says Adam Barry, the lead designer on the Pontiac project vehicle.

The Rev is a pleasant surprise for those who remember the bold, athletic styling of Pontiacs past—before the division decided to load up every vehicle with lots of clunky cladding. The show car is clean and elegant, in its macho way, and according to Barry “is indicative of the future form vocabulary of Pontiac.”

Pontiac Rev conceptLike the Borrego, it’s tall and wide, with plenty of seating and cargo space. And also like the Chevy prototype, it features an aluminum and neoprene, wash-out interior that only encourages a driver to go out and play.

An admitted jock who happened to take up art, Barry’s love of sports is apparent in even the smallest of the Rev’s details. The door handles feel like they were borrowed from ski poles. The overall interior has the feel of a Nike watch or, he suggests, Oakley sunglasses.

One of the more unusual touches is the clamshell rear door that opens and moves out of the way, making it far easier to access the cargo compartment than a traditional liftgate.

Intriguingly, the Rev has a look and feel that suggests the same vision as that of the upcoming Volkswagen Colorado, a sports car-sport-ute hybrid. Pontiac’s goal was to blend the utility of a small SUV with the aerodynamics, drivability and performance of a sports car.

Originally intended to have a V-8 and be mounted on GM’s new midsize Epsilon platform, the prototype instead relies on the same chassis as the new Saturn Vue, and shares its V-6. Still, it showed a lot of promise during a brief drive.

The Rev “has been so well received,” boasts Barry, “it’s forced (GM managers) to seriously consider it” for production.

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