Predicting the future is not easy.
History is littered with people and companies that try and predict the future. It rarely plays out as anyone expects. For example, we’re not wearing shiny silver clothes and talking via video through our TV screens as so many TV shows and movies from last century seemed to think. Instead, we still wear jeans and tee shirts and we talk to each other via video on our phones. Currently, predictions seem to be based around cars with no steering wheels being exclusively powered by electricity, so we’ll see how that pans out.
With the arrival of the 21st century, there was a lot of excitement at how the future would look like, but technology has moved so quickly that some car concepts became outdated almost instantly. What mainly dates a concept though is the styling.
For Pontiac, the early 2000s were all about grabbing the active lifestyle of Generation X. This was the rise of adrenaline sports and the X-Games, and everybody was trying to sell their products on the back of that. That’s fine for sugary drinks, but the reality is that every generation is much like the last one. And, a company hanging its products on just one lifestyle of demographic within a young generation leads to, well, the Pontiac Aztec.
To research who they would be selling the Piranha to, Pontiac visited a college campus and an indoor rock climbing facility to talk to people aged 18 to 26. The Piranha concept was all about being adaptable for the young adventure seeking Gen X-ers. Features include a pop-up roof rack, foldable and removable seating that could be used as beach chairs, zip-out panels so colors could be changed easily and a swappable instrument cluster.
In 2000, Ford was close to the mark with the Prodigy concept barring one small technical detail. Styling wise, it looks a bit basic until you notice the plastic around the wheel arches that are everywhere now. However, the car wasn’t really about styling. It was about having a drag coefficient of 0.199 and its hybrid powertrain. The hybrid powertrain used a small displacement engine and electric motors that, when combined, were claimed to do 80 miles per gallon. It all sounds great until you get to that one technical detail: The engine ran on diesel, and that hasn't played out well over time.
The most obvious elements that did get used later are the cameras and sensors that replaced the mirrors as they were incorporated into blind spot monitoring.
The Vision SLA concept is proof that ignoring the SL’s proportions leads to something that resembles a toy. Mercedes presented this at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show and, frankly, we had mostly forgotten about it until someone said: "Remember when Mercedes did a concept with a mesh hood that showed the shock towers and the side mirrors grew out of the fenders, then nearly made it 12 years later?"
BMW loved the idea of a coupe on the X5 chassis early on, and if you don’t like the X6, then this is a reminder it could have been worse. The proportions are horribly awkward and, like the Mercedes Vision SLA, it looks like a toy. Except that this one you would find in a knock-off Hot Wheels bargain bin at Walmart.
Before we tear it apart, we should acknowledge that the aggressive crosshair grill is badass and using Super8 as a name to invoke 1950s B-movies is a nice touch. But the execution of a modern 1950s style sedan is cartoonish and would have dated faster than the PT Cruiser. Also, the Super8's’s hi-tech features included an MP3 player and a limited internet access system called Infotronic.
Chevy’s homage to the iconic late 50s Bel Air isn’t so much as a swing and a miss, but just watching the ball sail past and into the catcher's mitt. There’s just not much to evoke classic Chevys in the design apart from the token attempt with the wheels and tires. It was also based on the Trailblazer SUV frame, so while it looks thick and muscular, there’s very little style or nuance that we associate with old school Chevy until you see the interior.
Kia’s styling turned a corner with the introduction of German designer Peter Schreyer, the man most known for his contribution to styling on the Audi TT. The KCV-II showed up in Paris in 2002 though, three years before he joined Kia and just shows how detached Kia was from being able to design cars for Europe and North America. If you imagine all the brushed aluminum stripped away, you can see why it was added. It’s the automotive equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
The SYNus concept debuted at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, and somehow the thought didn’t occur to anyone that it sounded like it was named after nasal cavities. The idea here was that the vehicle would be tough on the outside and soft on the inside like an Armadillo. Amazingly, Fiat also had a concept car with the same name, so production name ideas included calling it the Ford Fort Knox or Gorilla. As the outside suggests, it is strong like a bank vault and includes bulletproof windows. The 'SYN' part of the name comes from the word synthesis and 'us' part stands for Urban Sanctuary.
Inside, there’s a big LCD screen instead of a rear window, a wireless LAN hub, and the seats can be configured to face the screen. That’s for when the SYNus is in lockdown mode when steel shutters close up around the front windscreen and all the lights. It’s hard to see who this would be aimed at, but our best theory is drug dealers who want to be able to shut up shop for an hour in a bad part of town and play Halo for a couple of hours.
If there is one thing Italian car companies can do is style. It is also an iron-clad fact that having modern bodywork covering the wheels instantly dates a car and makes it look horrible. It has become such a cliche for trying to make a car look futuristic that it's amazing companies still try it. When the two come together, what you get is a car caught between a rock and a hard place. In 2008, Alfa Romeo tried to bridge the gap with its homage to the 50s based on the modern 8C Competizione. However, if you have to drape a female model over your concept to get people to look at it, then something is really wrong with the design.
In the first decade of this century, the retro-futuristic design thing was huge. According to Ford, the Airstream was "a futuristic look at crossovers,” and a "modern touring vehicle” for recreational travelers. It was designed in partnership with the Airstream company, and inside it has what they describe as a "lounge atmosphere.” If this had made it into production we wonder if it would have had airbrushed unicorn and wizard art as a factory option, or even a privacy package that included black trash bags duct taped to the window and a special cubby hole for storing candy.
Although the Demon concept does look dated, a small affordable Dodge roadster on a bespoke lightweight rear-wheel-drive platform with a potent little 4-cylinder engine at an affordable price would have been fantastic. The Demon concept debuted in 2007 at the Geneva Auto Show, and according to the designer, Jae Chung: "I wanted a simple, unified look that was aggressive and had some Viper DNA in it."
Unfortunately, the concept arrived when Chrysler was in a bad place. Daimler sold the majority of its shares to Cerberus, a company that sounds like it should be the enemy in a video game or superhero movie, and things went downhill. Cerberus mismanaged their way into trouble and then got smacked around by the 2008 financial crisis. The Demon idea came back a few times in different forms, none of which actually came to fruition. Now the Fiat 128 Spyder fills the small sports car gap and the Demon name ended up being used for an insanely fast muscle car.
In 2002, GM actually told people this was a billion dollar concept car, most likely in order to help convince people it wanted to play in the green vehicle space that the first-generation Prius was creating. Autonomy, according to GM, would be a platform featuring fuel cell technology and owners would be able to change the body shell depending on its function. Owners would also be able to swap in larger fuel cells.
That wasn’t where the concept ended though. Steering, braking, and the throttle was to be controlled through a drive-by-wire system. That would mean everything could be packaged into the 6” floor along with the batteries and allow the plethora of body styles GM was talking about. As a whole, the tech as a concept is sound and bearing fruit now. The body is dated, but what gets us and dates it horribly is that the designers put it on bicycle tires rather than spending a little of that billion dollars on some real rubber.