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Today’s concept cars more market testing than future gazing

Published January 17, 2013

Several vehicles presented at the Detroit show were concepts, but you’d be forgiven if you mistook them for production models. These days, concepts that could almost go straight to the showroom floor usually outnumber the wildly futuristic versions that dominated in the past.

It’s mainly due to the time and money that concepts require. Rather than the wow factor, many are a direct link between the designer’s initial vision and what finally reaches the market.

“Manufacturers are using these products as a clinic to gauge reaction,” says Jerry Chenkin, executive vice-president of Honda Canada. “If there is negative reaction, there is an opportunity for some kind of adjustment before the final product comes out.”

At the show, Honda presented its Urban SUV Concept, which the company says “hints at the styling direction” of an all-new vehicle it intends to build. Although its multi-jewel headlights would probably be replaced with something less spectacular, it’s not hard to picture this concept coming to market with very little modification.

Concept cars effectively began with the Buick Y-Job, a convertible designed by GM stylist Harley Earl and finished in 1938. As with concepts today, it was intended to gauge public reaction, but Earl wanted it to be a “dream car,” with innovative features that could be decades ahead.

Not only was it longer and lower than anything on the road at the time, but it had power-operated windows and convertible top, hidden headlights and flush door handles. And here’s something that wouldn’t happen today: Earl drove it as his personal car.

As concept cars caught on, they became a way to experiment with new styling and features, and could drum up excitement at auto shows instead of staying hidden at the studio. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to put several different styling cues on one concept, and then introduce them individually over several production cars.

Throughout the decades, concepts also showcased new technologies, showing off such innovative ideas as drive-by-wire, touch screens, LED lighting and recycled materials, all of which are routinely incorporated into production vehicles today. But concept cars are still tremendously expensive to create, requiring handmade panels and one-off parts.

“Our Urban SUV Concept is an exercise in styling and it gives people an image of what they may see in the future,” Chenkin says. “There are various steps in the process, and Honda believes the concept is an important step toward production.”

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