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Concept cars: what are they good for?

It’s auto show season again, so we’re being teased with a slew of new racy “concepts.” Time to wonder what these might indicate about future production cars, and wonder what the point is to the things in the first place.

Over at the Autos Blog for the Detroit News, reporter Neil Winton laments that the Worthy New Jaguar XF Rejects Concept’s Pizzazz. He notes that the C-XF concept was much more appealing, and was created after the production design had been finalized, and concludes (emphasis mine):

Jaguar C-XF concept

Jaguar design chief Ian Callum, presenting the car to journalists this week in England, said that the design of the new XF had already been finalised when the C-XF was unveiled. So all that excitement and anticipation was for nothing. Callum said that Jaguar wanted to signal to the world that its design language was changing.

I’m not sure if raising buyers’ hopes to fever-pitch with a concept car like the C-XF, then deflating them with the real thing, is the best way to sell new cars. What is undoubtedly a terrific replacement for the slow selling and dated looking S Type, will start its life in this potential buyer’s eyes as a disappointment, when the C-XF might have persuaded me to buy a Jaguar for the first time.

Jaguar XF production carI’ve long wondered the same thing–why raise expectations with concepts if these aren’t going to be fulfilled? There are actually three kinds of concepts: totally off-the-wall exercises that at best demonstrate far-future possibilities, potentially producible concepts that are truly testing the waters to see if the public will buy, and concepts that are based on already finalized production designs, to provide a preview of a vehicle that is already on the way.

The third type is probably the most common and is at any rate far more common than many people realize. I’ve read many times that GM ruined the Pontiac Aztek in converting the concept into a production vehicle. Guess what? The conversion went the other way: the production sheetmetal had been finalized before the concept was shown. Just like with the C-XF.

The C-XF is only among the more extreme examples, since all of the sheetmetal appears to differ from the less swoopy and less aggressive production XF. (Though I’m sure some people, glancing at these smallish photos, will think they look much the same.) More often, the production sheetmetal is used, but dressed up with larger wheels and a more aggressive body kit than will be available on the production car. GM did this with the AURA a few years ago. When the production car was revealed, more than a few people were disappointed, myself included. This even though the sheetmetal of the concept was the production car’s.

In the end, the far-out concepts do little for me, and the third sort frequently lead to disappointment like that expressed by Mr. Winton. So what I’d prefer to see is a much higher proportion of the second sort, that show what might happen, before a decision has been made to make it happen.