The Year in Concept Cars

Muscle cars hogged the spotlight in 2006, while some of the coolest designs look like they’ll actually make it into production, too

With some major auto companies around the globe nabbing headlines this year for corporate shakeups and mass layoffs, and others posting record sales and profits, it might not seem that there are many constants in the car industry. But all manufacturers look to annual and biannual car shows as a platform to either turn their fortunes around or simply maintain momentum.

And while those gatherings present opportunities to closely inspect competing products and show off the newest models, the real excitement is always centered on the unveiling of concept cars. Concepts tease out future design themes, make radical statements about the future of automobile transport, and, more and more commonly, provide important tests of consumer reaction to upcoming models.

Wes Brown, president of the Los Angeles-based automotive marketing firm Iceology, says that while some concepts are still purely the product of design unrestricted, most new concepts shown this year bear some important relationship to near-term production vehicles. "By and large, many of these vehicles are, in fact, being market-tested now. Going forward, that's the trend," he says, noting that fewer models are purely experimental.

Muscling In

Even some of this year's most outlandish concepts are closely related to actual products. For instance, the swooping and exaggerated lines of the Citroen C-Metisse will never make it to market, but the proportions—long in the hood, short in the trunk—are typical of that company's other cars such as the popular C3 and the new, upscale C6 sedan. In other words, the lines as well as some of the technology from high-profile, low-feasibility concepts are often shared with upcoming vehicles as well as those already on the market.

Muscle cars continued to steal the spotlight in 2006. Ford's (F) retro-styled Mustang kicked off the trend in 2005 that resurrected the masculine, rear-wheel drive, power-packed genre of car popular in the late 1960s and '70s. That model has largely had the sales charts to itself. But this year, DaimlerChrysler (DCX) and General Motors (GM) both presented close-to-production muscle cars—the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro—that threaten the Mustang's dominance.

"If there was one North American showstopper this year, that's the one," says Brown of GM's Camaro. "Far and away, it was the most immediately recognizable model, though the Challenger is a strong rendering of what we can expect to see in the market." Because the cost of developing new vehicles can easily reach into the billions, manufacturers have focused on producing concepts that are most likely to be produced—the Camaro and Challenger in particular.

Do It Again

Of course, some vehicles are still intended simply to drum up interest in a brand and aren't, to the great disappointment of fans, bound for roads any time soon. Lamborghini revived the Miura nameplate with a concept that bore lines strikingly similar to the original vehicle—all while saying that it wouldn't build the car for production. Besides generating buzz as a popular showpiece, that car became a talking point for both fans and company officials about Lamborghini's past and future.

Now, industry insiders and car fans around the world are preparing themselves to start all over again. That's because with the new year comes the opening episode for 2007, the Detroit Auto Show. The Motor City event—which is expected to establish many of the design and technological themes for the rest of the year—opens to the press on Jan. 7 and to the public one week later.

Click here for a slide show of the best concept cars of 2006.

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