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Published: 1/15/2011

Driving toward the future: Concept cars are labs for ideas

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DETROIT — Concept cars are eye candy for auto enthusiasts, the kind of sweet tempting treats that appeal to both heart and head and provide a risk-free peek into the future with no consideration for impact on wallet needed.

And this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which is open to the public through next Sunday, has more than its share of futuristic-looking goodies upon which show goers can feast their eyes.

With automakers across the globe on the financial mend from their industry's near collapse in 2009, pure concept cars can be luxuries that are no longer affordable. But for others, such concepts allow designers to research elements for future production vehicles while receiving feedback from the public to indicate what should be changed.

From the GMC 2011 Sierra All-Terrain HD, a mechanized monster of a pickup truck, to the two-seat, all-electric, doorless Venturi America buggy being presented by Venturi Automobiles, the dozen or so concepts and one-off vehicles at this year's Detroit auto show represent the cutting edge — and beyond — of both design and technological advances.

Although it isn't the most far-flung design concept on the show floor, the Porsche 918 RSR concept would be the first set of keys most show goers would grab if they had a chance to drive any automobile there this year. This rolling racing laboratory has a midmounted internal combustion engine mated to two extra electric motors mounted to the front axle, making it one of the world's fastest hybrids. It also marks the return of the Porsche brand to the Detroit show.

Designers at General Motors Co.'s truck division appeared to have had some fun customizing a heavy-duty Sierra pickup truck for extreme off-road adventures, giving the GMC Sierra All Terrain HD a wider track and greater ground clearance while shortening the cab and bed to give it a "wheels-at-the-corners" look atop 35-inch-tall B.F. Goodrich off-road tires. Powering this beast is a 397-hp 6.6L Duramax diesel engine mated to a fuel-efficient, six-speed Allison transmission.

More styling roadmap than design study, the Subaru Impreza concept takes the stalwart of the hot-selling Japanese brand and thrusts it into the future with an electronics-laden interior that gracefully lies across a center console as it climbs toward the dash. Under the sheet metal, the Impreza concept keeps Subaru's boxer engine and symmetrical all-wheel drive that has helped the brand expand sales in the United States as other automakers' shares sank.

Some concept cars are more testament to what can be done more than what may be. The Venturi America is a carbon-fiber, battery-powered sports car/buggy with a top track speed of 112 miles an hour and an estimated range of 190 miles. Venturi Automobiles, based in Monaco, designed the vehicle in collaboration with engineers at Ohio State University.

South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. rolled out what it calls a rugged urban activity vehicle in the Hyundai Curb concept, one of the few truly futuristic-looking concepts on the auto show floor this year. The orange-and-blue-accented interior is loaded with advanced electronics, including a large acrylic screen that flows through the cabin and a monitor embedded in the steering wheel. On the exterior, the Curb features exhaust vents that can double as a bike rack, and touch pads for door handles.

Toyota Motor Corp. has embarked on an ambitious plan to broaden its hugely successful Prius line into more than just a single vehicle. It introduced its Prius v Wagon as a new production vehicle in Detroit, and the world's largest automaker also debuted the Toyota Prius C concept, a city-centric version of the popular Prius that is smaller and should get even better gas mileage than the original five-passenger hatchback. Toyota says the four-passenger Prius C is the inspiration for a new small vehicle in the Prius family that will debut next year.

Honda Motor Co. chose the Detroit show to take the wraps off concept versions of the Honda Civic Si coupe and Civic sedan models that point to the styling that will appear when the ninth-generation 2012 Civics begin appearing in dealer showrooms this spring. Both Civic concepts adopt a more aggressive styling than the current models, with the coupe riding atop 19-inch alloy wheels.

Ford Motor Co. is showcasing its efforts to redesign the compact SUV in coming years with its Ford Vertrek concept, which is based on the platform that underpins the popular Ford Focus. The Vertrek's interior features four slim, leather-clad seats and an electronic information center that seems to rise from a graceful center arch, opening up the floor space between driver and front passenger.

Mating factory accessories with after-market tuner parts, the Sonic Z-Spec concept is Chevy's way to demonstrate the many ways in which its new U.S.-built Sonic can be customized. A hatchback, it features seat-matched leather accents on the steering wheel and shifter on the inside and bright orange rims, spoiler, and body accents along the exterior.

Designers at Mini seem to have been given the task of making the quintessential cute car seem menacing in the Mini Paceman, a two-door version of the Mini Countryman that's been given a more sloping roofline. The sports activity coupe carries a 211 hp, four-cylinder engine under its short hood and features the same go-cartstyle handling that makes the Mini popular.

South Korea-based Kia Motors reimagines the van segment with the Kia KV7, replacing conventional rear sliding doors with a set of gull-wing openings that mate with two traditional doors up front to provide wide access to the vehicle's interior. Inside, the KV7 boasts four custom-built swivel seats arrayed in an open style.

Making a highly exclusive exotic sportscar even more cutting edge requires massive amounts of creativity, so designers from Daimler AG chose a description-defying yellow color to accent its SLS AMG E-Cell, an electrified version of its $183,000 SLS AMG supercar. The not-subtle-at-all super coupe has a bank of batteries in its center to drive electric motors at each wheel and will be used to test the limits of high-performance electric powertrains.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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