What Exactly is a Concept Car?

Automakers release them every couple of months and we know they’re important, but sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint how

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The Aero Sport Lounge is a concept DS planned to introduce in this year’s Geneva Motor Show, which was cancelled

They’re the stars at every motor show. Their design takes our breath away; their technology fascinates us; their attention to detail gives our thoughts a whole new dimension; and the fact that most of them will never actually go on sale adds dramatic effect. Concept cars manage to thrill everyone who likes cars despite how much each one cares and actually knows about this industry.

These models are often presented with a lot of gravitas; their makers just love to detail how important they’ll be for their future developments. The problem is that, sometimes the fifteen minutes of fame of a concept car end so fast that people never get to truly understand it. This Car Design Chronicle is dedicated to interpret how automakers have worked with concept cars in the past years.

Volkswagen (left) and Opel/Vauxhall have recently shown sketches of the upcoming Arteon and Mokka

First things first

Some projects start with clear guidelines, others give designers more freedom and are uncompromised styling exercises; regardless of the level of limits they follow, every project starts with simple drawing. The resulting sketches might be made by hand or in the computer and offer varied levels of detail, but they all represent the very first step, when the idea is presented in its rawest form.

Sketches have become notorious lately because two automakers used them to introduce new models: the redesigned Volkswagen Arteon and the upcoming Opel/Vauxhall Mokka. As you can see, they play with angles and proportions to call attention to one particular feature. Their focus is to conclude an initial step in the process; realism is something to gradually appear on the next ones.

The Cadillac Lyriq (left) and the Polestar Precept have other purposes than to reach the streets

Works of art

Moving to actual concept cars, the ones that fascinate us the most never reach mass production because that’s not their purpose: they indicate the company’s next steps. They might showcase a specific design feature yet to be applied, or simply illustrate the image the company wants to build. Just like with pictures or sculptures, we must analyze every single detail to properly interpret them.

In general, the most striking design elements are likely to reach production in a toned-down way, like lights or grilles. However, in nowadays they’re created with focus on technology as well: the Lyriq anticipates Cadillac’s fully-electric SUV, whereas the Precept boasts Polestar’s ability to apply high-tech hardware without style losses. Concept cars like those are a goldmine of design features.

Hyundai’s 45 EV and Škoda’s Vision iV will be the base for future production models

Halfway there

Over time, concept cars drew so much attention that companies started to use them in a different way. The “intermediate” ones are still far from production, but anticipate the car you’ll actually be able to buy. In this case, their complete design is expected to be produced, albeit once again toned down. Automakers create them to estimate people’s reception at auto shows and on social media.

Hyundai, for instance, will use the 45 EV’s angular shapes and electric motors on a future model, while Škoda might derive a whole new family of cars from the Vision iV’s design. Once the anticipated models are released, it’s always an interesting exercise to compare them with the respective concept car: some of them look even better, while others fail to properly translate the proportions.

The BMW 4 (left) has already reached production, while the Dacia Spring is derived from the Renault Kwid

One step left

Following that train of thought led to developing a third type of concept cars. Two examples are anticipated on the pictures above: the BMW 4 Concept has already reached production, as this Car Design Chronicle mentions, while the upcoming Dacia supermini will be based on the Renault Kwid. We’re talking about models which are 99% of the production car, but disguised as concepts.

Here, the most important reason for their existence we can find is to preview reactions. The press will estimate how the model will compete in the market, and the public will indicate how likely it is to actually buy it. The automaker must pay close attention to all that because it usually provides important tips and, in the worst case scenario, allows it to retouch the car before its release.

Bentley’s EXP 9 F (left) was poorly executed, so it received last-minute changes. Chevrolet’s GPiX would have problems with the production car

Many possible outcomes

At first, it’s possible to think concept cars were only useful to attract attention at auto shows and on the social media. However, the very fact that many will never see a production line happens to be the reason why they’re important in many other ways: each one in its way, they all help the automaker send a clear message about what it’s about to do or what it intends for the following years.

When properly executed, concept cars help us see automobiles as much more than means of transportation: they depict them as symbols of the values each automaker stands for and paint a picture of how it believes future will be from several points of view. Besides, they’re a last-minute chance to repair potential design flaws. Which other concept cars do you know? Feel free to share them!

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.