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Concept Cars: Miles Ahead

The future of the automotive industry seems bright, regardless of whether it’s in beautifully designed luxury cars, such as the Cadillac Elmiraj, or in the prospect of a cleaner world that’s made possible by Honda’s and Toyota’s latest fuel-cell technology. Here’s a look at the 10 most interesting concept cars.

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Honda FCEV

A fuel-cell-technology arms race has kicked off between Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota. The FCEV builds upon the Japanese automaker’s past fuel-cell vehicles, such as the FCX Clarity, which went into limited production in 2008. However, this concept’s fuel-cell unit is 33 percent smaller and said to be 60 percent more powerful than that of the FCX Clarity. It produces 100 kilowatts of electricity from compressed hydrogen and could drive at least 300 miles on a tank of fuel. Other automakers spread their fuel-cell machinery throughout their vehicles, but Honda fits the FCEV’s fuel-cell components under the hood, which frees up enough space in the cabin for five adults. Honda’s FCEV chassis would be adaptable to different types of vehicles, the company tells us.

Prognosis: Honda says it will start to sell a fuel-cell vehicle that’s based on the FCEV concept by 2015.

Smart fourjoy

The fourjoy carries Smart’s minimalism to an extreme by eschewing doors, a rear window and a roof. The polished-aluminum and pearl-white exterior makes the car seem to be compact, but the fourjoy delivers a lot of interior space (four seats) for such a small vehicle. The fourjoy is powered by a 55-kilowatt electric motor and has a battery that would charge from empty to full in 7 hours through a regular household socket, or in less than 1 hour by using a fast-charging station. Smart says the concept would be “agile and lively” to drive, but it didn’t reveal any performance details.

Prognosis: No, Smart won’t make a doorless, roofless car. However, the fourjoy resembles the overall shape of the forfour, which is a four-seater that’s being developed by Renault and Smart. The forfour is expected to be launched at the end of 2014 and likely will be offered either with an electric powertrain or a conventional gasoline engine.

Subaru Viziv

The crossover SUV Viziv showcases an innovative new powertrain: A four-cylinder diesel engine powers the front wheels while two separate electric motors power the rear wheels. This layout allows Subaru to reduce fuel consumption and deliver all-wheel drive without a drive shaft that runs from the front-mounted engine to the rear wheels. The design allows the floor of the vehicle to be flat, which increases legroom for rear-seat passengers. The Viziv’s styling—cleaner lines and a new look for the headlights and taillights—is different from Subaru’s current designs. We also like the EyeSight system, which would use cameras to scan the road and optimize powertrain delivery for maximum efficiency based on road conditions.

Prognosis: The Viziv is just a concept, but it shows what Subaru is planning for the powertrains of its future models. Subaru won’t say when we’ll see a production vehicle that has the new diesel-electric powertrain, but it likely won’t be before 2015.

Nissan BladeGlider

The radically designed electric BladeGlider’s shape is based on technology that designer Ben Bowlby first applied to the DeltaWing racecar in 2012. The BladeGlider’s triangular shape reduces weight and helps the car to cut through the air more efficiently than a conventional car does. Seventy percent of the BladeGlider’s weight sits over the rear wheels, and Nissan says that makes the car nimble and stable despite the narrow front axle. The driver sits in the center of the vehicle with up to two occupants behind. Instead of an engine up front, an electric motor is positioned at each rear wheel to allow for more-efficient use of space. We still await to hear how much power that the BladeGlider would have, but we suspect that it will be a lot, because the concept is built for speed.

Prognosis: Nissan is exploring the possibility of producing a vehicle that’s based on the BladeGlider and is testing some of the car’s design features in the ZEOD RC racecar.

Jaguar C-X17

The C-X17 takes Jaguar’s sporty DNA and applies it to a crossover SUV. It’s a bold move for the British automaker, which has made only cars. The C-X17 is meant to demonstrate that Jaguar’s new modular aluminum architecture can be fashioned into vehicles of various shapes and sizes, and it melds the athletic stance of a sports sedan with the versatility of an SUV. This was done by making the center of gravity as low as possible and by using the brake system to balance the distribution of engine torque to the wheels during cornering, which would make the vehicle more agile. The interior includes a series of Wi-Fi-enabled touch screens for accessing the Internet that run through the length of the cabin. Jaguar didn’t specify an engine for the C-X17 but says it’s working on four-cylinder gasoline and diesel powertrains for future production.

Prognosis: Jaguar says the C-X17 is only a design study, but considering how popular that crossover SUVs are, we believe that it’s likely that the company will make a production version. The first production vehicle to make use of Jaguar’s modular aluminum architecture, however, will be a midsize sedan that will debut in 2015.

Kia Niro

With its Niro concept, Kia took the beefy look of an SUV and shrank it to a subcompact package. The huge wheels, which are pushed out to the corners of the vehicle, and the decent amount of ground clearance give the Niro a rugged, although diminutive, stance. The front features Kia’s signature tiger-nose grille, two fog lights and an asymmetrical air inlet that’s below the bumper. Inside the flashy butterfly doors, you’ll find front seats that have lower cushions that wrap into the center console. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline-powered engine would power the front wheels, while a 45-hp electric motor would propel the rear ones when the car needs extra grip on a slippery road.

Prognosis: Kia has no plans for the Niro to go to production, but the automaker is gauging the response to the concept and says future vehicles might be based on the concept’s design.

Cadillac Elmiraj

The Elmiraj is a big coupe that has a design that was inspired primarily by the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado but also other Cadillac models. In contrast with current Cadillacs, however, which are quite angular, the Elmiraj has fewer lines that crease its bodywork. The Elmiraj still is bold, thanks to its long hood, a cabin that’s pushed rearward and its massive 22-inch wheels. The Elmiraj features Cadillac’s traditional taillights and vertical headlights reinterpreted with LED bulbs. Under the hood is a powerful 4.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 engine that would deliver an estimated 500 hp.

Prognosis: Although Cadillac won’t confirm that it will build a coupe that’s based on the Elmiraj, we believe that this concept undoubtedly shows the look of future Cadillac models. The Elmiraj’s potent V8 engine will show up in future  production vehicles, Cadillac tells us.

Toyota FCV

Unlike Honda’s FCEV, which holds the fuel cell and associated components under the hood, Toyota’s FCV concept includes them under the floor (as do most fuel-cell vehicles). Toyota says this distributes weight throughout
the vehicle and lowers the car’s center of gravity to make it more stable on the road. The downside is that the layout requires a dedicated platform and isn’t easy to scale to various sizes of vehicles. Toyota also built a fuel cell that’s two-thirds the size of the one that the company used in its 2007 FCHV prototype. Toyota says the FCV’s fuel cell would produce twice as much power as the FCHV did, would use less hydrogen and would require two tanks instead of four.

Prognosis: Toyota wants to launch a production version in Japan by 2015 before it brings the car to Europe and the United States eventually. Toyota executives tell us that the FCV’s fuel-cell technology nearly is production-ready, but the styling is radically different than what a production vehicle would look like.

Volvo Concept Coupe

This shapely coupe signals a rebirth for Volvo, which until now used design technology that it developed years ago with Ford. The concept borrows its details from the classic Volvo P1800 of the 1960s, but the new interpretation can be seen in the rear fenders and the overall proportion of the car, both of which are more muscular than the original’s features. The concept’s new engine is intriguing: The small four-cylinder engine uses a turbocharger and a supercharger and is paired with a rear-axle electric motor to produce 400 hp, which would be on par with the power of a conventional V8 engine.

Prognosis: Volvo won’t say whether it will build a coupe that’s based on this concept, but the technology and styling certainly will make their way to future production vehicles. The shape of the grille, headlights and taillights are among the design cues that we expect to see within 5 years.

Buick Riviera

Buick transformed itself from an ugly duckling into a swan over the past 5 years by sprucing up its vehicles to appeal to younger buyers. The Riviera takes this strategy literally: Its doors look like a swan’s wings as they open upward. With a raked windshield and a sloping rear window, this concept is svelte. The Riviera’s hybrid powertrain has a battery pack that would charge wirelessly, which is intriguing, because no production vehicle has such a battery pack. We also like the Riviera’s active-safety system, which has more cameras (10) and more distance-monitoring sensors (18) for collecting data than does any General Motors production vehicle. Buick says these extra cameras and sensors will allow the Riviera to project its collected data as high-resolution holograms on the windshield while it uses the data to brake and steer the car to safety if a collision were imminent.

Prognosis: The Riviera won’t make it to production, particularly not with its impractical gullwing doors. However, the grille and the daytime running lights will be incorporated into future Buick models. Based on our interviews with other companies, we expect vehicles to incorporate wirelessly charging powertrains and active-safety systems that have more cameras and sensors within the next 5 years.

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