It has been a dismal few years for concept cars, those several-million-dollar and one-of-a-kind vehicles that always bring excitement to the auto show circuit. Few and far between, they have been closer to production than to flight-of-fancy designs unlikely to be parked in a garage.
But this year, especially at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, concept cars made somewhat of a comeback, although most were still on the more practical side.
The Acura ILX , for example, was shown as a concept last month in Detroit but few serious changes are expected when it is introduced as a 2013 production model in Chicago.
Kia is holding its world debut of a performance-based Soul concept, the Track'ster, in the colors Whiteout and Inferno Orange. But this concept car's resurgence may be short-lived in an auto industry focused on the bottom line.
"There are things that we have to do; things that we need to do; and things that we want to do. Many times concept cars are a want," said, Clay Dean, director of General Motors North America Advanced Design.
In the future, concepts at GM will be "fewer and far between, far more select and very strategic," he said.
Kia said the Track'ster was a chance for Kia's design team to dream about what could be, even if the dream never becomes a reality. And what "could be" in this case is something bold enough to change the perception of what a sporty Kia is.
Chevrolet's concepts, the Code 130R and Tru 140S, are strategically aimed to bring younger consumers, or millennials, into the Chevy fold. Dean said they are at the Chicago show so that GM can get feedback from the large, younger Chicago market. So look for product specialists that Dean said will be "urging, guiding, herding people to participate" at the Chevrolet stand.
The Chevy concepts are two different takes on what this prized demographic told GM they would want if they could create a car: The functionality of a four-seater sedan, so they can transport friends, wrapped in coupe-like styling with an interior that provides for connectivity and personalization. And all at a price of around $20,000 for a car that gets 40 mpg.
Kia Track'ster: The assignment: Give it attitude and make it tough-looking, like a bulldog, yet approachable. The car is meant to scream "performance" and "racing" with deeply-bolstered Inferno Orange suede-covered racing seats, 14-inch Brembo disc brakes, and a 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Carrying out the enthusiast and performance theme, instead of rear seats, the back is taken up by tools, equipment and gear to take the Track'ster, well, to the track.
Chevrolet Tru 140S: This sporty concept is designed to look fast and addresses the desire on the part of young people for an affordable, exotic Italian sports car. The three-door coupe is based on the same platform as the front-wheel-drive Cruze and plug-in-hybrid Volt.
Chevrolet Code 130R: Chevrolet says this is a different, boxy take on that four-passenger coupe, one that represents "pure functional muscle" without a retro feel. This coupe is rear-wheel drive with an aggressive face and fender flairs. Its turbocharged engine works together with eAssist technology, which shuts off the engine at stops and recaptures energy from braking, to balance turbocharging with fuel efficiency.
Lexus LF-LC: This 2 + 2 hybrid sport coupe concept showcases the future design direction for Lexus and its vision of a rear-wheel-drive premium sport coupe. The silhouette and lines are meant to convey the direction and motion of a serious driver's car, despite being moved by a next-generation hybrid system. The inspiration for the tail lights, which use inner lighting to create depth, came from the look of a jet afterburner at takeoff. It received the EyesOn Design Award at the Detroit show for the best concept car.
Nissan Pathfinder: This concept previews the new look and aerodynamic style of the fourth-generation Pathfinder going on sale this fall. The upper body has large windows, a low beltline and thin A- and D- pillars. It also hints at the design coming to all future Nissans. Instead of the current generation's truck-like body-on-frame design, Nissan is returning to the car-like unibody used in the second generation.
Toyota NS4: This mid-size plug-in hybrid surprisingly is not part of the Prius hybrid family. Toyota believes that by 2015 the market will be demanding more plug-in hybrids, and it is going to be ready to fill that need with the Prius and other models. The system will be smaller and lighter to improve fuel economy, acceleration and all-electric range. It also signals Toyota's new design direction, with a low silhouette and a "cabin-forward tilt" to ultra-thin A-pillars.
Volvo Concept You: Volvo has been exploring how daring its next large sedan should be in order to be successful worldwide. The company says this concept has a "more daring, coupe-like profile" than an earlier one. With a roofline stretching all the way back to the tail lights, it creates a fastback look, which Volvo says is popular in Europe and starting to catch on in China, too. Think of the car as Scandinavian design inspired by Danish design house George Jensen.
Honda Accord Coupe: This provides a look at the new athletic styling direction for the all-new 2013 Accord models going on sale this fall. The new Accord sedan will be shorter in overall length, "significantly" lighter and lower for "more nimble handling," according to Honda. But Honda promises the same interior size as the current sedan. Accords will be the first U.S. models to get a 2.4-liter direct-injected engine and a two-motor plug-in hybrid system. Coming are new six-speed automatic and continuously variable transmissions.
Cadillac Ciel: The Ciel, pronounced "C-L" which is French for "sky," is a four-seat convertible that Cadillac says opens a new chapter in product and design and pushes its Art & Science theme to new levels. It recalls Cadillac's luxury heritage and great touring cars of the past but with a modern flair that suggests a future direction for the brand. Under that long hood is a twin-turbocharged version of Cadillac's 3.6-liter direct injection V-6 engine and a hybrid system with a lithium-ion battery. Decadent interior touches include pull-out cashmere blankets, which retract automatically, to warm chilly passengers.