Detroit may not be the automotive power-player it once was, but these concepts remind us of Motor City's glory days
With head offices for Ford, GM and Fiat-Chrysler, Detroit is to America’s motor industry as Nashville is to country music. It's the homeroom of companies that once laid claim to being industry influencers, so it shouldn't be surprising to hear the Detroit motor show is a whopper.
Or at least it used to be. Four new concept cars were officially unveiled at the 2019 show. At the start of the decade, in 2010, 17 concepts debuted, and a record 30 concept debuts and five North American debuts were revealed in 2007.
Detroit has now lost some of its lustre, having to share the spotlight with the tech-driven Consumer Electronics Show just weeks earlier. The American industry doesn’t power-play at home like it used to either, but rather than reflect on its current malaise let’s celebrate the good things Detroit has given us in the past.
2016 Buick Avista
A twin-turbo V6 under the bonnet ensured effortless performance potential, not to mention a rear-wheel drive platform designed to accept a V8. All signs screamed 'BUILD IT NOW' as far as GM performance fans were concerned.
There were even whispers a revived Holden Monaro (or at least a successor) could be on the way, but Buick does well in China, and China has little love for coupes, despite what Americans might demand.
With GM’s product planning division honing in on the hottest market segments it seems there’s no room for the Avista, but plenty of capacity for new crossovers and SUVs. Shame.
2005 Chrysler Firepower
American muscle is definitely a thing. American elegance? Well, that’s another story – or at least it was until the covers came off the Chrysler Firepower.
Signalling a desire to shift Chrysler upmarket, the Firepower mixed a Dodge Viper chassis with a 6.1-litre Hemi V8 and what could be one of the most graceful extreme cab-rearward bodies to ever sit atop a Chrysler chassis.
Even the cream and blue leather interior looked more closely related to what might be expected of a Bentley, rather than a Chrysler – which is all the more odd when you consider the brand was under Daimler’s control at the time.
Perhaps with too many toes to tread on at Dodge and Mercedes-Benz, or perhaps shelved as an aspirational goal that was too lofty, the Firepower wasn't ever given the chance to roll into the garages of eager potential owners.
2003 Mercury Messenger
At a time when most of Ford’s Mercury range looked like bricks with chrome grilles, the Messenger promised to transform the brand into a design-led one, pumped full of athleticism and hope.
In an attempt to make itself a division that did more than simply rebadge mainstream Ford products, the Messenger used familiar components (no prizes for guessing, but a Mustang donated its engine and chassis to the cause) but heavily re-profiled every visual aspect.
Thanks to high-set horizontal lights with more surface area pointing up than out, the Messenger created a unique profile with a charmingly quaint Euro aesthetic.
Not every detail worked. High sills gave the car an unfinished look in profile and oversized tyres set a fraction too far into the guards could make the Messenger look awkward from certain angles. Even still, it’s worth pouring one out for the Mustang’s forgotten sibling.
2009 Volkswagen BlueSport
While US brands try to own the Detroit show, Volkswagen snuck in a sucker-punch with the BlueSport concept. Described in press guff as “timeless” it’s a little hard to argue with Volkswagen on that point.
The BlueSport presented as a pert roadster, and to the delight of enthusiasts featured a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout. Somewhat less exciting was the 132kW diesel engine powering the concept, but the potential to shoehorn in a Golf GTI engine (at least) was obvious.
There’s no official word as to what happened (no surprises there) but with a potential conflict of interest between the BlueSport and the Porsche Boxster within the Volkswagen Group, it’s not too hard to read between the lines of the BlueSport’s obituary.
Minimalist though the design may have been, there’s no denying the lasting impact left by the roadster that never was.
2015 Hyundai Santa Cruz Crossover Truck
A shaky inclusion on the list, since Hyundai promises a production version of the Santa Cruz is still on the way, but it’s been four years and we still haven’t seen it.
Utes, or pickup trucks, below the size of an F-150 aren’t a big deal in the United States. Subaru’s Brat (we know it as the Brumby) has a cult following, but car-based utes like the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero faded into obscurity in the past.
With the Santa Cruz Hyundai has tried to create a new segment, akin to the compact SUV landslide, even using the Tucson as a starting point.
Of course there’s no chance the Santa Cruz would have made it to production unscathed. But looking at the concept it’s not too hard to see how it might move from motor show fantasy to reality using the Tucson as a guide.
Compact enough for urban life, but amped up for active adventure seekers, the Santa Cruz could be the breakthrough segment pioneer Hyundai needs. If only they could ever get it to production.
2004 Saturn Curve
In a rather thought provoking way, the Saturn Curve managed to shake up traditional ideas about automobile proportions. It’s not classically good looking, but it still catches the eye and invites a second look.
GM’s goal with the now-retired Saturn brand was to create a domestic challenger to white goods on wheels from Japanese companies like Toyota and Nissan. After succeeding initially, a flirtation with pushing upmarket saw the brand lose its way.
The slinky Curve wore more than just pumped guards and a floating roof. Under the intriguing body work – designed in Sweden of all places – was GM’s Kappa platform, conceived as a compact rear-wheel drive chassis aimed at the Mazda MX-5.
Like the exterior, the interior was an intriguing play on traditional ideas with tongue-and-groove wood panels flowing into the leather dash for a striking, simple look. With 170kW from a 2.2-litre supercharged four-cylinder engine and a gated, Ferrari-inspired manual transmission, the light and low Curve promised to be an enthusiast's dream.
2003 Cadillac Sixteen
Move over Rolls-Royce, the standard of the world is back! Well, it would have been if the Cadillac Sixteen had found its way to production.
Just look at it. Mammoth proportions and a 13.6-litre 16-cylinder engine good for 750kW; what's not to like? It’s impossible to miss the supersized dash-to-axle ratio, huge chrome wheels, and acres of hand-finished leather and wood in the plush interior.
The engine bay is hand-polished as well, and is almost sculptural in its presentation, but the Sixteen hides a shameful secret. While its engine might laugh in the face of cylinder counts from Bentley, Roll-Royce and Mercedes-Benz, the engine and transmission owe their existence to GM’s truck division.
It was powered by a pair of V8s, if you were wondering, albeit equipped with cylinder deactivation technology in a token attempt to keep a lid on the Sixteen’s gargantuan fuel consumption (a suggested 14.1L/100km, sounds lean). And the automatic, it’s a four-speeder. Just four forward gears, hardly prestigious.
Doesn’t matter though. For sheer excess the Sixteen deserves more than cameos in Adam Sandler films (Click, in case you really want to see it), it deserves to be the chariot of choice for oligarchs, despots, and ‘legitimate businessmen’ around the globe.
2008 Dodge ZEO
More than a decade after Dodge revealed the ZEO, the world is still holding its breath for an electric car that tugs at heart strings and delivers enthusiast appeal.
Though the name mightn't have been imaginative (Zero Emissions Operation) the ZEO’s slinky 2+2 sport wagon body featured a swept roof, crouched low over swollen haunches. Front and rear scissor doors and a kamm-style rear give visual drama from any angle, stopped or not.
A 200kW motor driving the rear wheels promised a 0-100 km/h time in under 6.0 seconds, while the 64kWh lithium-ion battery gives “at least” 400 kilometres of touring range.
Fast-forward to 2019 and not only is there no sign of a production ZEO, but there’s no sign of anything that even comes close to matching its promise of enthusiast appeal in a plug-in package.
2014 Kia GT4 Stinger
Credit where it’s due. The fact the Stinger as we know it exists in all its five-door turbocharged glory is a marvellous thing, but the reason it looks as it does is Kia’s way of ensuring commercial success as coupe sales fall of a cliff.
That’s a proper shame too, as before the five-door Stinger arrived, Kia teased the world with the GT4 Stinger. Kia promised the GT4 Stinger harks back to a time “when driving a car was a visceral experience.”
At its beating heart the GT4 Stinger pumps 260kW from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, and sends power to the rear axle via a close-ratio six-speed manual. Visceral indeed.
A long bonnet, fastback styling, and generous width amplify the sporty proportions. There’s some concept-only touches, like transparent A-pillars and a heavily aluminium-trimmed interior, but looking past those the GT4 concept represents everything the Stinger could have been.
2008 Mazda Furai
Mazda has never built a supercar, but if it did the Furai gave a clear indication of how it might look. The sad part is, not only did the Furai miss a production slot, but following its debut the concept met a tragic end.
With a three-rotor ethanol-fuelled engine, and wild proportions, the Furai was the most aggressive of Mazda’s Nagare (Japanese for flow) series of concepts. Even sitting still the flow theme is obvious, with rippled surfaces that capture the essence of air in motion around the car.
With a suggested 336kW from its 20B engine the Furai was pure racing spec, with an engine prepared by Racing Beat slotted into an American Le Mans competition chassis built by Courage Compétition.
The fully-functional concept car was entirely capable of serious track work, and as it turns out, this would be its undoing. In 2013 Britain’s Top Gear magazine broke the news that, during a track session held in 2008, the Furai self-immolated.
What was left of the charred chassis made its way back to Mazda’s Advanced Design Studio in California, but what became of the striking concept after that remains a mystery.
The concepts that made this list are just the tip of the iceberg, and it wouldn't be hard to make a list of 20 breakthrough concepts or more. Keep your eye out for a rundown on some Detroit's biggest howlers, coming soon. In the meantime let us know what you think of these concepts and add your own Detroit favourites in the comments.