Race a concept car? Gamers get to put virtual designs to the test

Mercedes-Benz was the first to unveil a Vision Gran Turismo concept.

UPDATED: 8/11/14 9:25 ET - adds Toyota teaser video

Nissan's brooding "Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo" is so bold that you'd half expect to see Batman eject from the cockpit. It boasts huge wheels, aggressive concaves on its sides and a "rear active wing" that adjusts height based on speed.

This sort of grandiose design language usually is saved for auto show concept cars, with spectators left to ogle behind a velvet rope and only imagine what it would be like to drive one.

But the 2020 is part of a special breed of cars designed exclusively for virtual racing in "Gran Turismo 6," the latest installment of the iconic video game franchise for Sony's PlayStation system. Most of these concepts from the world's top automakers may exist in digital form only, but unlike the off-limits auto show spectacles, they can be put to the test by gamers as if they were the real thing.

The designs were the outgrowth of Vision Gran Turismo, a creative "festival" that called for automakers to dream up concepts for PlayStation 3 gamers across the globe in a celebration of the "Gran Turismo" game series' 15th anniversary. Mercedes-Benz was the first automaker to unveil a Vision GT concept when it showed a physical version of the "Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo" in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show before the game's release last December.

Design mavens from BMW, Volkswagen, Aston Martin and others followed suit with their own creations for gamers to drive.

"Our designers worked very closely with the engineering team to develop a race car that is ready to beat the competition," said Adrian van Hooydonk, global head of design for BMW Group, in an e-mail. "This is one of very few opportunities to experience a show car with realistic driving physics and impressive engine sounds."

The feature set for the "BMW Vision Gran Turismo" reads like a spec sheet for a real-live vehicle. It "weighs" 2,601 pounds and sports a 3-liter, six-cylinder engine with M TwinPower Turbo technology, generating 541 hp. It also includes a sequential six-speed transmission that's run with steering-mounted paddle shifters.

Nissan's Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo

From virtual to reality

The automakers craft designs and send the vehicle specs over to Sony subsidiary Polyphony Digital, the video game studio behind "Gran Turismo," for development. "Gran Turismo" engineers sometimes alert them if a particular number doesn't bode well for in-game performance.

Game players can download the new cars as they become available by completing a simple challenge, or add them later using credits that can be earned by playing the game or purchased with real money.

Nissan Europe's design team, based in London, emphasized aerodynamics with its Concept 2020. Design Director Taisuke Nakamura compared it to a grounded jet fighter during a recent video reveal. Polyphony and Nissan engineers cooperated to synthesize the right noise to match the powertrain specs and character with their concept, a blend of hybrid and gasoline engine tones that Nakamura compared to a bullet train.

Nissan built a real-life mockup of its Vision GT design and showed it off this summer during the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England. Nakamura said his young team was antsy before seeing the final build after a detailed design process that included input from Nissan engineers on specifications such as wing height.

"We were actually scared to see the model because we never work-ed on a physical mockup," Nakamura said in an interview. "The whole design was completed by digital software."

'Friendly rivalry'

Just as engineers and designers gauge spectator reactions at auto shows, presenting designs in the virtual realm opens doors for consumer feedback that teams could use on future projects, said Frank Saucedo, director of General Motors' North Hollywood Advanced Design Center.

GM is working on a concept for the Vision GT program. Saucedo said his team has had practice with the "Corvette Stingray Gran Turismo Concept" that released in January.

The idea behind the Stingray concept, which wasn't a Vision GT vehicle, was to create a car that's just as comfortable on the racetrack as the streets. The Corvette C7 was the foundation, but it was modified with a grille, hood, spoiler, front bumper and prototype Michelin wheels.

Saucedo said his team went back and forth with GM's vice president of global design, Ed Welburn, and Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi. Yamauchi, who's an active racer, had specific ideas for the concept's aerodynamics, roll bar, interior and ride height.

A full-scale model of the Stingray concept was shown at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show last November.

Saucedo said GM is waiting for the perfect time to bring out its Vision GT contribution.

Saucedo added that he has a "friendly rivalry" going with Mercedes-Benz design boss Gorden Wagener, his former colleague at Volkswagen. Wagener's team revealed a second concept, the performance-geared "Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo Racing Series," in January.

"All of the companies are vying for where they're going to put their vehicle," Saucedo said. "We're not sure when we're going to send ours because we want to make sure we get the spotlight when we launch."

Toyota teases its Vision GT concept

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86



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