DETROIT - Usually, when an automaker creates a concept car, the design department takes its penned renderings, calls an outside prototyping company, cuts a check for $1 million and waits about a year for a finished product.
That wasn't the case for Mitsubishi Motors' new sports-car-cum-sport-utility concept, the SSU. Mitsubishi's U.S. design studio created the running prototype from scratch - from pencil first hitting paper to the SSU's first drive around the block - in house and in just four months.
Mitsubishi unveiled the SSU at this month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The studio's schedule was downright audacious. Its pencil-sketch design reached quarter-scale clay model status in only three weeks. Work on the full-size clay actually began before the quarter-scale model was finished, said Roger Zrimec, Mitsubishi Motors America Inc. design studio director.
The full-sized clay was completed in four weeks, during which time engineers already had begun modifying the vehicle's chassis.
BUILDING FROM SCRATCH
Although some off-the-shelf parts were used to speed the process, Mitsubishi also had to come up with unique componentry.
The entire body was created from carbon fiber pieces sculpted from handmade plaster molds. The 31-inch low-profile Good-year tires were custom made and mated to specially cast 20-inch wheels. The laser taillights were the first application of new technology from Visteon Automotive Systems. Recaro GmbH made the concept vehicle's custom-color seats.
Even though the concept is larger than a Chevrolet Suburban, Mitsubishi chose to work from a unibody car platform to create a better ride, said SSU chief designer Mike Desmond.
But building such a large vehicle on a unibody structure diminishes its torsion and rigidity, especially when the design calls for suicide doors. So Mitsubishi used computer-aided design techniques to strengthen the A-pillar and C-pillar. It also added support beams across the roof at the B-pillar to create a grid of cross-members.
THE BODY ELECTRIC
The body's electrical system was also new. The team created an updated version of the all-in-one computerized system seen on Mitsubishi's SST Spyder concept car last year.
Using a mouse built into the center console and a screen cut into the dashboard, an occupant can control the audio and climate control systems, make cellular telephone calls, log-on to the Internet, get e-mail, play video games and DVD disks, link up a Palm Pilot database, and send and receive pages. There are no buttons to push, just a mouse to direct.
To be sure, creating the prototype on such a short deadline required plenty of nights when designers fell asleep in their cars in the parking lot at 4 a.m., awoke two hours later and went back to work.
One of those people was John Hull, in charge of the body electric work. But amazingly, Hull also found time to compose the industrial-techno music played at the SSU's auto show introduction.