There are two main types of concept cars. The first is the kind that’s thinly veiled as a concept but that is actually close to full production. These vehicles are a way for automakers to do some final gauging of consumer interest and last-minute tweaking of the design and underpinnings.
Examples here would be the Bentley Bentayga and Tesla Model X. And fanboys galore are still eagerly awaiting nearly-there rides like the BMW i8 Spyder, Ford GT, and Lamborghini Urus models we’ve been promised based on their concepts.
The other kind is the insane, rocket-ship concept whose cartoonish design instantly communicates it’ll never see a showroom floor. That they may never make it to actual production -- even in a form altered enough to comply with federal safety and regulatory standards -- is beside the point. The value here comes in generating hype. And, again, in showing off -- whether or not the car is even drivable (many are not).
Of course, there can be a downside to this. Much weeping has been shared among enthusiasts and auto critics that the silver bullet-like Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo, cool Lamborghini Estoque sedan, and open-top Aston Martin CC100 Speedster Concept never reached widespread production.
“Our concept cars show in a host of details what our customers can look forward to in future production models,” said Ola Kaellenius, a member of Daimler’s board of management. Meanwhile, if the concept cars attract enough attention, they’ll get buyers through the front door to check out the ones currently for sale.
What does it take?
It usually takes an automaker about a year to develop a concept car. It can be less, though, if the idea springs from somebody as powerful as GM’s former iconoclast Chairman Bob Lutz. And it can be several years if the concept is intended from the beginning to move toward a production model.
The process involves dozens of designers and engineers, and it costs millions of dollars. Kelley Blue Book’s DeLorenzo said concept and prototype cars generally cost from $5 million to $10 million to develop as one-offs, and even more for those earmarked for later production. In that case it’s notoriously difficult to quantify the price of just the concept, since that cost is wrapped into the sum involved with the entire making of the vehicle.
“We will spend more than £3 billion ($4.5 billion) this year on new product creation and capital expenditure,” said Nathan Hoyt of Jaguar Land Rover. The brand has 12 major new products it will launch in 2016.
“We [are] investing more now in product development than at any other point,” said Sangyup Lee, Bentley’s head of design, who worked on the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept coupe. He declined to give specifics about what we can expect in 2016.
Other automakers, including Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Lamborghini, either declined or did not answer requests for comment about the exact amount of money they spend.
Wins and losses
What makes a concept car successful? It’s a combination of generating hype, demonstrating close-to-realistic technology, and being either feasible enough to produce or revolutionary enough to inspire. At the 1991 auto show in Tokyo, the styling and design philosophy of the Audi Avus effectively launched the retro movement that included the new Beetle, Thunderbird, PT Cruiser, and Mini Cooper.
Also in 1991, the Mercedes-Benz F100 premiered pioneering bodywork, new safety functions, and a novel seating concept, which have all trickled down to modern models. And the limo-like Maybach Landaulet certainly helped smooth the way for recent incarnations of massive überluxe sedans like, say, the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Others, like the Chrysler M80 compact pickup concept, just didn’t excite enough fans to make it to reality.
“It looked way cool and got great public reaction, but the margins were so small and it was such a big investment that Chrysler decide to pass on it,” DeLorenzo said. “They just couldn’t make any money.”