Concept cars 2012: A glimpse of the future

March 22, 2012
Whether consumers want ecoconscious electric cars, gasburning performance or economy, or a hybrid of the two, the world’s automakers seem ready to build it

Authored by:
Stephen J. Mraz
Senior Editor
[email protected]





Smart car
Toyota Motor Sales USA
Volkswagen of America

Ten Years of concept cars

Whether consumers want ecoconscious electric cars, gasburning performance or economy, or a hybrid of the two, the world’s automakers seem ready to build it.

This year’s Detroit Auto Show featured several concept cars, everything from micromini pickups to flashy highperformance hybrids. There was also a good mix of powertrains showcased, including several all-electric cars and vans and a wide variety of hybrids. And conventional gas-powered concepts also held their own.

Conventional engines
The low, sleek FR-S (front-engine, rear-wheel-drive) sport car from Scion could help you forget the boxy designs the company is known for. It carries a 200-hp, 2-liter boxer engine mounted in front, but lower and farther back than other front-engine cars. This gives the concept car a lower center of gravity and a front-to-rear weight ratio conducive to good handling and dynamics. The engine uses direct and port injection for more power — 200 hp — as well as more torque throughout the powerband without sacrificing fuel economy. The flat four mates to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.

Chevrolet is looking to connect with car buyers under the age of 30, hoping to tap into some of their estimated $1 trillion in purchasing power. One concept car they have designed with the younger buyers in mind is the Code 130R, a four-seat coupe. It features a 1.4-liter turbocharged EcoTec engine that can crank out 150 hp or 148 lb-ft of torque, and still get 40 mpg (highway). The car also uses eAssist, a combination of features that include shutting off the engine at stops, regenerative braking, and smoothing torque during accelerations. These features should help balance turbocharged performance with fuel economy.

The other youth-targeted concept car from Chevy is the Tru 140S, a streamlined front-wheel-drive sports coupe. The four-seat, three-door hatchback is based on the same platform as the Cruze and Volt. It carries the same engine and powertrain features as the Code 130R.

Chevy plans to market both of these cars soon and with the features young car buyers say they want. This includes a price tag under $20k, fuel economy of at least 40 mpg, as well Wi-Fi, smartphone integration, a headsup display, and Chevy’s MyLink connectivity.

To get this audience’s opinions on what the interior and dashboard should look like, Chevy will take the cars to several major auto shows, key lifestyle events such as concerts and festivals, and college campuses. There, they will use kiosks and other social media to gather opinions and suggestions.

The MKZ concept car is the next step in the reinvention of Lincoln, according to that company’s Vice President of Global Product Development, Derrick Katz. Though clearly conservative in design, the MKZ does feature a glass roof that stretches from the windshield back to the rear window and from the left roof rail to the right rail, The four-door, four-seat sedan can be equipped with a variety of front or rear-wheel-drive engines. Many auto observers believe that when the MKZ comes to the showrooms, it will carry a 300-hp, 3.7-liter engine, the same one found in the MKS. It might also have an optional twin-turbo 3.6-liter EcoBoost V6 with about 355 hp. And a hybrid version is also a possibility.

The car boasts a continuously controlled damping suspension, which is driver adjustable, and Ford’s lane-keeping subsystem that alerts drivers when the vehicle strays from its lane. And in a retro touch, the car’s automatic transmission is controlled using pushbuttons.

The NS4 from Toyota uses a nextgeneration plug-in hybrid drive, which should get better acceleration, longer all-electric range, shorter charging times, and be smaller and lighter, compared to the current Prius powertrain. But the NS4 delivers more styling and user convenience and safety than the Prius. Its dashboard, for example, is a multitouchscreen that has the look and feel of a smartphone. Besides keeping drivers aware of engine parameters, it also controls the air conditioning, infotainment center, battery charging, and navigation. It also adapts to driver preferences, anticipating driver responses to specific environments and situations.

Toyota engineers also packed the NS4 with next-generation safety features, including a precollision subsystem with lane-departure warning and rear-end and pedestrian- collision avoidance. A millimeter-wave radar, along with stereo cameras mounted on the front, detects pedestrians and other vehicles. A near-IR transmitter and receiver augments the cameras at night. The subsystem applies the brakes and provides a gentle steering nudge when it detects an obstruction or the car is leaving its lane.

Cameras replace inner and outer rearview mirrors and give drivers a panoramic view to the rear. A dedicated screen mounted above the nav display shows drivers a wider view than conventional mirrors. The rearview screen is also part of the Blind Spot Monitor. It uses submillimeter radar to detect vehicles in adjacent lanes and alerts the driver using symbology on the rearview screen.

If a front-end crash with a pedestrian is imminent, the rear of the hood pops up slightly, helping to cushion the pedestrian’s head and reduce injuries. Tests with crash dummies show it should indeed limit injuries at low speeds.

The NSX concept car from Acura is the first vehicle to carry the Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (superhandling all-wheel-drive) hybrid powertrain. It combines a midmounted direct-injection V6 with two electric motors that have bilaterally adjustable torque control. This means that in turns, positive torque can be sent to the outside front wheel and negative torque to the inside front wheel to improve handling. The car could generate as much as 400 hp.

The car will make extensive use of lightweight materials, and it will have to if Acura is correct when it says the car will have an “extremely favorable” power-to-weight ratio, despite having to carry batteries for the electric motors.

The eye-popping LF-LC from Lexus is a hybrid-powered 2+2 sports-coupe concept car. The company has yet to release details on the powertrain other than to say it will be a front-engine, rear-wheeldrive configuration. But by the looks of the car, the hybrid powertrain should provide some serious horsepower. Designers also took pains to combine eye-catching looks with functionality. The distinctive spindle grille, for example, has working air intakes tucked into the bottom corners. And daytime running lights are L-shaped, with the vertical fog lamps given a fading dot-matrix pattern that suggest movement. Rear fog lamps carry the same pattern.

On the inside, the LF-LC’s dash boasts two 12.3-in. LCD screens that show nav and climate-control data, infotainment options, and other information. The driver controls these subsystems using a touchscreen display on the center console, It can display a virtual keyboard for making more detailed inputs.

BMW’s i8 hybrid concept car, which could go on sale next year for about $171,000, carries a 128-hp electric motor up front and a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine in the back. The two are connected by a so-called “energy tunnel” running down the center of the car that contains batteries for the motor and drivetrain electronics. Drivers can select various configurations, including all-wheel drive. Combining the motor and engine this way gives the car about 348 hp, a top speed governed at 155 mph, and 0 to 62-mph times of 4.6 sec. Fuel economy should be in the 33 to 47-mpg range.

The i8 has transparent doors and roof, a styling feature unlikely to make it to production. And unlike most performance cars, the i8 will be outfitted with wheels 225 to 235-mm wide. These narrow wheels generate less drag and rolling resistance, and don’t take up as much interior space.

The car uses a lot of aluminum and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, which help keep the 2+2 light, about 3,250 lb. The back seat is said to be extremely cramped, but the small rear seats leave 5.3 ft3 of space for the trunk.

To take some load off the driver, the i8’s nav system is used to determine which driving mode will be used on upcoming trips. For example, a long stretch of highway driving might call for just the gas engine, while a leg through a downtown area would have the car switch to pure electric power. Drivers can also switch between efficiency or sport modes. And dashboard lighting switches to let the driver know which one he’s in (blue for efficiency; orange for sporty).

In all-electric mode, the car has a range of about 20 miles. The batteries recharge in under 2 hr.

At Infiniti design studios, engineers have combined a luxury coupe and a hatchback, and thrown in a few crossoverlike traits as well, to come up with the Etherea. The four-seater is powered by a 245-hp supercharged 2.5-liter engine with four cylinders. It also contains a battery-powered motor, and the torque and power from both sources gets sent through a continuously variable transmission.

All electric
Engineers at Volkswagen transformed the company’s iconic Bug into the all-electric E-Bugster, a twoseat speedster (but with a rear bench seat). Power to go from 0 to 60 mph in 10.9 sec comes from a 114-hp motor supplied with electricity from a lithium-ion battery pack. The battery stores 28.3 kW-hr of energy, enough to give the E-Bugster a 110-mile range. The motor and batteries weigh about 175 lb and mount beneath the trunk and the rear bench seat. This electric powertrain, dubbed Blue-e-Motion, will likely be used in other VW vehicles, including an all-electric Golf due to be on the market next year.

The battery is recharged using a plug underneath the hood’s VW logo. The car can be recharged using 120-V outlets common in the U. S., 230-V outlets found in Europe, or from a quick-charging station, which gives an 85% charge in 30 min. The E-Bugster also is designed to carry the new Combined Charging System (CCS), which was jointly developed by German carmakers Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche, and Volkswagen. It will let the concept car “fill up” using single-phase ac current or faster dc charging. Before this can happen, however, a standard plug connector, as well as the charge controller and its electrical architecture needs to be developed. But once these issues are resolved, the CCS should lower costs and make charging stations more common.

The Smart Car Co. reinvented the pickup truck as an all-electric micro mini they call the “for-us.” The car is a bit larger than the standard Smart car and has more clearance, which suggest it might ultimately morph into a micro-offroader. This is backed up by the fact it comes with Michelin off-road tires and the company’s suggestion that adding hub motors to the front wheels would make it a fourwheel- drive vehicle.

Power comes from a 17.6 kW-hr lithium-ion battery pack feeding a 55-kW motor. The powertrain can generate 96 lb-ft of torque and give the little truck a 120-mph top speed. The battery pack takes 8 hr to fully recharge, and about 3.5 hr to recharge from 20 to 80%, but the company is silent on how much range the truck might have.

The truck’s dashboard will hold a smartphone, which then links to the vehicle’s rearview camera and displays what it is seeing. There also a power-retracting tailgate that makes it easy to get in and out of the 3-ft bed. The bed is designed to carry a pair of Smart e-bikes with docking stations for recharging the bikes’ batteries. Each bike carries a 250-W brushless motor on the rear wheel hub and enough battery power to run for 60 miles.

Storage space is tight, but the rear taillights open up to reveal space for charging cables or water bottles.

Nissan unveiled its all-electric, zero-emission van, the e-NV200, which should have the same range as the company’s all-electric LEAF (63 to 138 miles, depending on driving and conditions). The van carries an 80-kW ac synchronous motor that puts out 207 lb-ft of torque. The 192-cell lithium-ion battery pack weighs about 600 lb and stores 24 kW-hr of energy.

The car company is touting the e-NV200 as the “Taxi of Tomorrow,” saying the all-electric design makes it ideal for urban fleets. (The van’s conventionally powered cousin, the NV200, was selected by New York City as its official standard cab.) To this end, Nissan made sure the all-electric e-NV200 could comfortably seat four passengers, plus their luggage (149 ft3 of cargo space). And the nav system can display the nearest charging stations (shown).

The four-passenger i3 from BMW is one of the few cars built from the ground up as an all-electric vehicle. To keep the car as light as possible, the car is made mostly of aluminum and carbon- fiber-reinforced plastic. This lets the car weigh in at 2,750 lb. In comparison, the all-electric Nissan Leaf weighs 3,366 lb.

The car has a 170-hp motor mounted above the rear axle, which sends power through a single-speed transmission. Electricity is stored in a liquid-cooled lithiumion battery pack under the floor of the passenger compartment. BMW won’t say how much energy the battery can store. But realistic mileage figures for the small coupe range from 80 to 100 miles. Recharging the battery is said to take 6 hr from a standard electrical outlet in Europe, significantly longer from an American outlet, and under 1 hr for an 80% charge from an optional fast-charger. The car can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 7.9 sec, and top speed is limited to 93 mph. Restricting the top speed is one way BMW ensures the battery doesn’t drain too quickly.

The drivetrain uses regenerative braking and is set up so that when the driver takes his foot of the accelerator, the regeneration begins immediately and significantly slows the car. BMW says this should account for 75% of the braking in city driving.

Other features include Proactive Front Protection, which uses a camera mounted beneath the rearview mirror to scan for cars and pedestrians. If the car is traveling 37 mph or less and a car or person is detected, the car automatically applies the brakes. And the Traffic Jam Assistant maintains a safe following distance to the car in front and keeps the i3 in its lane at speeds up to 25 mph. The Assistant will stop the car if necessary. BMW suggests drivers could safely make phone calls or check e-mail, as long as they keep one hand on the steering wheel to keep the Assistant engaged.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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