Back To The Future: Is Retro a thing of the past?

April 12, 2007
Concept car designers go back to the future with by-wire controls, asymmetry, solar power, and plenty of high-tech gewgaws.

Concept car designers go back to the future with by-wire controls, asymmetry, solar power, and plenty of high-tech gewgaws.


I've got nothing against retro as my wardrobe, '97 Camry, and beard readily testify. Still, I'm pleased that this year's concepts are mostly forward-thinking — with the partial exception of Ford's Airstream, a combination of Haight-Ashbury, sci-fi, and iconic design. Technology takes a front seat in this year's batch of concepts and Nature comes along for the ride (see the Mazda Ryuga).


Yasushi Nakamuta, chief designer for this project, says Ryuga's design expresses "Japanese concepts of mysterious beauty and intelligence." And a press release describes the vehicle's proportions as "dramatically windswept."

In fact, listening to Nakamuta describe the car is like hearing poetry or walking through a garden with a loving caretaker. Ryuga's side surfaces, Nakamuta explains, were inspired by karesansui (Japanese dry gardens). The headlamp shape resembles the flow of morning dew dropping from bamboo leaves. Flowing lava inspired the exterior color and the tail-lamp design.

But Mazda didn't forget the technology. Cameras at the front of each molding display rear views on the center cockpit. An E85/Gasoline Flex Fuel engine could power the Ryuga, with its steer-by-wire technology, but Mazda says it has no plans to produce the concept.

Ryuga is shorter and lower than the four-passenger RX-8 sports car, but accommodates the same number of passengers. A relatively long (110.2-in.) wheelbase and two gull-wing doors provide entry. The front seats are buckets. A floating center cluster and multifunction touch panel help the driver keep his eyes on the road. The open-top steering wheel is said to improve sight lines to the instruments.


The Airstream Concept is a futuristic crossover. Powered by a hydrogen hybrid-fuel-cell drive-train, the vehicle operates with electric power at all times. The advanced- fuel-cell system, which is half the weight and cost of today's fuel cells, delivers a combined city/highway equivalent of 41 mpg, the company says.

The concept combines design elements of aircraft, spacecraft, and the streamlined shape of Airstream trailers. The grille and headlamps form a single graphic. Each bold orange-trimmed windows has a different shape. The doors are also asymmetric. On the passenger side, a power clamshell door runs two-thirds the length of the vehicle. There's a three-door hatch for rear entry.

Inside, influences of Stanley Kubrick's 1960s film 2001: A Space Odyssey are at work. The pod-shaped front seats rotate for socializing. Lounge-like seating in the rear creates what Ford calls a "cocoon-like" environment. But the coup de grace has to be the 360° screen for entertainment, games, and ambient mood settings including modern lava lamp and virtual fire. The HYSeries Drive plug-in hydrogen fuel cell is already on the road in a Ford Edge prototype. The sole function of the fuel cell is to recharge the lithium-ion battery pack so it works like a portable generator, not like an engine.


The Interceptor comes equipped with a manual six-speed gearbox mated to a Ford Racing 5.0-liter V8 Cammer engine that delivers 400 hp and runs on E-85 ethanol. This is an upgraded variant of the 4.6-liter engine in the current production Mustang GT. The same modular engine powers Ford Racing's FR500C race car.

Based on the iconic Mustang, the Interceptor rolls on 22-in. wheels. A solid rear axle is said to give the ride a performance feel. The low-cabin, high-beltline "gangsta" look seems to draw inspiration from Chrysler's beefy sedans. Rearwheel-drive proportions contribute to short-front and long-rear overhangs, and extended dash-to-axle ratio.

Inside, the dash, headliner, and steering wheel are leather wrapped. The needles for both the speedometer and tachometer start at center moving in opposite directions as speed and rpm climb. Retractable headrests deploy from the roof. Audio control panel and climate controls also stow away.

Ford says the target for the interceptor is the family man. Why a family guy needs 400 hp in what looks like a coffin on wheels, it doesn't say.


With its Volt concept, GM introduces a family of propulsion systems (E-Flex) that produces electricity from gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, or hydrogen. Volt uses a large battery and a small 1-liter turbo gasoline engine to produce enough electricity to go 640 miles with triple-digit fuel economy. GM claims Volt could almost eliminate trips to the gas station.

The Volt's got room for four or five passengers and their stuff. It can climb a hill or keep the interior cool without the driver having to worry about running down the battery. Volt takes a complete charge from a 110-V outlet in about 6 hr. The lithium battery delivers 40 city miles of pure-electric range. When it's depleted, a three-cylinder gas engine recharges the battery.

If you live 30 miles from work (60 miles round trip) and charge the car every night, you'll get 150 mpg, says GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz. But the Volt also runs on E85, a blend of 15% gas and 85% ethanol.

In the event a driver forgets to charge the vehicle or strays far from home, Volt still gets 50 mpg with the engine converting gasoline into electricity. A lithium-ion battery pack weighing nearly 400 lb could make this concept a reality. Some experts predict such a battery could be ready in three to five years.

The Volt's design challenges the notion that an environmentally conscious car's got to look like . . . well, like an environmentally conscious car. Classic Chevrolet cues suggest both Camaro and Corvette.

Measuring 170 in. long, 52.6 in. high, and 70.5 in. wide, the concept sedan is about the size of the Chevy Cobalt. The wheels (21 × 7.5 in.) are pushed outward to the corners.

The roof, side glass, and beltline are made from a transparent, glazed polycarbonate material that's scratch resistant. In addition to the upper daylight opening and roof, all the exterior panels are composite. The front door hinges, milled from billets of stainless steel, extend into the front quarter fenders. There's a plug-in recharging port on either side. A twin-port front grille, center-positioned bowtie, and lower air-intake deck the front.

Underneath, a flat, composite molded belly pan blends with the fascias and rockers. The belly plan contributes to Volt's 0.30 coefficient of drag.

GM's hoping people would take one home based on its good looks — and not just because it turns up its sporty nose at gas stations. See a video tour of GM's E-Flex platform online at (episode 7).


The HCD10 Hellion is a compact three-door sport crossover (CUV). "The proportions of the HCD10 Hyundai Hellion make it look and feel tough," says Marc Mainville, senior designer at the Hyundai Design Center. "Short overhangs are good for off-roading and the skid plates, muscular wheel flares, and tow hooks convey strength."

Hyundai used three ultralightweight structural ribs to form the safety cage. The ribs connect to a suspended surfboard-shaped spine. A prominent hood scoop and latches on the clamshell hood project an aggressive demeanor. The windshield's fast rake counters an otherwise stout profile. Aluminum skid plates extend under the vehicle from the front and rear bumpers.

Hellion's taillights emphasize the tapering of the greenhouse and the wide wheel flares. Dual chrome--exhaust tips emerge between the bumper and skid plate. The fabric of the removable canvas soft-top has a subtle camouflage pattern, which can be personalized to suit the customer. And in a nod to the famous rally race, the exterior is painted Dakar Gold. The two-piece 20-in. aluminum wheels are Teflon coated.

Inside, the ribs support an overhead console running the length of the interior. The console houses interior lighting and a drop-down LCD monitor for rearseat entertainment. Four race-inspired bucket seats sport camouflage-pattern trim. Glossy white accents and matte aluminum details contrast with the black interior. Seat-mounted gear packs double as backpacks.

The bucket seats contain what Hyundai calls a "hands-free hydration system." A removable reservoir inside each seat replaces the common cupholder. According to the company, a pump-assisted tube attached to each seat lets driver and passengers "hydrate with ease." An instrument panel-mounted display keeps tabs on all in-car systems.

A 3.0-liter V6 common-rail diesel engine with 236 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque mates to a six-speed automatic transmission. And, of course, there's 4WD.


The Kia Kue crossover concept "embodies the next phase of our brand evolution," says Len Hunt, executive vice president and COO of Kia Motors America. The company says the Kue will give the driver an exhilarating experience on the way to the home improvement center.

The concept's monocoque platform rests on 22-in. tires. The wheelbase exceeds 114 in. and overall length is 186 in. A 400-hp DOHC supercharged 4.6-liter V8 putting out 400 lb-ft of torque means the Kue's got legs. Full-time AWD harnesses the power.

Draped wheel flares contrast the beveled body sections. Swept-back headlights make for an assertive appearance. The side window seems to flow into the rear backlight where two centerline, hinging doors access rear storage.

Inside, custom buckets seat four. Touchpad controls handle audio and climate systems. Rear passengers have their own interface. Though purely a concept, Kia says the Kue hints at future styling directions.


Trailhawk is far more luxurious than that utilitarian Jeep of yesteryear. It combines off-road features of the new four-door Wrangler Unlimited with those of an on-road, open-air concept. Built on the new Wrangler platform, the company describes Trailhawk as a highway cruiser with off-road capabilities.

The wheelbase measures 116 in., while front and rear overhangs are short. The body side is muscular and broad-shouldered. The pillars are set back. Wide, flared fenders, offset from the body, house five-spoke 22-in. wheels, each 34 in. (overall diameter). The body tapers toward the front to enhance the flares and accent the wide stance. A red stripe accents the tires, and the color recurs on the exposed brake calipers.

The lower body kicks outward along the bottom of the doors, and silver molding highlights a recessed running board. A trapezoidal vent displays the Trail Rated badge. The seven-slot grille tilts rearwards. Beneath the chamfered headlamps, HID projector-beam quad lamps light the way. LEDs, configured in parallel stripes, provide park and turn signals.

The vehicle's upper structure rests on the lower body, encased by a chamfered 360° molding around the green-house. The body is painted in Argent Pearl high-gloss, with the flares and lower body slightly darker. The Trailhawk name derives from the hawkish expression of the grille and headlamps.

The side windows retract fully, leaving no B-pillar, while the diagonal quarter windows also retract. Twin longitudinal glass panels over the first and second-row seats and the glass panel over the cargo compartment are removable, as is the swing-up backlight. The fixed central spine contains overhead lighting and storage.

The cross-car instrument panel and central-spine floor console dominate the interior. The leather-wrapped aluminum steering wheel has light and speed controls. Two front/rear combination armrest/storage bin modules move fore or aft on concealed tracks. The armrest houses a flipout pad for the flat-screen navigation system.

An electronic gear selector/ park brake mounts on the right side of the steering column. In the cargo area, each quarter panel houses a portable "audio pod" sound system. Each pod is fitted with a dock for an MP3 player. Jerry-can-style boxes for first aid or road-hazard gear mount forward of the speaker pods.

Trailhawk's interior was designed electronically, without traditional sketches or 3D models.


The four-door, four-passenger Chrysler Nassau luxury coupe, built on a full-size 120-in. wheelbase, only looks smaller than the comparable Chrysler 300C. The silhouette, recalling the classic English "shooting brake," offers SUV-like space and a lower profile.

Wheel placement relative to the body surface makes for a sleek stance. Concise front and rear overhangs create a compact appearance, with the body wrapped around 10-spoke 21-in. wheels. Accenting the Mystic Blue Pearl color of the body, the sill and the lower portions of the front and rear fascias are finished in Starbright Silver.

Though the arc of the roof resembles that of a coupe, the concept is a four-door hardtop with front and rear side glass that retracts fully and no above-the-belt B-pillar. The tail-lamps graphically reverse the headlamps, with the lenses growing wider as they sweep to the side. All exterior lighting uses atypical textures, colors, and LED technology.

The egg-crate grille is chrome and satin aluminum. Long, narrowing headlamps and chrome brows combine with the rising line of the upper fascia to evoke the wings of the Chrysler badge.

Inside, Chrysler pushed the interior surfaces outboard to increase space and dropped in four bucket seats. The contemporary design of cell phones, computers, iPods, and MP3 players inspired the interior components.

The instrument panel showcases new technologies in data display, personal control interface, and home-theater-inspired entertainment. The driver uses a control pod on the instrument panel to switch gears, and the steering wheel incorporates auxiliary paddle shifters.

A three-layer screen in the instrument panel simultaneously displays navigation, passenger entertainment, and vehicle functions. Video screens in the rear of the front-seat headrests entertain rear-seat passengers. Longitudinal glass panels run the length of the roof.

The 6.1-liter Hemi delivers 425 hp at 6,200 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. Nassau has RWD and A580 five-speed automatic transmission. She can climb to 60 mph in 5 sec and shoot a standing quarter mile in 13.5 sec. Top speed is 165 mph, with an estimated weight of 4,500 lb.


This male-centric concept combines asymmetrical styling, three-zone interior, and technology ranging from roof-mounted solar panels to drive-by-wire steering, throttle, and braking. The wheels, grille, and disc-brake venting reflect recurring use of hexagons, suggestive of a socket or tool.

Men, ages 45 to 60, are Bevel's target demographic. "They don't need a heavy-duty pickup or room for a lot of passengers, and probably drive alone more than 90% of the time.

What they need is an extension of their tool-boxes, workshops, and garages," says Bruce Campbell, vice president design at Nissan Design America.

Bevel rides on a 115.4-in. wheelbase, longer than Nissan Murano (111.2 in.) but shorter than the Quest (124.0 in.). Short front and rear overhangs give it an overall length of 173.2 in. Width is 75.0 in. Overall height of 63.8 in. is nearly 3-in. shorter than Murano, but with the low load floor the total interior cargo height is the same.

A low front end, large windshield, and flared wheel wells with 20-in. wheels mark the exterior. Rubber inserts protect the wheels against curb damage. The long driver's side door pivots on a special four-bar/two-position hinge for easy entry. The driver's side rear body panel is solid, except for a narrow, horizontal upper window. There are two doors on the passenger side. The back door makes a 67.3-in.-wide opening.

A one-piece rear hatch with horizontal hinge arrangement rises 6 ft 2 in. from the ground, protecting Mr. D-I-Y from the elements. With the hatch open, a quasi-workbench folds down. The bench quick-releases for removal and storage. Solar cells beneath the glass roof panels power one 12-V outlet and one 110-V recharging outlet.

On the roof, six hexagon-shaped "pucks" with pop-up hooks handle loads up to 250 lb. Other exterior features include hidden LCD headlights and projector fog lamps, LCD taillights within the tailgate surround, breakaway fiber-optic side cameras in lieu of sideview mirrors, hidden exhaust outlets, and touch-sensitive door-release keypads in the door-window glass.

The interior is divided into three zones. The first zone is the driver's area where a section of the floor swings out with the driver's door. Drive-by-wire throttle, braking, and steering make a floating instrument panel possible. The instrument panel moves forward 4 in. when the driver's door opens, returning to the original position when it closes. By-wire controls also let designers move the firewall forward nearly a foot, making extra room for the driver and occasional front-seat passenger. The center console houses a control knob for the Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission.

The second zone is the information/technology zone. The fully digital instrument panel features a series of screens. Side LCD monitors on the outer edges of the instrument panel display images from the sideview cameras. The center display offers adjustable image sizes and typefaces, and switches between vehicle information, HVAC, navigation, entertainment, and home menus. A wireless tablet-display computer connects the driver with the information center when he's outside the vehicle.

The third zone is the utility/pet zone. Fold-flat front passenger and rear bench seats create front-to-rear floor space. The flooring is laminated, recycled walnut for a hard benchlike surface. Bevel has special accommodations for pets. There's a 360° pet-leash connection in the front passenger area and a removable pet carrier that stows securely in back.

The likely powerplant is a 2.5-liter V6 with HEV.

Visit (select Episode 3) for video of the concept cars.

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