The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is one part trade fair and one part Barnum & Bailey Circus. Concept cars are the prancing ponies -- or sometimes the pratfalling clowns.
Car makers use auto-show concept cars, usually one-of-a-kind prototypes built by hand, to capture the imaginations of the press and public with flashy visions of what might come tomorrow. Some show cars are pure whimsy, confections dreamed up by young designers at play.
More and more, as at this year's Detroit show, car makers like General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are pursuing concept cars that have serious intent. Some are thinly disguised prototypes of cars in the pipeline. Some present a technology idea that executives want to road-test with the press and public.
Here are some of this year's notable show cars:
-- GMC Granite
GMC, one of the four U.S. brands that survived the General Motors bankruptcy, is best known for sturdy commercial trucks, large pickups and beefy Yukon and Suburban sport-utilities. Now GM has decided it wants to expand the GMC brand with some more-petite offerings. Behold the Granite, which GMC describes as an "urban utility vehicle" and "the automotive equivalent of an urban loft apartment."
To be sure, a very small urban loft apartment, equipped with a 1.4-liter engine and a six-speed transmission. If the idea of a boxy, four-cylinder urban micro-wagon rings a bell, that's because this is pretty much the idea behind the existing flock of vehicles led by the Toyota Scion xB, and joined more recently by the Nissan Cube and the Kia Soul.
-- Toyota FT-CH
Toyota has struggled for years to figure out what is hip. When the company was enjoying huge financial success and gaining market share, its leaders worried that having a reputation for bulletproof quality and smart technology wasn't enough. Now that the company has stumbled badly on the quality front, and recorded a big loss for the first half of its fiscal year, Toyota's crusade for hipness is taking on more urgency.
The FT-CH, a compact hybrid with a key-lime-green color scheme and a compact, hatchback profile, was designed by one of Toyota's European design teams. According to the company, the team sought to channel the feel of early 1980s 8-bit microprocessor videogames such as Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog.
-- Hyundai Blue-Will
The Chevrolet Volt hasn't even hit the market, but already GM can claim that it has changed the conventional wisdom in the auto industry about so-called plug-in hybrids -- cars that derive some of their power from gasoline engines, and some from plugging into the electric grid. Not so long ago, the industry wisdom on plug-ins was that they represented a fringe technology, too expensive for mass production. The Hyundai Blue-Will concept is an acknowledgment that in the future every major player in the U.S. market will have to have either a plug-in model or an all-electric model to be taken seriously.
-- Audi e-tron and BMW Concept ActiveE
On the floor of the Detroit Auto Show, the Audi e-tron show car sits across the aisle from the display of electric sports cars from Tesla Motors Inc. The juxtaposition is apt. The e-tron -- a variant of a concept Audi started showing last year -- represents the next step in the evolution of electric luxury cars from politically correct green technology to a more hedonistic, high-performance appeal, an evolution that is a foundation of Tesla's business. The Audi e-tron's styling borrows the aggressive stance and high-performance promise of the brand's $114,200 R8 super sports car. Not far from the Audi show vehicle is BMW AG's latest iteration of electric drive, the Concept ActiveE -- more easily described as an electric 1-series coupe.
-- Mini Beachcomber
BMW has said from Day One in its relaunch of the Mini franchise that it intended to create a family of Minis, reviving more than just the iconic Mini Cooper two-door. The Mini Beachcomber concept represents a tricked-out version of a real fourth model Mini to launch later this year: a Mini crossover. The Beachcomber's open-sided body and beach-buggy vibe is designed to recall the Mini Moke -- a tiny Jeep-like dune buggy Mini produced in the mid-1960s to the delight of beach bums everywhere in the British Commonwealth.
在Mini系列车型重新面世的第一天，宝马汽车便表示要打造Mini车家族而不仅仅是将重振Mini Cooper双座车。Mini Beachcomber概念车大胆前卫的设计为今年晚些时候发布的Mini家族第四代：Mini Crossover奠定了基础。这款车的敞开式车身以及沙滩越野车风范都让人回想起Mini Moke──这款有着吉普外形的迷你沙滩车诞生于上世纪60年代中期的英国，以迎合当时遍布英联邦各地的沙滩爱好者们。
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