Before a car is produced, every vehicle from the Mitsubishi Mirage to the McLaren P1 undergoes a conceptual stage where the engineers are allowed to run loose with the purse strings and little regard to real world concerns. It’s at this stage that engineers can take risks, explore new design ideas, and sample new design language with little to no risk of financial harm for the automaker.
Most of the time — almost all the time, actually — the production car will draw from small nuances seen in the concept, but in a much more sedate form (this goes back to the real world considerations and actual purse strings), and sometimes the concept won’t see production at all; in a few cases this might actually be a good thing, but in some insances, it can be heart-breaking.
We took a look at numerous concepts from the last ten or so years that really stood out (to us, anyway). The common theme is that despite being showered with love and affection from the critics, they never saw the factory floor — at least not yet. What would you add to the list?
1. 2004 Chrysler ME 412
Chrysler’s offerings over the last 10 or so years have been, to be kind, pretty bland. Only recently is the brand starting to get its mojo back with a more refined 300, a completely new 200, and ambitious plans to cleanse and simplify its lineup. Back in 2004, however, there was a notable exception to Chrysler’s vanilla design language: the ME 412, a supercar that even today looks modern and new. Yet neither the ME 412 or any of its cues made it into Chrysler’s production vehicles, unfortunately.
The car was named ME 412 because it was a mid-engined, four-turbo twelve-cylinder whip. It had LEDs adoring the head and tail lights — commonplace now, but a big deal back in 2004. It had huge, presumably functional fender scoops for cooling its massive powerplant (which was derived from Mercedes’ AMG arm), which — in theory — developed 850 horsepower and equal amounts of torque; top speed was estimated to fall around 248. We find ourselves asking not why they would build this, but rather how could they not?
2. 2004 Ford Bronco Concept
There are few vehicles that have such a passionate following as the Ford Bronco, which bid its last farewells in 1996. There was a cult attraction to Ford’s able-bodied, truck-based SUV, and it’s easy to see why: it offered the no-frills attitude of the early Land Rover Defenders, an icon of rugged American engineering, and gave those wanting a sturdy SUV an option that didn’t feel minivan-inspired.
The concept that followed up in 2004 checked off all of those boxes: it was muscular, rugged, purpose-built for off-roading, and would give Land Rover and Jeep a run for its money. It would also never be built, sadly, though we can cross our fingers for a Bronco-based on the upcoming F-150.
3. Mazda Shinari
If the Shinari looks pretty familiar, there’s a good reason for that; it was the concept that showcased Mazda’s current design language. As good-looking as the new Mazda6 is, it’s hard to beat the sultry and seductive lines on the Mazda — by another name, the car could be confused with some of the most graceful, premium brands on the market.
“The Shinari design refers to the appearance of person or an animal as it flexibly transforms its body to generate a fast initial movement, or sudden acceleration, expressing the powerful movement of a lean body with highly developed muscles, supple but at the same time filled with tension,” Mazda said of the car. The tilted stance and the high rear fender flare certainly gives the impression that the car is about to pounce, but unfortunately, it isn’t into production.
4. 2013 Aston Martin CC100
Aston Martin makes some phenomenal cars — some of the best in the world, people could argue — but they’re all so serious. The CC100 is different — it’s an Aston that prioritizes fun, while simultaneously being a powerful homage to Aston’s history as it’s modeled on the DBR1 race car from the 1950s. It’s built on the platform used for the V12 Vantage, and Aston said that it’s good for a 0-60 sprint in four seconds and a governed top speed of 180.
Aston actually built two CC100s, one of which was sold to an incredibly lucky individual for about $770,000. But that’s not enough to help change Aston’s image as a serious, no-frills luxury grand tourer manufacturer. How cool would it be to have an Aston Martin that would compete with a Caterham, a KTM X-Bow, or an Ariel Atom?
5. 2008 Lamborghini Estoque
Porsche is finding monumental success with its Panamera, and the Lamborghini is a similar concept; a four-door take on a high-performance car, so that even Dads who shuttle the kids can light up their rear tires. While the Panamera has been decried by Porsche purists, the Estoque looks as aggressive and brutal as any Lamborghini to roll off the line, and it had the guts to match.
It would have used the same 500-horsepower V10 from the Gallardo, shoe-horned behind the Estoque’s fighter jet-inspired front end. “Lamborghini customers own many cars,” Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann said at the time. “They currently own other sports cars, maybe an SUV, and almost certainly a luxury sedan or two. We would like that luxury sedan to be made by Lamborghini rather than by a rival.”
6. 2005 Jeep Gladiator
It supposedly boasts the same off-road prowess of the Wranger on which it’s based, but the Gladiator one-ups the popular SUV with an adjustable bed for those who like the idea of the Wrangler but can’t forfeit their pickup needs. In true Jeep fashion, it offers the canvas top, the Wrangler’s timeless looks, and the utility of a pickup.
Or would, rather, had Jeep decided to build it in the first place. The concept featured a 2.8 liter inline-four turbo diesel engine, with a five-speed manual transmission. Given the clamboring for such a vehicle from the class of smaller truck enthusiasts, the Gladiator would likely have done quite well, especially given the exit of the Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon.
7. 2010 Lotus Esprit
Lotus makes some of the best drivers’ cars on the planet, and has for quite a while. Recently — over the last ten years, actually — the company has been solely dedicated to using supercharged six-cylinders for its vehicles. That is great, and the Evora, Elise, and Exige are fantastic cars, but they can’t quite recreate the magic generated by a V8-powered Esprit, which last saw action in 2004.
Lotus played with a return of the Esprit back in 2010, which was supposed to be put into production last year and for sale this year. In theory, it would use the 5.0 liter V8 found in the Lexus IS-F (continuing Lotus’ tradition of sourcing its powertrains from Toyota), though it was also said that the company would develop its own in-house.
8. 2003 Cadillac Sixteen
Technically, yes, this car debuted in 2003 — 11 years ago and not 10. But given its importance to the Cadillac brand, we thought it bears mentioning. You could tell right from the get-go that the 1,000 horsepower, 13.6 liter V16-powered behemoth of a sedan was never going to see the factory floor, and if it did, Cadillac wasn’t going to be the company to do it.
But they should have, even just for the fun of it, in a limited production run. Why? Just for the sake of saying that they made a 1,000 horsepower, 13.6 liter V16-powered sedan. In the end, the glory went to Bugatti, which produces the only production 16-cylinder engine at the moment. Cooler heads prevailed and the Sixteen was used instead as a design showcase with language that’s still used in Cadillac’s cars today.
9. 2013 Nissan IDx Concept
Nissan isn’t afraid to take risks. We can see that with the likes of the Juke, the Cube, or even the all-electric Leaf. The IDx Nismo concept is just such a car, and serves as a sort of thermometer to gauge how receptive people are to a retro-inspired sports coupe.
This car, were it to be built, would compete in the same arena as the Mazda Miata and Scion FR-S, but it eschews the traditional sleek shape for one inspired by the boxy race cars from Nissan’s history. Its stout, muscular-looking, and if it has even a quarter of the engineering prowess that was applied to the GT-R, the IDx has the potential to be one hell of good car.
10. 2014 Volvo Concept Coupe
The Volvo Concept Coupe was one of a trio of concepts that illuminate the new Volvo design path, and what a gorgeous path it is. Admittedly, there’s still potential for the Concept Coupe to see production in some form, as it was only released earlier this year. But if it is, we hope it remains virtually unchanged.
It would theoretically be paired with one of Volvo’s new engines — practically the whole menu of powertrains is being overhauled — and given the Swedish outfit’s recent interest in plug-in hybrids, there’s a good chance one might be rigged for this application. Beautifully minimalist, elegant in its simplicity, and attractive from every angle, Volvo’s biggest task now is to make sure that it carries into production.