There’s a big difference between a sporting concept car and an automobile set to see production. Innovative real-world cars and trucks take years of product development and huge investments by automakers. Should their bet on superior technology and a willing consumer base fail, it could damage the company’s reputation and profits for years.
This is why so many exciting ideas and concepts never really take off. They’re simply too much of a risk for big companies to take.
The world’s top auto shows are typically where top automakers are ready to introduce cars that will drive their brands in very different directions. This is done to feel out consumer interest and create brand buzz, among other things. In some instances, it means a model known for excess will get an electric motor; in others, it involves a famously durable pickup truck getting a new suit of armor.
At other times, we’ll see rare cars and trucks that buck industry trends. At the end of the day, these vehicles share one thing in common: They are calculated risks. Need some examples? Here are 15 vehicles that represent major gambles for automakers. Some are on the market. Some will be soon. Industry execs and insiders will be watching to see what happens.
1. Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell
What happens when you tell drivers they need a hydrogen station in order to fill up the tank? So far, it has meant the market is extremely limited and unlikely to hit its stride anytime soon. Though Asian automakers are paving the road for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, only a few California drivers got a shot at the innovative technology. Since the Hyundai Tucson FCV and other fuel-cell models have electric motors on board, a bit of a feud between EV makers has been ongoing.
Hyundai powered full-steam ahead with this Tucson that only emits water vapor. Released in early 2014, you could find the crossover in Southern California for a $499 per month lease with fuel and maintenance included. The gamble comes in the bet the technology will catch on and the automaker’s extensive investment in development will be worth it. So far, it has looked like a losing one.
2. 2015 Ford Mustang
Whenever you alter an automobile icon, you risk alienating the loyal car enthusiasts gathering in garages all across the country. Ford has taken numerous chances in the redesigns of its classic pony car in the past, and the next generation is no different. The 2015 Ford Mustang appears less aggressive to the eye than its predecessors, but even more controversial was the inclusion of Ford’s EcoBoost engine in select models.
A Mustang that saves fuel? Before wondering what heathens Ford consulted in the new Mustang’s design, it’s useful to recall the expanding auto market. China is the world’s biggest car buyer, and India is growing rapidly. Ford expects that global clientele will appreciate a more efficient ‘Stang. For the car guy that loves the roar of the Mustang V8, Ford made sure to up the horsepower quotient in that model. Bet hedged.
3. Tesla Model X
Among established car brands, Tesla is probably the one taking the most chances. The electric car manufacturer used everything from a loan from the Treasury, the sale of ZEV credits, and pre-orders to finance its first mainstream vehicles. After the success of the flagship Model S sedan, Elon Musk and his team made a performance SUV that seats seven and features falcon-wing doors.
Even Musk admitted later he bit off a bit more than he could chew for an on-time launch. Reliability issues plagued Model X early as well, though it seems most are settled with 2017 here. Tesla can hold its head up after surviving this gamble. Its next vehicle, Model 3, is one of 2017’s most anticipated cars.
4. Cadillac ELR
What do Cadillacs and fuel efficiency have in common? Prior to General Motors’ luxury brand hustling out a plug-in hybrid model, no one had ever put the two concepts together in a sentence. That changed with the Cadillac ELR, which was based on the Chevy Volt powertrain but had the interior comforts luxury car drivers expect.
Cadillac took a two-pronged gamble with the ELR. On one hand, the lack of the Cadillac growl in electric mode was sure to turn off loyal fans. Second, the steep price tag presented a greater challenge. At a base price over $75,000, you had to wonder who would pay such a sum when other, highly regarded Cadillac models cost much less. It turns out few people wanted the ELR, and its run on the U.S. market ended in 2016. Undaunted, Cadillac is trying again with the CT6 plug-in hybrid.
5. Kia K900
Auto consumers on the hunt for a stately, long-wheelbase luxury car don’t typically put Kia at the top of their options list. Yet the Korean value brand officially entered the luxury market in the U.S. with the introduction of the K900. It has most things luxury consumers love: rear-wheel drive, a 420 horsepower V8 among its engine options, and an interior that’s more spacious than full-size luxury competitors’ offerings.
It was a major gamble because consumers shopping for a Mercedes, BMW, or Cadillac were by and large not ready to turn to Kia. K900 had a laundry list of things going for it, and LeBron James drives one around town per his endorsement contract. Even if sales have been light, K900 may be worth it in the long run to elevate the brand.
6. Honda Clarity Fuel Cell
Honda took up the cause for fuel-cell vehicles just like Hyundai. In fact, the Japanese automaker had its limited-edition hydrogen car on the road in California back in 2014. Meanwhile, the Honda fuel cell concept that appeared at auto shows in late 2013 has a production model on the way to America in 2017. Like its competitors, it has the potential to travel over 300 miles after fueling the hydrogen cells that power an electric motor.
On top of the hydrogen factor, which still must pass numerous hurdles to make it to the mainstream, Honda gambled a bit on the styling front. Are auto consumers ready for a car that looks so futuristic? We’re going to find out soon enough.
7. Jeep Renegade
Fiat Chrysler gambled quite a bit with Renegade. Smaller than others in the Jeep lineup, Renegade comes with a less-rugged design and aesthetics, too. The bright, cutesy exterior is very different from Cherokee and other models. Meanwhile, the less powerful engine could have turned some consumers away, too. Over a year into the experiment, Jeep has won big with Renegade. Consumers were willing to give a smaller, more fuel-efficient and flashy SUV a shot. In fact, it seems they’re willing to give any SUV a shot.
8. 2015 Ford F-150
Ford took the biggest industry gamble of the decade by launching an aluminum-body F-150 for 2015. As a rule, doing anything to mess with the runaway best-selling vehicle in the United States is an enormous gamble. Furthermore, F-Series pickup owners depend on the durability and “Ford Tough”-ness that has made the vehicle so popular among folks who use it for work.
Two years later, the redesigned F-150 is an unqualified hit. Ford managed to maintain its standing on the sales charts and even gained on its 2015 numbers in 2016. If you go this big, you better knock it out of the park, and it seems like Ford did.
9. Chevrolet Bolt EV
There was a race among automakers to see who could produce the first affordable EV with real range. After partnering with LG for its battery supply, GM won and released the Chevrolet Bolt EV in 2016. Despite the obvious achievement, the Bolt remains a risk for the General as battery prices remain much higher than gas powertrains.
Aside from the financial risks, the second half of GM’s gamble is challenging Tesla. We all know how much people love Model S and the brand as a whole, but we have yet to see the general public’s response to a pure EV by Chevy. The limited-release Spark EV was never a volume seller.
10. Chevrolet Colorado
Midsize pickups had taken a time-out in America while full-size models dominated. When GM came out with the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, it was unclear whether these vehicles could crash the Toyota Tacoma’s long-running party. Though Tacoma is still running strong, GM sold over 80,000 Colorados in its first full year and well over 100,000 in its second year back. It’s a clear win.
11. 2015 Chrysler 300
While there was a fair amount of customer interest in a new Chrysler 300, industry trends showed putting significant resources behind one was a bad idea. The truth is, America fell out of love with full-size sedans a while ago. They are gravitating toward SUVs and pickup trucks in droves. Despite the signs, Chrysler pushed ahead with the newly redesigned 300 for 2015.
The gamble regarding the 300 was seeing whether it had another successful generation in it. On that note, Chrysler basically won. Where the automaker lost was with the 200 midsize sedan, which was riddled with bad reviews before being axed.
12. Toyota Mirai
Toyota knows a thing or two about gambling on innovative technology. The development of the Prius hybrid family remains one of the biggest game-changing moves in recent decades. With the introduction of a fuel-cell vehicle called Mirai, the automakers apparently wants to make history again.
The obvious, big risk is Toyota betting hydrogen will supplant lithium-ion batteries in the coming decade or so. If it wanted to, Toyota could have doubled down on plug-ins early. With the arrival of Prius Prime and plans for a long-range EV in the works, it appears this bet will be hedged. Fuel cells are still a long way off for Americans.
13. Lincoln Continental
How do you reinvent a legend? Ford did it three times in the past decade with the Continental following Mustang and F-150. In this case, the risk was not going big enough. As a brand, Lincoln had been boring people for a few decades, and it wasn’t clear whether the engineers behind Continental would have carte blanche in designing a worthy successor to the past greats. Early returns suggest Ford’s luxury division got it right. Lincoln may not have survived a dull flagship.
14. Hyundai Ioniq
For Hyundai, the time had come for an electric vehicle and some more recognizable hybrid models. Ioniq, arriving as an EV, plug-in hybrid, and regular hybrid, solved three problems at once. Impressive specs come from each model: The EV is the most economical car ever released in the U.S. at 136 MPGe; meanwhile, Ioniq hybrid outdoes Prius in fuel economy. Yet even with these great numbers, we’re not sure how the market will take to Ioniq. We’ll see if it was a good bet in 2017.
15. Chrysler Pacifica
To produce a minivan capable of changing the segment’s perception, Chrysler pumped $2.6 billion into the new Pacifica and its plug-in hybrid variant. Right there, you have grounds for calling it a gamble. The idea is to keep the large market share FCA minivans already have plus attract Toyota and Kia consumers who might not have planned on buying a Chrysler this time around. If that sounds like a tall order, it is.