Concept cars are the best. Automotive engineers get into the business because they like cars, after all, and for most of them, the reward they get for years in college is to spend most of their careers carefully drafting designs for one gear shifter after another until it's time to retire. Every once in a while, however, word comes down that something new needs to get put together for an upcoming auto show. That's when frustrated artists in the design studio get a chance to let their imaginations fly free, and a whole new car gets designed from the tires up. Give an engineer a chance like that, and some of them go nuts.
The 2019 Paris Motor Show was no exception to the rule that fantasy beats reality. Several of the designs on display this year have been tempered by the latest craze for making almost everything electric, but within that constraint, the design teams have clearly been having fun. In some cases, they may be having a bit too much fun.
Some of these concept cars are so cool that it's a shame they're not on the market yet - otherwise, we'd be throwing our money at them.
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The Peugeot Instinct is like an unhealthy relationship with a girl who thinks you’re going to get married; the pushier she gets, the less you like her. This impression starts when you see the car opened up for display. The front and back doors of the sedan model are in opposition to each other, so they swing open like arms waiting for a hug. It reveals a lounge-like interior that’s highly modular and can be adjusted at will with the rearrangement of a few seats. Like any desperate partner, the Instinct tries a little too hard to please you by radically changing herself. The bad impression is heightened by the language of the marketing copy Peugeot commissioned for this concept model. Phrases like “Freedom to explore new driving sensations” and “truly in harmony with you and your needs” crop up all over the online brochure, like a friend who’s trying to sell you on a blind date.
The Instinct is smarter than that, as it happens. In what will become a theme for this year’s concept cars, this model has some kind of frighteningly sophisticated autonomous-driving AI that’s advertised as being able to interpret the way you drive and adjust the controls accordingly when you’re on autopilot.
Considering how I used to drive, the only adjustment to expect from a prom date with KITT is for the onboard phone to call ahead to the Highway Patrol and maybe the detox center, but apparently, Peugeot means that the car takes corners the way it thinks you’ll like. Anything for attention.
One thing concept cars are supposed to do is take a single desirable element of a car’s overall design and maximize it beyond all common sense. You can make a car super sporty, for example, which usually means dropping a V-12 engine into a 1,800-pound frame and going 0-60 in 3 seconds. Or it can mean wrapping every surface up in Spanish leather and hanging some Victorian oak panels inside to make the driver feel like he’s visiting a golf club with an annual $90,000 membership fee. The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 manages both of these objectives with ruthless German efficiency. Starting with the four electric motors that deliver a total of 738 hp, the Vision can go over 200 miles on a single charge, which at 738 hp should only take about an hour or so. Actually, the engine is electronically governed with a maximum cap of a safe and sane 155 mph, so budget 90 minutes or so to get from New York to Washington DC. On top of Saturn V performance, the Vision is done up in leather and a cool retro instrument panel design that’s all curves. Mercedes may have taken this a bit far. There isn’t a single straight edge in the cabin, and it looks so frictionless you feel like whatever you touch you’ll just slide right off and into the curved footwells.
Sometimes you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re looking at a concept car, not a production model. That helps when the vehicle starts out looking like Laurence Olivier hunching his shoulder for the role of Richard III, and then it mysteriously starts changing shape while you stand there wondering what happened to reality. The DS X-Tense manages this effect perfectly. The asymmetric body has developed scoliosis on the right side, with a massive hump over the passenger compartment that accommodates a third seat in the back. The rear lights are pinched three-quarters of the way to the right, and even the rear medallion is set so far over to that side it looks like there should be more car off in that direction somewhere, and it just hasn’t been delivered yet. Whatever your reaction to the look of the car, don’t try to smash it with anything. The frame of the DS X-Tense is hinged and mobile, which means it can restore itself to its original shape after a crash. That will certainly be helpful when you’re trying to convince the claims adjuster to total the car when it’s been in a wreck, but the exterior has flowed like the T-1000, so it looks like it never happened.
Here’s how Peugeot describes its second entry on this list, the Peugeot e-Legend: “Peugeot e-LEGEND CONCEPT is not just a technological manifesto. It is the vision of the Peugeot Brand actively looking towards an optimistic and ultra-desirable future. For Peugeot, electric and autonomous are synonymous with even stronger sensations, and boredom is clearly not part of the Peugeot Brand's DNA.” Well, we’re stoked. The DNA manifesto Peugeot has looking toward the ultra-optimistic future, in this case, is a completely autonomous electric vehicle with a front end that takes design hints from the Ferrari Monospecchio from the ‘80s and an interior inspired by a Cylon starfighter. The e-Legend prototype is so sleek; it doesn’t even have handles on its doors. Access is granted by tapping a concealed solenoid in the window. No word on how to get into the car if the batteries run flat, though, in the interest of full disclosure, we’ve only read half the manifesto at press time.
Electric and autonomous have been going together a lot at recent auto shows. It looks a lot like several automakers are betting heavily on self-driving cars that can recharge by plugging into the wall of your garage. Fully autonomous vehicles are a pretty tall order for most automakers, but what if a non-car company from Germany built an autonomous electric vehicle that monitored every move you make every second you’re riding in it? That seems to be the idea behind the Electric Autonomous Shuttle, which the German company Bosch swears is not part of a move to enter the automotive market. Rather, the EAS project is intended to serve in airports, shopping malls and other places with big parking lots. The vehicle is shaped like a short rectangular bus and seats four in something resembling a 50s era Modernist living room set. One of the selling points of the EAS is its onboard passenger-monitoring system. Bosch states that the cameras are linked to an intelligent computer system that can tell when you’ve left a bag on the floor. Officially, the EAS sets off a short alarm when you leave a bag aboard it. No word on what it does when you stick gum on the window.
Keeping with the couches-and-coffee table theme of the 2019 concept offerings, the Icona Nucleus bills itself as a self-driving living room. Fully electric and autonomous, the Nucleus is all white plastics on the outside and ultra-streamlined curves. The effect, which may or may not have been intended, is that of a Scion Cube somebody pressed down on until the top half was curved like the shell of a turtle. Inside, the Nucleus is laid out in an alarmingly casual manner. The two seats face each other at a casually offset angle, with the front seat facing rearward in the direction of the onboard coffee table. It has to be a somewhat alarming experience to climb into a car with no steering wheel and turn your back to the road while an autonomous thinking computer handles traffic and the occasional squirrel in the road, but Icona insists it's “self-driving living room” is the future of urban transportation.
Mercedes’ second entry on this list is a piece of work. Unlike some of the more pokey electric autonomous vehicles at 2019’s auto show, the EQ Silver Arrow looks like it was designed to shred space-time in fourth gear. The car’s exterior is a close copy of the 1937 W125, a race car that broke land speed records by being the first – and nearly the last – land vehicle to reach 270 mph on its own. The interior is spartan, seats one and features a four-point restraint system for the driver in a candid nod to the risks you’re running if you crack open the throttle on this thing. Under the hood is an 80 kW electric motor that shoves 738 hp through the vehicle’s one-ton frame. Unsurprisingly, the controls are designed like the yoke of a combat aircraft. Where the Silver Arrow goes off the rails is with onboard technology. A little of this is cool, but the Silver Arrow is slathered with electronic touchscreens all over. The controls are run through these screens, as is the – not kidding – racing video game that you can overlay on the scene in front of you in case going 200 mph on the freeway gets boring. Mercedes even replaced the front grille with another digital display screen. You can ask why they did that, but if you start down that road you’ll eventually start asking why they bothered with all that horsepower or giant spoked wheels under metallic covers, and that’s not a productive line of questioning.
Renault’s EZ-ULTIMO looks like a limousine built for the elected Reptilian president of the Draco solar empire. Instead of windows, the ULTIMO is wrapped with 600 silvered diamond panels that can be seen through from the inside, but are completely opaque from the outside, which will get you pulled over and towed in all 50 states, plus keeping the state trooper on his toes while he approaches what looks like a sealed steel box. Inside, the ultra-future hypersnake design disappears completely, to be replaced by Dr. Evil’s private office. A swivel chair with an inset control panel faces a leather couch toward the front end of this self-driving vehicle, with a small coffee table to the side and actual wood panels for flooring. The effect is groovy like London in the 60s, but with plenty of high-tech touchscreen panels for various readouts and suchlike.
Volkswagen really let everybody down at the auto show. While other manufacturers were rolling out hyperspace warp-speed super droids, or boxy human conveyance units that recharge off the static electricity in the air, the original “People’s Car” company brought out the Atlas Tanoak, a medium truck intended to compete with the Honda Ridgeline. Instead of playing Jetsons with over-the-Moon concept cars, the Tanoak is eminently practical and sensible looking, and the specs are much closer to reality than the high tech fantasies we’re used to from concept cars. In fact, it’s looking a lot like VW is serious about actually bringing the Tanoak to market soon, possibly by 2020. The Tanoak looks like a conventional pickup truck with a roll bar over the bed and nice blocky lines all over the front end. VW is definitely meeting with its sponsor and working the steps of its rehab program where it concerns powertrains – the advertised performance of the Tanoak can just manage 0-60 in 8.5 seconds, which makes it the slowest vehicle in its class. A lot of this caution seems to come from VW’s desire to make the Tanoak available for less than $28,000, which their internal research pegs as the maximum feasible price. So far, it doesn’t look like they can do it for less than $32,000 for the base model, but VW says it’s “listening carefully” to customer feedback, so time will tell.
Cadillac is one of the more self-aware brands in the automotive market. For the better part of half a century, every model Cadillac has brought out has had a touch of get-a-load-of-this-machine to it. Conscious of being a top of the line luxury brand, Cadillac’s design teams have played the exterior styling on the Escala sedan close to the vest. If you’ve seen a mid-size Cadillac built in the last 25 years, then you already know how the Escala looks from the outside. Where it goes over the top is inside, where it looks like middle-aged engineers attempted to create a physical version of what they imagine kids today are into. The Escala’s interior is all leather, walnut and cashmere fabrics. The dash is almost featureless, with all the displays up on three or four iPad-style touchscreens that are stacked up on each other like roofing tiles behind the steering wheel. Promotional materials show these, plus the two touchscreens set into the back of the front seats’ headrests, plus a tablet computer at a charging station in the middle of the back seat, plus maybe a few more screens under the hood or something in case your mechanic wants to watch Netflix or something.