By Dave Van Sickle / Motor Matters

Every year, during auto show season, we see a whole new batch of them. They show up amid glitz and glitter on the evening news, are featured in every auto enthusiast magazine, and stir the imagination of kids and adults alike. What are they? They’re hand-built, one-of-a-kind “concept cars” that cost manufacturers a lot of time, effort, and money to produce.

A typical, built from scratch, concept vehicle costs about $1 million, and most are so unique that they can seldom be repaired or replaced if damaged. If concept vehicles are so expensive and fragile, why do the automakers build them in the first place? The answer comes in multiple parts.

The fickle nature of the buying public puts enormous pressure on designers – they have to keep the buying public interested. Most already have some pretty good idea about where new styles should go, but they need public input to clarify their thinking and weed out the bad ideas from the good. The concept vehicle provides a means of gathering public opinion about design ideas.

Sometimes a concept car is very close to being exactly what the manufacturer intends to build, so feedback from the public (and from auto journalists through the articles they write) simply refines the final product.

Most of the time this process works, but sometimes it doesn’t, as evidenced by the disastrous reception of the Pontiac Aztek. Some say GM got some bad feedback, but others say top management didn’t listen to what they were told. Who knows for sure?

Occasionally, concept vehicles are built on an existing platform, using existing suspension and powertrain components. These vehicles are simply a custom body riding on production hardware. Obviously they are the easiest and least expensive to build, and are frequently the ones the manufacturers fully intend to produce. The PT Cruiser convertible was shown at The Detroit Auto Show several years ago, and will be ready for production soon.

More often, a concept vehicle will be a radical design that contains a number of individual design elements that the automakers want to “try out” on the buying public – things like new headlight or taillight designs, or body configurations. And engineers need to try out the application of new materials and systems. The midgate idea for the Chevrolet Avalanche was so well received in concept form that Chevrolet moved ahead quickly with the production version.

Sometimes a concept car is built to be a “halo” car – one that is built to enhance the image of a particular brand. The Cadillac Sixteen will never be built as it is, but it has developed enormous interest in the Cadillac brand, and opens the door to a number of possibilities for the future.

What is it like to drive one of those futuristic cars that most can only admire and dream about? These cars are built more for looks than function, so a lot depends on whether it’s one that’s close to actual production, or a true dream machine. A few years ago, a test-drive in the only existing PT Cruiser convertible was surprisingly uneventful. It was so beautifully built that it seemed like driving a production car.

On the other hand, a recent test-drive in several radical Chrysler concepts was another matter. Large wheels in tight openings require minimal suspension travel, making for a very rough ride.

Those large tires also limit the steering radius, so turning around often takes three or four moves back and forth. Huge engines stuffed into small bodies have trouble breathing, so overheating is a constant problem. Every test-drive in a concept car is done under the watchful eye of an engineer to make sure nothing gets bent or broken. And above all, don’t slam the doors. The body components are not production grade and can’t take much of a beating.

To gather feedback, a recent test-drive along Miami’s South Beach in several concept cars built for Chrysler and Dodge was the perfect opportunity to gauge public opinion first hand.

The sidewalks were crowded with early evening club and restaurant patrons – many had parked their Escalades and Hummers curbside, and were more than willing to express their opinions about our slow-moving convoy of concepts.

Automakers: Listen-up! The Dodge Avenger didn’t get a second look. The Kahuna was a smash hit with sidewalk admirers, and the next generation PT Cruiser – the California Cruiser – drew lots of favorable comment.

So, if this is why automakers spend the big bucks for concepts, let’s hope someone is listening.

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