Despite the sudden drop in gas prices, the long-term trend toward green cars appears solidly in place. But if green machines are the new reality, when are they going to look like something other than dull or dorky little nerd-mobiles? The just-introduced redesigned Toyota Prius and the new Honda Insight, for instance, are the twin geeks of hybrid propulsion. And the boxy new Lexus HS250h hybrid has all the visual dynamism of a shrunken Toyota Camry. None of the mid-size hybrid sedans are anything exciting to look at, and neither is Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI. Where is the style? Where is the swagger? Where is the sex appeal?
It’s coming. At least, that’s the hopeful message from some of the latest concept cars. These are earth-friendly machines that you’d buy on looks alone. Here are some of our favorite sexy sippers, along with our assessment of their likelihood to reach production.
The undisputed star of the recent Detroit auto show, this striking Caddy is built on the plug-in hybrid platform of the upcoming Chevy Volt. But whereas the Volt has lost much of its visual punch in the transition from concept to production [see page 12], the Converj is a knockout, both inside and out. It also demonstrates that the current Cadillac design language works on a smaller car (the Converj is five inches shorter than the upcoming CTS coupe) and indeed looks every bit as stunning as the twelve-cylinder Cien mid-engine supercar concept from 2002 or the sixteen-cylinder Cadillac Sixteen show car from 2003. With the Converj, we see that a jaw-dropping Caddy doesn’t have to be a gluttonous Caddy. But will it be rolling up to the Oscars anytime soon? That’s a tougher question. Although General Motors undoubtedly would like to spread the cost of the Volt’s powertrain over additional models – and a Cadillac variant would offer richer margins – the Converj would have to offer enough added volume to justify its cost. In GM’s current financial condition, there’s no room for a loss-making image car.
Sex appeal: 5 out of 5
Production likelihood: 2 out of 5
Volkswagen Concept BlueSport
The latest in a series of roadster concepts (dating back to the Concept R from 2003), the BlueSport offers a turbo-diesel engine, which, aided by an automatic stop/start feature and regenerative braking, provides estimated fuel economy of 35 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway. With 177 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter TDI also scoots this little sportster to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. And with a mid-engine location, 45/55 front/rear weight distribution, and a curb weight of less than 2650 pounds, this two-seater should have what it takes to deliver even more smiles on curvy two-lanes than at fill-up time. This VW is part of a proposed sports car program that also would supply the next TT for Audi. The biggest obstacle standing in its way is Porsche (which owns a controlling stake in VW), whose management could view it as unwelcome competition for the Boxster. If it does get the nod, the VW roadster would likely offer 1.2-liter and 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engines as well as this TDI.
Sex appeal: 4 out of 5
Production likelihood: 3 out of 5
Last year’s sleek Karma concept from Henrik Fisker’s start-up enterprise has now been shown in production form. The plug-in hybrid sedan appears poised to make the jump to reality, with suppliers in place for the hybrid hardware (Quantum Technologies), the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine (General Motors), and various under-the-skin parts (GM, again). Finland’s Valmet Automotive will handle assembly (as it does for the Porsche Boxster), and Fisker has even announced the price: $87,900. The shapely Karma doesn’t lack for green credentials or enthusiast appeal. Fisker claims that its two 201-hp electric motors can provide emissions-free propulsion for up to fifty miles (in EV-only Eco mode) or, with help from the 2.0-liter gasoline engine, can send the aluminum-spaceframe sedan from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds (in dual-powerplant Sport mode). Should it come whirring off the assembly line late this year as planned, the Karma will join Tesla’s Lotus-bodied electrics as the sexiest green machines on the market today. As for tomorrow, Fisker has unveiled a two-door convertible concept, the Karma S, which also could be added to the lineup.
Sex appeal: 5 out of 5
Production likelihood: 4 out of 5
“A couple years ago, I was one of those car enthusiasts who was really worried that we were all going to end up driving tiny electric two-seaters with 25 hp. I came across this plug-in hybrid technology and I suddenly realized – with this 400-hp powertrain, you don’t have to make a tiny car that’s boring. I also realized that when you make a car from the ground up, you can get back to some of those beautiful, dramatic, sculptural forms that we all love about cars.”
– Henrik Fisker