This was a moderately good year for concept cars—from Detroit through Geneva, Frankfurt, and Tokyo—but when all was weighed and considered carefully, there remained only two show cars of real significance, Honda’s Urban EV (Frankfurt) and Sports EV (Tokyo). The pair and their underlying all-electric platform clearly have a future, which is at best only partly true for most concepts.
At Frankfurt, I really liked the Borgward Isabella concept designed by the protean ex-BMW creator Anders Warming, who was responsible for some of the best concepts of the Chris Bangle era and also helmed Mini design before joining the now Chinese-owned Borgward brand. But do I think there’s a big future for what is a very professional design? Not really.
Whenever there is a major change in approach to the way things are done, there is a tendency to ape the outgoing technology’s appearance in order to soften public reaction to the change.
I liked the Japanese Aspark Owl electric supercar at Frankfurt, too. It was a little messy in details but intriguing. Do I think we’ll ever see it again? Not really.
The Nissan IMX electric concept in Tokyo was quite nice and is intended for production three years from now (at least its mechanical-electrical platform is), with versions planned for Renault and Infiniti, as well. But does it show us anything new or important in style? Not really.
Toyota’s blunt, brutal box-shaped TJ Cruiser, another Tokyo unveiling, is almost certain to go into production without much variation from the show concept. But it’s very much in the line of previous Toyota “tough” trucks and civilized utility vehicles. Is it an important look at the industry’s future? Not really.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the Mazda Vision Coupe’s fluidity of both surface and line, but do we think there will be a production version with smaller wheels and more reasonable cabin space—a rationally producible variation of the concept that retains the concept’s attractiveness? Not really.
There are endless versions of ultra-fabulous super-duper 80-to-240-mph sports cars that only some of the 1 percent can buy and only a hundredth of a percent of able buyers would be capable of driving at anywhere close to their performance potential. But do they mean anything to the future of the automobile, whether that be autonomous or completely driver controlled? Not really. And so it goes.
So what does matter? The Honda duo cited above, concepts released in Frankfurt in city-car form (evoking thoughts of the early VW Golf) and in sports-car form in Tokyo, represent a number of positive lines of development. They’re small, which we think is going to be vital in the next four or five years when petroleum prices rise as the U.S. dollar ceases to be the key currency in the oil business. They’re more functionally design-oriented than they are related to current overwrought styling trends, and they are conceived as electric cars from the start. That’s important.
Whenever there is a major change in approach to the way things are done, there is a tendency to ape the outgoing technology’s appearance in order to soften public reaction to the change. The last air-cooled Franklin cars in the ’30s had exceedingly handsome radiator grilles, but they didn’t have radiators. The first Tesla Model S sedans had painted simulacrum of radiator grilles (happily gone now). The Chrysler Airflow and Lincoln Zephyr cars conceived as droop-snoot aerodynamic shapes had tall hoods and artificial pointed grilles: the Chrysler after a year of production, the Lincoln before production began. Many electrified cars (VW Golf, Ford Focus, for example) completely conceal their mode of propulsion, and both the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf try fairly hard to look “normal.” The Hondas do not, and we see that as a very good thing. Honda designer Makoto Harada admits that the long hood of the sports model “is not rational, but it underlines the emotion, the driving pleasure one expects of such a car.” We say he’s definitely on the right track.
Many electrified cars completely conceal their mode of propulsion. both the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf try fairly hard to look “normal.”
Back in late 1983 Honda surprised the world with a completely new third-generation Civic line, including the near-sports-car CRX, a formal four-door sedan, and the proto-CUV Shuttle wagon. It was a terrific move, and we anticipate other models in this EV series by the time production begins.
The aesthetics are a bit unusual, with a very flat roof on both models with very little arc front to rear, extremely simple surfaces, and a black panel that, yes, simulates a grille to some extent, with the prominent round headlamps incorporated within its perimeter. Although I was not completely on board with the simple design at the Frankfurt show, I was amazed to see a few months later that of the 44 photos I took at the show, more than a quarter were of the Urban EV—telling me after the fact that I was more impressed than I’d thought. Many design colleagues said it was their favorite concept in Germany, a position shared by other Automobile staffers present.
And the Sports EV at Tokyo sealed the deal. This ten-tative new model range from Honda is the Concept of the Year. Really.