Putting a car into production is a long, arduous, ruinously expensive affair. Even for cars sold to niche audiences, it’s a process that involves years of market research, technological development, retooling of assembly lines, and, most importantly for the purposes of this list, refining the vehicle’s design. We all love talking about how a car looks, inside and out, but sometimes it’s easy to forget just how important appearance can be when purchasing a new car. After all, humans are far from perfectly rational creatures. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to choose something that made us feel good behind the wheel over an ugly car that’s better-performing or better-equipped. Look what happened to the Aztek for instance: a vehicle that predicted the “active-lifestyle-crossover” trend years in advance and could have proven to be a massive hit but was hobbled by a body that looked like a rhinoceros with leprosy.
It should come as no surprise then that one of the essential duties of a concept car is to evaluate the car-buying public’s interest in a vehicle’s design. Oftentimes, automakers will show off a gorgeously-shaped slice of metal, and consumer reaction will be some variation of “BUILD IT NOW!” But let’s go back to what I said earlier: building cars is complicated. Not just in the internal side of things, what with the shifting of finances and assembly re-jiggings, but also the regulatory part of the equation: crash safety and pedestrian impact certification and all that jazz. Along with high retooling costs and the sourcing of parts, those are some of the biggest reasons why concept cars don’t usually make the trip from the auto show floor to your driveway completely unscathed. Still, these 15 examples crushed our dreams more thoroughly than most.
30 Concept: Chevrolet Volt
The concept car that made its debut at the 2007 North American International Auto Show looked like a four-door Camaro from the 2050s. Its short overhangs, rising beltline, and four-square stance gave it real muscle car proportions, but livened up with plenty of futuristic detailing, especially the slimline lighting arrangement and glass roof. Moreover, it promised buyers 150 miles to the gallon while running on high-octane E85 fuel, with an all-electric range of 40 miles (now considered paltry).
29 Reality: Chevrolet Volt
The car we got, while tidily styled, was but a pale shadow of what had come three years earlier. In fact, other than its pointily-shaped grille and quasi-two-piece side windows, you could hardly tell they came from the same family.
Thankfully, it kept the same mechanical layout as the Volt concept, which was meant to assuage fears over driving range with an 80 hp internal combustion generator to charge the Volt’s lithium-ion battery. That brought overall range to 380 miles and a gasoline-equivalent fuel economy rating of 93 MPG-e.
28 Concept: Jaguar C-XF
Revealed at the 2007 North American International Auto Show, the Jaguar C-XF was, to my eyes, one of designer Ian Callum’s best pieces of work.
When your CV includes the Aston Martin Vanquish, Jaguar F-Type, and the Nissan R390, among countless other pretty things, that’s a pretty big achievement.
It previewed a highly aggressive, thoroughly modern design language, and many of its design cues (especially around the front end) continue to have a large impact on the company’s offerings even today.
27 Reality: Jaguar XF
While the XF sedan that was released a couple of months later was still gorgeous and shared a similar silhouette, it didn’t quite have the same menacing presence as the concept: it was lacking that car’s full-width taillight arrangement, chunky rear diffuser, and its profile, though sleek, wasn’t quite as steeply raked as that of the concept. Some of that was rectified during the car’s 2011 facelift, which gave the XF some much needed C-XF influence in the form of a pair of angrier-looking front headlights.
26 Concept: Dodge Charger R/T
Revealed in 1999, Dodge’s first stab at a four-door successor to one of their most famous nameplates was a low-slung, uncompromisingly sporty design.
Weighing in at a slim (by the standards of the class) 3,000 lbs and powered by a CNG-fueled, 4.7 liter Hemi V8, the Charger R/T concept would have been devastatingly quick, family-friendly muscle car.
Worshippers at the altar of the stick shift would have also been placated, as the driver would be able to row their own gears via a five-speed manual transmission.
25 Reality: Dodge Charger
Instead of Uncle Sam’s reinterpretation of a European sports sedan, the four-door Charger that we were actually able to buy was little more than the warmed-over leftovers of a German taxi cab. Alright, maybe I’m being a little unfair here, as the LX-platform Charger eventually blessed us with a Challenger revival and all manner of Hellcat-powered tomfoolery.
But still, aren’t you just a little bit miffed that the production-ready car was over 1,000 lbs heavier than the concept and unavailable with a stick shift?
24 Concept: Subaru WRX
While it’s been justifiably lauded for democratizing turbocharged, AWD lunacy, the Subaru Impreza WRX has never managed to outrun its economy car roots. The WRX concept, unveiled in 2013, promised to change all that with a mature, sophisticated design that also managed to seamlessly incorporate unsophisticated design cues from the company’s rallying history, like the WR Blue Pearl III paint and gaping hood scoop. It was undoubtedly the best-looking concept car that Subaru had ever put on auto show stands.
23 Reality: Subaru WRX STI
Unfortunately, the WRX concept was little more than a mirage, as the production-ready WRXs and WRX STIs that arrived on dealership lots were clearly still Imprezas. Ones with tougher stances, fender flares, and shiny alloys, but Imprezas nonetheless.
I get it: it doesn’t make any sense to build a brand-new platform for what’s supposed to be an affordable performance car.
But please Subaru, if you’re going to release some sort of turbocharged halo car, maybe a keenly-priced BMW M3 competitor, make it look just like the WRX concept.
22 Concept: Pontiac Sunfire
While the company’s road-legal offerings spiraled into cheaply-built, poor performing ignominy, Pontiac managed to release a string of awesome concepts back in the 1990s. Highlights included the radical-looking Banshee and Venom, which looked like giant arrowheads with wheels. The Sunfire concept wasn’t all that different, with a pointy carbon-fiber shell cloaking some pretty sophisticated tech by the standards of the day, such as a turbocharged inline-four powerplant and all-around independent suspension. It seemed to promise that the Pontiac of the new millennium would be an exciting, sporty force of change.
21 Reality: Pontiac Sunfire
Unfortunately, the production-ready Sunfire that was released in 1995 was anything but forward-thinking and shared little more than a name with the canary-yellow showstopper that made its debut five years earlier.
Unlike the high-tech composite structure of the concept, the production car was spun off of GM’s antiquated FWD J-body platform, which was first put to use back in 1981.
Instead of 180 turbocharged horses, the most powerful engine initially on offer was a naturally-aspirated 2.3 liter Quad 4 with a merely adequate 150 hp.
20 Concept: Nissan Sport Concept
The Nissan Sport Concept made its debut at the 2005 New York Auto Show. It looked like a raw-edged, sure-fire entry into the Japanese sport compact hall of fame, what with its Super GT-aping fender flares, center-exit exhausts, liberal application of carbon fiber, and quite frankly oversized 20-inch wheels.
Then there was the competition-prepped interior, which featured bucket seats and four-point Nismo racing harnesses. Unfortunately, we should know better than to trust the company that built the Murano Crosscabriolet…
19 Reality: Nissan Versa
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes-ian levels of observational skill to notice that the production-ready Versa was far tamer than what the Sport Concept had promised the public.
Instead of the ground-scraping stance of the show car, the Versa had all of the poise and menace of a shopping cart, thanks to its tiny wheels and ungainly front and rear overhangs.
I would go so far as to say that the Versa actively rebelled against the fun-loving spirit of its show car ancestor, and actively repelled young potential buyers.
18 Concept: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Concept
When your car makes its debut in a Michael Bay Transformers film, you know it's going to have to be something special to stand out amid all the explosions and half-naked Victoria’s Secret models.
Thankfully, the Stingray concept was an absolute scene stealer, with a wide, low stance that artfully melded 22nd-century sheet metal and mechanical features, like the electrically-assisted V8 engine and rearview mirror with night-vision capability, to heritage cues like the split rear window and kicked-up rear haunches.
17 Reality: Chevrolet Corvette C7
Now, there’s no doubt that the C7 is a worthy addition to the Corvette mythos. Not only does it represent the best new-car performance bargain on the North American market, itès also drop-dead gorgeous. That said, in my opinion, it lost some intrinsic Corvette-ness; heck, designers even ditched the circular taillight arrangement in favor of a quad-square setup. From some angles, it could almost be mistaken for something European, which isn’t something I could say about either its C6 predecessor or the Stingray concept.
16 Concept: Mini ACV 30
Unveiled 30 years after Mini’s win at the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally, the ACV 30 was the first concept that came out following the company’s acquisition by BMW. Now, this was before they were turned into little more than a kitchsy crossover factory, so the ACV seemed like it would have been an absolute hoot to drive, thanks to its MG F-sourced RWD platform, compact dimensions and race-ready cockpit, which featured an exposed roll cage, skeletonized bucket seats, and milled aluminium gear lever.
15 Reality: Mini Cooper R50
The R50-chassis hatch that was released in 2000 was arguably even more fun to fun to look at (while I wouldn’t hesitate to drive the ACV 30, I’ll freely admit that it isn’t the most graceful of designs), and truer to original Mini’s square-backed silhouette, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the ACV 30 had a bit more in the way of genuine sporting cred because it sent power to the "correct" pair of wheels.
14 Concept: Bugatti Chiron 18/3
Unveiled in 1999, the Bugatti Chiron 18/3 concept somehow manages to be more ridiculous than the 1500 monster that carries the same name today (on the surface at least).
The chief contributing factor to this surplus lunacy is the engine, which exceeds the cylinder count of the Veyron-derived powerplant by two.
That’s right, the Chiron 18/3 was powered by a W18 engine! Eighteen cylinders! Even better, you’d be able to manage all 6.3 liters worth of displacement with your left foot, as the engine was hooked up to a five-speed manual transmission.
13 Reality: Bugatti Chiron
Mind you, I much prefer the current Chiron. Not only is it a better-looking car, it also packs almost a punch almost three times as potent: the 1999 concept ‘only’ cranked out 547 horses.
Even better, you’d be able to manage that power far more effectively: the Chiron 18/3 was built on the same chassis as the Lamborghini Diablo V/T and also borrowed its AWD system.
The limitations of that technology are strikingly clear when you compare the 2018 car to the identically-named predecessor: the former could shoot to 60 MPH in 2.5 seconds, while the latter takes a comparatively leisurely 4 seconds to do the deed.
12 Concept: Lamborghini Urus
Debate all you want over the merits of Lamborghini’s hyper-SUV, but it’s impossible to deny the business case for its existence: according to Reuters, sales of luxury SUVs have doubled since 2010. That fat profit margin was made even more enticing for the house of the Raging Bull thanks to the fortune in development costs they could save by spinning their truck off of a Volkswagen-designed platform. I also can’t help but feel that reception would have been a little less mixed had the original concept made the cut: it was a far more athletic design.
11 Reality: Lamborghini Urus
From a distance, the 2012 concept and production version looks similar, but get closer and differences start to appear. The earlier car looked tauter, with a higher stance that seemed to imply more in the way of off-road capability. It also had a slightly slimmer midsection also made it look lighter and far more agile than its size would imply. These differences might not sound like much, but put the Uruses (Urusi?) side by side, and it's like seeing Jailhouse Blues-era Elvis next to Las Vegas-era Elvis.
10 Concept: Scion Fuse
Despite having only expired about a year ago, no one is still mourning Scion. That’s perfectly understandable: the only memorable cars made under its tenure were the boxy XB and the tC (and the FR-S, but that one is still alive).
The second-generation version of the latter was previewed with the Fuse concept, revealed at the 2006 New York International Auto Show. Like many of Scion’s offerings, it was aimed at younger buyers. As such, it featured eye-catching LED-lit wheels, a fold-down tailgate seating arrangement, and a highly configurable cockpit with plenty of entertainment screens.
9 Reality: Scion tC
The production tC was far tamer, as befitting its status as a quasi-Celica successor. Scion junked all of the show-car extravagance, replacing the Fuse’s butterfly doors and two-piece hatch with conventionally-opening apertures.
It also abandoned the concept’s weird steer-by-wire steering system, which foregoes the use of any mechanical linkages from the steering wheel to the front axle.
It’s a shame that we didn’t get to see a third-generation of the car: cleanly-styled, keenly-priced sports compacts are thin on the ground these days.
8 Concept: Saturn Sky
The original Saturn Sky concept was revealed in 2002. It was a curvaceously-styled, no frills roadster, powered by a 2.2 liter supercharged inline-four, good for a stout 180 hp, all hooked up to a five-speed manual transmission. In a car weighing in at just under 2,300 lbs, I’m sure it would have been an absolute blast to drive. It would have been surprisingly practical as well: it was a three-door 2+2, as it sneaked an extra rear-hinged door on the driver's side in an arrangement very similar to the Hyundai Veloster.
7 Reality: Saturn Sky
That said, I’m happy that the production car was spun off of GM’s compact, RWD Kappa architecture, which had a direct impact on the Sky’s overarching philosophy: from fun, spacious, casual cruiser to a harder edged, more committed sporting effort, with a longitudinally-mounted inline-four (optionally turbochaged in Redline models, good for a stout 260 hp) sending power to the rear wheels. The production-ready Sky was closer in appearance to GM’s offerings from across the Atlantic. That’s no coincidence, as this two-door speedster was an Opel GT with a Saturn badge slapped on the front grille.
6 Concept: Jeep Trailhawk
Unveiled at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Jeep Trailhawk was meant to preview the upcoming WK2-chassis Jeep Grand Cherokee, which only hit dealership lots three years later.
It was a rakish machine, especially by the standards of the blocky off-road SUV segment, with a surprisingly light 3,900 lb curb weight that belied its enormous footprint: the outgoing WK-chassis Grand Cherokee was about 5-inches shorter overall but close to half a ton heavier. Under the hood was a 215 hp Daimler-sourced BLUETEC diesel V6.
5 Reality: Jeep Grand Cherokee
The production-ready Jeep Grand Cherokee arrived after the end of Daimler’s stewardship of Chrysler, and as such didn’t really bear much in common with the Trailhawk.
The most obvious omission was the Trailhawk’s quasi-open top, which could be closed off with the use of tinted glass panels.
I get it: it would be hideously impractical and expensive to implement in a production car. The Grand Cherokee also lacked the Trailhawk’s relatively compact diesel engine and Wrangler-sourced body-on-frame structure, sticking with a unibody construction.
4 Concept: Ford Iosis X
Attendees of the 2006 Paris Motor Show were privileged to bear witness to the Ford Iosis X, a radically-styled four-dour crossover that pushed Ford’s then-new Kinetic design language to its absolute breaking point.
It wasn’t the first or last concept vehicle to wear the Iosis badge, as the original Iosis, unveiled at the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show, was a rakish four-door that previewed the third-generation Euro-market Ford Mondeo.
According to the press release, parts of the Iosis X’s interior were “inspired by modern helicopter cockpit design”.
3 Reality: Ford Kuga
The second-generation Ford Kuga (essentially the Euro-market equivalent of the Ford Escape), revealed ten years ago, diluted the Iosis X’s design to an upsettingly high degree. Instead of the kicked-up rear haunches of the concept, the Kuga looked like a garden-variety crossover inside and out. Instead of the orange, white, and silver upholstery used in the cockpit of the concept, buyers were stuck with the standard fare of beige, grey or black cloth or cowhide.
2 Concept: Dacia Duster
Dacia is currently Renault’s value led arm, though before its acquisition by the French automaker, it was basically the Romanian equivalent of Lada, cranking out cheaply-built commuter cars for the people of communist Romania. The Duster concept, unveiled at the Geneva International Auto Show in 2009, didn’t seem interested in capturing those humble origins at all, with futuristic bodywork that made it almost impossible to discern its origins. Mind you, the engine was far less radical, as Renault fitted a 1.5 liter diesel inline-four under the hood.
1 Reality: Dacia Duster
The production-ready Duster was far more in touch with its roots: a no-frills crossover that would hopefully provide safe and efficient mobility to the masses.
Its greatest selling point was its stupidly low price: entry level trims started at the equivalent of around $12,500 USD. For reference, that’s almost $3,000 cheaper than a Kia Rio.
And don’t think that it’ll fall apart the moment you look at it funny: former Top Gear host and experienced automotive journalist Richard Hammond called it a “terrifically good value SUV that's spacious, rugged, drives really rather well and doesn't empty your pocket with a load of kit that you don't really need.”