Like all subjective things, tastes in automotive design change rapidly and frequently; new trends are tremendously difficult to predict. Concept cars allow manufacturers to gauge people’s engagement with possible product lineups without having to immediately jump forward to mass production. They can also serve as a rolling showcase for the bleeding edge of technology and provide valuable insight into what features a carmaker will offer years or even decades from now.
Narrowing down the best and worst concept cars of the past two decades to a measly 20 entries is a surprisingly difficult task. There have been countless examples of both good and bad at every single car show from around the world, so I’m trimming this list down to cars that didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel in any form. That can be due to financial difficulty, lack of consumer interest, or simply a lack of any sort of viable production plan. Even with these self-imposed restrictions in place, this list could have hundreds of unique variations, so try not to take my selections as gospel.
THE TEN BEST
20 2009 Bugatti 16C Galibier
How do you top the world-beating Veyron? At the time of its release in 2003, the Franco-German hypercar set records that stood for more than a decade. Though it’s been more than a year since its successor first saw daylight, no one can say that the Chiron has had a bigger impact on the automotive world, probably because it simply refines the same tricks employed by its older brother. But oh, what could've been.
Having claimed the mantle of ‘World’s Fastest Production Car,’ Bugatti sought to go in a different direction in 2009 and lean further into their reputation of building devastatingly fast grand-tourers.
The Galibier was propositioned as the world’s fastest luxury sedan, and its specs certainly backed up the ambition. The two-piece folding hood concealed the 8.0-liter W16 engine from the Veyron, swapping the quad-turbo setup for twin superchargers that offered an improved low-RPM response. The Bugatti Type 57-inspired bodywork was also home to a handbuilt interior, which bucked the trend of complicated infotainment systems with a minimalist wooden dashboard.
19 2012 Chevrolet Code 130R
In most configurations (Z/28 and SS 1LE excluded), the previous generation Chevrolet Camaro was frequently criticized as being a car too big and too cumbersome for something with overt sporty pretensions. GM, seeing the problem, showed off the Code 130R concept as a smaller, more agile, and cheaper entry-level sports car for younger buyers. Like the Cadillac ATS (and current sixth-gen Camaro) the coupe was built on the then-new Alpha platform, only shortened by about a foot (for reference, the 130R is about the same size as a BMW 1-Series). Its tidy RWD proportions and bluff, blunt features made it a broad-shouldered bulldog of a car.
The little pony car was unveiled at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show with a 150 HP inline-four and a six-speed manual, meaning expected fuel economy hovered around the 40 MPG mark.
The proposed price tag was rumoured to be somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000, right around the similarly powered Subaru BRZ and Scion GT-86 twins, along with the Mazda MX-5. Unfortunately, low sales from the aforementioned twins meant that GM axed any hopes for a fuel-efficient, tail-happy, manual sports car. The world is definitely a darker place without it.
18 2010 Jaguar C-X75
The C-X75 could've been an intriguing competitor in the hybrid hypercar arena, meant to do battle with the Ferrari LaFerrari, the Porsche 918, and the McLaren P1. However, the concept’s first iteration now seems like it could've been even more relevant today than any of its would-be competitors. By mounting four 193 HP electric motors at each wheel, the C-X75 would've had astonishing cornering abilities—decoupling the motors from a central source of power means that each wheel can rotate independently, a technology called "Torque Vectoring." Thanks to a small battery, it had a pitifully small all-electric range of just 68 miles. That’s where the Jaguar’s second cool feature comes in to play. Like the Chevrolet Volt and the BMW i3, the C-X75 had a gasoline engine onboard to charge the batteries. Unlike those two commuter cars, whose generators were piston-powered, Jaguar fitted two micro gas turbines under the rear glass hatch. Altogether, this brought the expected range to a more-than-sufficient 559 miles. Public reception to the project was good enough that serious plans were made to put the car into limited production, only with a slightly more conventional powertrain (a twin-charged inline-four and one electric motor at each axle). Unfortunately, the ongoing economic crisis meant that the venture was shelved.
17 2008 Audi R8 V12
While diesel might not be the first thing you think of when you hear the words “motorsport pedigree,” Audi’s LMP1 oil-burners were some of the most dominant racing cars of the new millennium. Its first diesel effort, the R10 TDI, was the first diesel car to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006, proving that the technology had serious performance potential. After the R10’s third consecutive Le Mans win in 2008, interest in diesel was at a fever pitch.
The automaker, sensing an opportunity, shoehorned the 6.0-liter V12 engine from an upcoming version of their Q7 SUV into their newly unveiled sports car, the R8.
This twin-turbocharged lump put out a reasonable 493 HP, but the real story was the torque on offer: 738 lb-ft from just 1,750 RPM. Unfortunately, difficulty in sourcing a sufficiently durable yet compact transmission, along with the massive size of the engine, meant that expected production costs rose to the point where the project was no longer viable.
16 2013 Nissan IDx
Like most people from my generation, I grew up idolizing Japan’s sport compact market of the 1990s. Everyone my age seems to want a Silvia, an AE86 Corolla, an RX-7, or any other number of small, rear-wheel-drive, manual cars. Rising manufacturing and insurance costs meant that all was quiet along the Japanese compact front for more than a decade, with the Mazda MX-5 doing the bulk of supporting a niche market. That changed for the better in 2012, when the Subaru BRZ / Toyota GT-86 / Scion (RIP) GT-86 entered dealership lots following years of near-production-ready concepts. In 2013, the news got even better for enthusiasts—Nissan showed off the IDx concepts, a pair of retro-futuristic RWD compacts inspired by the Datsun 510, with mechanical and visual differentiation (the sportier NISMO model was specced with a 1.6-liter turbo four and a six-speed manual, while the beige Freeflow model was shown with a CVT). Unfortunately, the expense needed to develop a brand-new platform for a small market was perceived as being too high for Nissan, and current reports paint the project as being well and truly dead.
15 2001 Suzuki GSX-R/4
What happens when a company renowned for their two-wheeled performance offerings turns its attention to the sports-car market? Well, clearly, you get the GSX-R/4. This could've been Japan’s answer to the Lotus Elise, a cyberpunk speedster armed with a 1.3-liter Suzuki Hayabusa engine screaming to 11,000 RPM just behind the driver’s ear canals. As you’d expect from the Hayabusa name, the GSX-R/4 wasn’t short on grunt. Thanks to a 11:1 compression ratio and a whole host of competition-ready upgrades, the motorcycle mill put out 175 HP, more than enough to shift the 1,410 lb curb weight. The futuristic design still holds up today, thanks to the minimalist body surfacing, the slimline front lights, and the exposed suspension components.
14 2007 Mazda Furai
Ah, the tragic story of the Mazda Furai, a Le Mans prototype cloaked in one of the most intricate, beguiling bodies to ever see the light of day. The Furai’s name translated to “sound of the wind,” and the design took that theme and ran with it. From some angles, the Furai looked almost organic, shaped more by natural forces than someone’s hand. For instance, look at the front ‘grille,’ a heinously complex helix of flower petals that envelop the tiny front lights or the curvaceous rear diffuser that hides a set of sinuous carbon fiber vanes.
It wasn’t just a rolling showpiece, though—the Furai was a fully functional racecar with a 450 HP 3-rotor RENESIS engine.
Unfortunately, that fact also led to its demise—during a photo shoot with Top Gear magazine in 2008, the car spontaneously caught fire while being driven on a track. While the driver was able to escape, fire crews were unable to get to the Furai before it was reduced to a burnt-out husk.
13 2016 Buick Avista
Do you like the idea of a new Buick GNX? Because I sure do! For the uninitiated, the 1987 GNX was a menacing black-on-black limited-production special with a turbocharged V6, professionally fettled by the boffins over at McLaren Performance Technologies and American Specialty Cars, that pumped out more than 420 lb-ft of torque. In a straight line, it could embarrass a Ferrari F40. While the Avista doesn’t quite promise the same level of underdog performance, it certainly wouldn’t embarrass itself. Underneath the low-slung hood is a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 with 400 HP. Unlike the blocky GNX, the Avista has a gorgeous, time-honored fastback design, enlivened by futuristic details such as the pillarless doors and a 3d-printed interior. Even better, its chances for production are better than most, as it shares the RWD GM Alpha platform with the Cadillac ATS and the Chevrolet Camaro.
12 2007 Acura Advanced Sports Car
Another victim of the Great Recession, the very sexily named Advanced Sports Car (ASC) concept could've been the Lexus LFA before the Lexus LFA. The similarities between the two cars are striking: both Japanese supercars featured striking front-engine coupe proportions, sharply creased bodywork, and motorsport-derived V10 engines. The ASC was meant to be a successor to the NSX, a car that’s now reached mythical status thanks to its timeless styling, its knife-edged VTEC V6 responses, and a chassis dialed in by Ayrton Senna. Mechanical and aesthetic similarities were few, the only obvious throwback to the OG NSX being the full-width taillights. While it never did see the open road, the concept lived on as the HSV-010 GT, a racing vehicle that competed in Japan’s Super GT series from 2010 to 2013. While the internet’s view of the actual second-generation NSX has been kind of frosty, no one can argue that the 2015 production car has more in common with its namesake—mid-mounted V6, aluminum bodywork, and experimental tech.
11 2004 Chrysler ME Four-Twelve
When most think of the Daimler-Chrysler partnership of the early 2000s, they think of poorly built Sebrings and Pacificas, not to mention Mercedes-Benz products that didn’t live up to the brand’s iron-clad reputation for quality. Some of the two companies’ worst products were released during that dark period. If there was one bright spot in all this doom and gloom, it was the ME Four-Twelve. Revealed at the 2004 North American Auto Show in Detroit, this hypercar boasts performance figures that would still humble some supercars today. With a 7-speed sequential gearbox and a quad-turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V12 engine, the Four-Twelve cranked out a massive 850 HP and could sprint through the quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds before hitting a top speed of 248 MPH. It wasn’t rip-snorting brutality either; the carbon-fiber and aluminum honeycomb chassis cradled a leather-lined cabin that looked like a comfortable place to sit for continent-crushing cruises. In other words, this was an American (OK, Germano-American) answer to the Bugatti Veyron.
THE TEN WORST
10 2001 BMW X-Coupe
In many ways, the X-Coupe previewed some of the most unfortunate design trends in the current automotive market almost two decades ahead of time. BMW’s pretentious press release at the 2001 North American International Auto Show stated, “The X coupe leaves beaten paths of auto design, just as it is also able to leave the beaten paths of auto driving and head confidently off-road.” They are absolutely correct.
The X Coupe DID break the rules of conventional auto design. We learned a valuable lesson from this: those rules shouldn’t really be broken.
It combined BMW’s most obnoxious design detail: so-called ‘flame surfacing,’ which looked like a series of nonsensical creases along the car’s flanks, with a ridiculously high beltline and a gawky rear end. Altogether, it ruined what could've been either a pretty cool premium off-road buggy or a luxury coupe. Even worse, it can be seen as the harbinger of the even more useless BMW X6, which is somehow still in production.
9 2005 Nissan Pivo
Japan’s automakers have put out a lot of oddball concept cars, more than enough to fill this list ten times over, so I won’t say that this is the most egregious offender. That being said, the Pivo sits mighty close to the top of the weirdness pyramid. While Nissan did build a Pivo 2 and a Pivo 3, I’m going to focus on the genesis of the breed.
The core concept of the Pivo was its rotating cabin, which, combined with a set of lithium-ion batteries mounted on the car’s floor, makes the practice of reversing obsolete.
I do wonder if Nissan thought that this would offset the fact that no one could possibly look cool while driving this thing.
8 2008 Scion Hako
Regardless of automotive knowledge, everyone knows what the standard issue hotrod is about: V8s, candy paint, leather jackets, and ripped jeans. The hot-rodding culture can be traced back to the 1950s as a sort of All-American automotive counter-culture movement started by California youths. While the whole thing seems kind of passé here in the States, vintage Americana is enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity across the Pacific. In fact, if you want to see some of the highest-quality lowrider, rat-rod, or hot-rod builds anywhere on Earth, go to Japan (especially the city Yokohama, which hosts an enormous show every year). Cashing in on this craze seemed to be Scion’s plan when they unveiled the Hako concept at the 2008 New York Auto Show. Of course, it didn’t work, as the coupe’s bluff body and bizarre upright windshield seemed to be some strange modern parody instead of a well-done homage of a 1930s Ford.
7 2006 Acura Advance
Some concepts make you hopeful for the future. The Advance sedan concept looks straight out of Blade Runner, only a scarier, more nuclear-'holocausty' version of it. It’s easy to imagine the blocky, menacing front end grumbling down a narrow neon-lit Tokyo street with some douchebag technocrat playboy at the wheel, screaming at the peons to get out of his way. No technical details were provided during its unveiling at the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show, which suggested that Acura had no plans to put any variation of the concept into production (thankfully). Unfortunately, some of its design cues did, including the ugly beak grille that single-handedly ruined the looks of almost a decade’s worth of Acuras.
6 2007 Toyota RiN
Hail the microwave on wheels! I kid, I kid... but seriously, this thing is weird. The RiN was envisioned as a car from a future where the automobile could simultaneously coexist peacefully with nature and make its driver more relaxed—the seats enforced good posture, while the cabin was equipped with an air purifier and a precision humidifier. Helping the world and individual drivers are worthy and noble goals. I’m a car enthusiast first and foremost, but I also acknowledge that we need to embrace change in the industry. That being said, no one is going to embrace change if people are made to feel like reptiles in a terrarium. It’s obvious that Toyota built it only as a design study, so technical details are thin on the ground.
5 2005 Ford SynUS
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you reversed a Ford Flex into a bank vault? Here you go! With bulletproof windows and a six-inch-thick rear hatch, I’m sure that Ford’s designers were trying to convey a sense of security with the SynUS, but it’s all a little on the nose. The only thing I’m getting is a crippling lack of rear visibility, along with the sense that it’s compensating for something, an effect that’s compounded once you realize that the car is roughly the same size as a five-door Ford Fiesta. Still, there are the makings of a cool little wagon here: remove the tough-guy bank-vault detailing, add some windows, and hey, presto!
4 2009 Aston Martin Lagonda Concept
The name ‘Aston Martin’ has a certain connotation. Its syllables roll off the tongue like Beluga caviar or a good Beaujolais and bring to mind impeccably crafted coupes with long, tapering hoods and gently flowing curves. There have been few diversions from this path. The first Lagonda, built in 1976, was an avant-garde luxury sedan whose main source of design inspiration was a doorstop, or a particularly aerodynamic slice of cheese. It was one of the most stereotypically late-seventies cars ever built. So naturally, anything carrying the Lagonda name would a) have to be strikingly ugly and b) reflect the tackiest trends of a given era. Because modern luxury buyers don’t have much taste, the premium SUV segment is mighty profitable nowadays, with everyone from Rolls-Royce to Lamborghini jiving for a slice of the pie. Ergo, it fits that Aston Martin would want in, but did it have to be as disappointing as the Lagonda SUV? There’s practically nothing here that makes it look like part of the family.
3 2008 Honda FC Sport
Another vehicle where the idea was better than the execution, Honda’s FC Sport concept was the automaker’s idea of how a hydrogen fuel cell sports car would look. There’s no denying that the car incorporated some pretty nifty details into its overall design. Look at the fuel cells under the rear hatch, for instance, like NOS bottles from Fast and the Furious 2049, or the cutout vents just behind the front wheels. The issue was that nothing seemed to coalesce into a coherent design: the front end is a completely flat plane, with seemingly zero surface detailing, while the rear end features some sort of weird pillar shape that’s been extruded from the car’s body. If I’m being honest, I do like the sleek, aerodynamic profile, but it’s ruined by fascias that look like they belong on totally different vehicles.
2 2010 Mercedes-Benz BlueZERO
At this point, I wonder if readers will accuse me of having a bias against environmentally friendly vehicles, so I’ll get this out of the way. Too often, it seems like automakers confuse ‘forward-thinking’ with ‘flat-out weird.’ In many cases, ‘flat-out weird’ manifests itself as ‘absolutely disgusting.’ Well, that’s definitely the case with the BlueZERO concept. Replete with nonsensical creases, an egg-shaped profile, and weird, gauzy rear-wheel covers, this concept smothers a high-tech modular platform under some deeply unpleasant design.
1 2012 Bertone Nuccio
The house of Bertone has put out some weird and wonderful creations since their inception over a century ago. Their designs are often characterized by wedge-shaped, angular profiles and futuristic detailing. They've taken both those traits too far in the Nuccio.
Revealed at the 2012 Geneva Auto Show, this one-off luxury coupe was meant to celebrate the coachbuilder’s 100th anniversary.
While there’s much to like about a 430 HP V8 sitting midships, I can’t get over the uneven roof profile or the gawky front headlights, the flat front windshield, or the strange two-tone color scheme.