Car Concepts 2001

Many people complain that today's cars all look alike. Now car manufacturers are trying to change that. As vehicle technology becomes more and more standardized throughout the industry, the new battleground is moving into the styling studios. Or as Chevrolet General Manager Kurt Ridder recently told us, one of the last ways left to differentiate is "how you bend the metal."

With that in mind the concept vehicles shown at the major auto shows in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are even more important indications of where the industry is going...and what you can expect to see in your driveway in the coming years. So, for your dancing and listening pleasure, here are some of the top concepts, accompanied by DT's commentary.

Audi Project Steppenwolf
So Audi has the annoying habit of using lower-case letters on its proprietary quattro system; that doesn't mean we don't like its view of how the Audi development engineers visualize a high-performance all-around vehicle for the compact class.

Dubbed "Project Steppenwolf" ("Get your motor running; head out on the highway...") this three-door four-seater provides evidence of the kind of "Vorsprung durch Technik" (Strength through Joy, no, sorry, we mean Advancement through Technology) that Audi says has become synonymous with the name Audi.

Its engineers set the goal that Project Steppenwolf should be able to master rough terrain in extreme conditions just as effortlessly as high-speed driving, feeling equally at home in the outback as on the highway. Not surprisingly, the concept vehicle makes use of Audi's quattro expertise and experience with height-adjustable air suspension.

The quattro permanent four-wheel drive system ensures maximum traction and excellent directional stability in all conditions and over all types of terrain. The vehicle is predominantly a front-driver unless there is wheel slippage. Then the electronically controlled Haldex clutch distributes power between the front and rear wheels as required. In addition, the Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) distributes torque between the wheels on one axle. And the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) helps the driver to remain in control if confronted with potentially critical driving situations at the limit.

According to Audi, Project Steppenwolf's engine, a 3.2-liter V-6 developing 225 horsepower, will accelerate the car from zero to 62 mph (that's 100 km/h) in under eight seconds. Its top speed is well over 143 mph (230 km/h), but apparently not as high as 144.

One of the special features of Project Steppenwolf is its four-level air suspension with an adjustment range of 2.4 inches. This Audi system qualifies the compact three-door model as an all-around vehicle in a class of its own, giving ample ground clearance of up to 8.8 inches for difficult terrain while offering a low center of gravity and optimum aerodynamics at high speed.

Acura RS-X
Don't be surprised that the Acura RS-X looks like a production car. It is a close facsimile of the Integra replacement that will bow later this year.

The RS-X prototype utilizes advanced new engine technology in combination with rigid unit-body construction, a highly aerodynamic body and sport-tuned chassis to deliver exhilarating style and performance in a luxury-class sports coupe. It is also one concept car that meets Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards.

Under the hood is an advanced new-generation 2.0-liter, 16-valve DOHC engine with i-VTEC "intelligent" valve-control that produces approximately 200 horsepower. Honda's patented i-VTEC combines VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) with new VTC (Variable Timing Control) to continuously adjust camshaft phase for enhanced performance and efficiency across a broad power band. Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a close ratio six-speed manual transmission.

The RS-X prototype's exterior features short front and rear overhangs, sweeping curves and sharply chiseled accent lines. It is shod with 18-inch BBS light alloy wheels and 225/45R18 Michelin tires. Large, bright multi-reflector headlights, deeply beveled chin spoiler and signature Acura grille highlight a distinctive front fascia. The rear decklid features a brow that extends above the four-lamp taillights and is complemented by a large-mouth chrome exhaust finisher.

The RS-X interior features a cockpit-style driving environment with driver-oriented instruments and control surfaces, whatever that means. Interior highlights include perforated black leather trim, deeply contoured Recaro sport seats, small-diameter steering wheel, short-throw gearshift lever, and silver-colored reverse inset gauge cluster. The production version of Acura's RS-X will debut at the Greater New York Auto Show in April. Don't be shocked if you can't tell the difference between it and this one.

Boston native Tom Ripley observes the international automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

Dodge Super8 Hemi
Do you remember when big American sedans also offered some performance potential? Well, apparently the folks at Dodge do, too. The Dodge Super8 Hemi concept car brings the return of such former American car staples as a big V-8 engine and rear-wheel-drive. Sadly, though, we have heard rumors that a production version of this well-executed throwback might have already fallen victim to DaimlerChrysler's financial woes. That's a pity because there's a lot to like about the Super8 Hemi, especially its tall stance that enhances visibility, comfort, space and ease of entry and exit for both driver and passengers.

"The Dodge Super8 Hemi embodies the culture and essence of American optimism," said Freeman Thomas, vice president - advanced design strategy, DaimlerChrysler Corporation. "The concept's bold, in-your-face design shows our ability to embrace our love for the sedan and meld it with invigorating execution and technological advancement."

We think American car fans will salivate over the prototype 353 cubic inch (5.7-liter) pushrod V-8 engine featuring hemispherical combustion chambers and two spark plugs per cylinder. (No Euro-sissy overhead cams for this American beauty!) Offering an estimated 353 horsepower and 395 pound-feet of torque, channeled to the rear driving wheels, the engine can move the Super8 Hemi from a standstill to 60 mph in less than six seconds and clock a top speed of 154 mph.

The concept car has a chiseled body and rides on a long wheelbase of 117.4 inches with a similarly wide-track stance. The so-called "Passenger Priority" design utilizes higher-than-normal seating to give driver and passengers more of an in-control feeling compared to other sedans. The rear passengers sit higher than the front passengers, creating an automotive form of theater seating, so the Super8 Hemi is great for drive-in movies.

The interior pays homage to the legendary vehicles of the 1950s, featuring a combination of brushed and painted aluminum gauges and trim. The concept's ornate instrument panel recalls the bygone era as do the bench seats and the absence of a b-pillar. Can you say hardtop sedan?

Despite the retro touches the Super8 Hemi is stuffed with silicon (not silicone, silly.) The vehicle-internal computing architecture consists of four Single Board Computers that each run a certified standard Java Virtual Machine (JVM) on top of a Linux operation system. The software architecture for the in-vehicle computers is based on a 100 percent Java device platform called "deviceTop" from the Espial Group. The Infotronic system is directed by a voice recognition system or through its liquid crystal display integrated into the instrument panel. The use of JavaCard technology allows for personalized access to the system.

Voice commands allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while controlling the vehicle's audio system, climate control, phone and security systems as well as allow access to the driver's smart home appliances or home security system. For rear occupants, two LCD touch screens on articulating arms are mounted to the backrests of the front seats, enabling a fully Internet-accessible in-car environment, so you can log onto Driving Today on the road.