Concept cars that went wrong when they made production

By definition, a concept car explores the paths auto-makers can take as they forge their next design identity.

Some are created merely to turn heads on the auto show circuit while others preview what’s next. Key styling cues and dramatic lines often get watered down or completely lost, however.

Join us as we look at how striking design studies changed as they navigated towards mass production:

Concept car: Ford Mustang Mach III (1992)

Ford nearly re-invented the Mustang on a front-wheel drive platform borrowed from Mazda. When enthusiasts protested, the firm started working on a proper, rear-wheel drive replacement for the third-generation car. It previewed the first all-new Mustang since 1978 with a concept car called Mach III shown in January 1993 at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows.

Ford allegedly chose the venue to steal GM’s thunder; the then-new Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro were among the shows’ stars.

Production car: Ford Mustang (fourth-generation, 1993)

The fourth-generation Ford Mustang finally made its debut in late 1993. Its softer, more rounded design subtly borrowed styling cues like the scoops behind the doors and the distinctive shape of the rear lights from the Mach III concept but it looked considerably less futuristic – and, thankfully, much lower to the ground.

It marked a significant step forward from the third-generation car in terms of style, substance and power, however.

Concept car: Pontiac Sunfire (1994)

The Sunfire concept explored what was possible when Pontiac let a sports car like the Firebird influence an entry-level model. The head-turning sheet metal hid a four-cylinder engine supercharged to place 241 HP under the driver’s right foot, an impressive figure during the mid-1990s.

It looked a little Hot Wheels-esque, and few realistically expected it would reach production untouched, but it promised good things for Pontiac’s next generation of entry-level models. Was the brand's search for relevance over?

Production car: Pontiac Sunfire (1995)

The excitement surrounding the Pontiac Sunfire concept faded as soon as the production model arrived in 1995. It was merely a Chevrolet Cavalier with Pontiac-specific front and rear fascias and different plastic cladding on the sides. To its credit, the brand added a convertible model to the line-up.

It’s a shame that it held little appeal beyond giving motorists the possibility to drive with the top down without spending a lot of money.

Concept car: Micro Compact (1996)

No one knew quite what to make of the Micro Compact concept shown in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. Was it an actual car that dealerships would one day be able to sell or was it a preview of the Toys R Us Christmas catalog? While many would have placed money on the second option, Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler soon made plans to bring the model to production.

Three more concepts followed the Micro Compact. The Modular Concept Car unveiled at the 1996 Paris auto show looked a lot like the Micro Compact but it gained doors and a two-tone paint job that highlighted the safety cell, a feature that continues to characterize the ForTwo today. The City Fashion Victim from 1997 and the Torino ’98 concept were more accurate previews of the production car.

Production car: Smart City-Coupe (1998)

Smart made slight tweaks to the shape of the Micro Compact Car concept as it created the City-Coupe but the basic mono-box silhouette stayed roughly the same. The front end got a less robot-like design that incorporated almond-shaped headlights. Designers dusted off the Micro Compact Car’s trapezoidal lights when they gave the car a facelift in 2001.

Concept car: Plymouth Pronto concept (1997)

Plymouth presented the Pronto concept in 1997 as a new kind of economy car. The designers drew it for a younger generation of buyers by giving it styling that stood out from anything else on the market at the time with the notable exception of Plymouth’s own Prowler. They lowered its price by cutting down on equipment – the concept came with wind-up windows – and by making it simple to assemble. All told, the Pronto was poised to rejuvenate Plymouth’s image.

Production car: Chrysler PT Cruiser (2000)

Chrysler shut down Plymouth and alchemized the Pronto concept into the PT Cruiser during the late 1990s. The basic premise stayed the same, it was a four-door economy car developed not to look or feel like one, but nearly everything else changed. Stylists took the design in a retro direction previewed by the Pronto Cruiser concept and product planners added more features to better integrate the model into the more upmarket Chrysler line-up.

Concept car: Citroën C-3 (1998)

Citroën explained the C-3 concept illustrated what city cars could look like in the 21st century. Unveiled at the 1998 Paris auto show, the last edition of the event before the turn of the millennium, the concept stood out with a shapely design characterized by a rounded front end and a 2CV-like arched roof line.

Reverse-facing doors provided unobstructed access to an interior that could be configured in a wide variety of different ways. Parked next to a humble Saxo, the car it was intended to replace, the C-3 made the future look utterly attractive.

Production car: Citroën C3 (first-generation, 2002)

Citroën retained the C-3 concept’s basic silhouette but erased the finer details and filled them in differently. Though it didn’t have reverse-facing doors or a trick two-part tailgate, the first-generation C3 unveiled in 2002 managed to stand out in a segment where few entrants put any kind of emphasis on design.

The arched roof line was such a hit that it returned on the second-generation model introduced over a decade after the C-3 concept.

Concept car: Dodge Charger R/T (1999)

Dodge dropped the Charger nameplate after the 1987 model year, but brought it back for a swoopy concept displayed at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This had a supercharged 4.7-litre V8 engine, which seemed appropriate (though unusually it was fuelled by compressed natural gas), but it also had four doors, a feature never seen on a production Charger up to that point.

Production car: Dodge Charger (sixth generation, 2005)

The R/T concept went nowhere. When Dodge finally got round to putting a new Charger on the market, it was a far more upright machine based on a shortened version of the platform used for the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum. Its only relation to the earlier concept was that it, too, had four doors.

Concept car: Toyota FTX (2004)

The public and the press lambasted Toyota for making the original Tundra too small. The company responded with the FTX concept introduced at the 2004 Detroit auto show. The Japanese firm described the design study as “a statement that promises the brute power to match its bold styling and ample proportions,” a not-so-subtle hint that it had clearly received the message about the Tundra’s size.

Elephantine dimensions and flared wheel arches emphasized the Tonka truck-like design. It wasn’t what you expected to see in a Toyota showroom next to a Prius. And yet, it went relatively easy on the environment thanks to a V8-electric hybrid powertrain. “It’s a statement we mean to back up,” the company added.

Production car: Toyota Tundra (second-generation, 2006)

In some ways, the FTX concept accurately previewed the second-generation Toyota Tundra revealed at the 2006 Chicago auto show. The truck was bigger than its predecessor, though Toyota still didn’t offer a dually option, and it wore a brawnier design.

It wasn’t quite as big or quite as futuristic as the FTX concept, for better or worse, and the hybrid powertrain remained at the prototype stage. Though it’s the world’s hybrid leader, we've had to wait for the 2022 Tundra to get a hybrid option, called i-Force Max.

Concept car: Chevrolet Beat (2007)

The Beat was part of Chevrolet’s three-concept offensive at the 2007 New York auto show. With eye-catching green paint, a muscular stance and a high-tech interior, the two-door design study demonstrated that a small city car didn’t needed to look or feel cheap.

Production car: Chevrolet Spark (2009

The Beat concept lost its pizzazz on its way to production. Introduced as the Chevrolet Spark in 2009, it looked markedly less athletic than the design study that previewed it, it grew a set of rear doors and it came with a decidedly more downmarket interior. Buyers could order it in metallic green, though.

Concept car: Renault Wind (2004)

In concept form, the Wind was an adventurous little roadster with 2+1 seating and a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine already familiar from its use in other Renaults of the period. The interior was particularly well designed, and included a steering wheel and pedals which retracted whenever the driver’s door was opened.

Production car: Renault Wind (2010)

The Wind you could actually buy was much cheaper than the concept could possibly have been. There was now a choice of engines – a 1.2-litre turbo and a naturally-aspirated 1.6 – but the car was best known for its roof, which could be opened or closed one-handed from the driver’s seat. Reviews were moderately positive, but Renault gave up on the Wind after just here years, in 2013.

Concept car: BMW Vision EfficientDynamics (2009)

Perhaps not the most elegantly-named concept in automotive history, the Vision EfficientDynamics was an extraordinary 2+2 coupe with scissor doors, an exceptionally aerodynamic body and an advanced powertrain. A turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine drove the rear wheels, and there was also an electric motor at each axle. The total output was over 350bhp, and the fact that the motors could drive the car while the engine was switched off was very good for fuel economy.

Production car: BMW i8 (2013)

More concepts and prototypes followed, but most of the Vision’s styling was carried over to the production car, which was named i8. This was a beautiful car, so the concept can’t really be said to have gone wrong, but BMW did have to ditch one idea: the almost complete transparency of the Vision’s doors was abandoned, reducing the dramatic effect but giving the occupants more privacy.

Concept car: Toyota Prius c (2011)

The Prius c (for ‘city’) concept was a petrol-electric hybrid aimed at, in Toyota’s words, “young singles and couples” who wanted low running costs but didn’t need a car as large as the regular Prius. Along with the more family-oriented Prius v, it made its debut at the 2011 North American International Auto Show, and was notable for its daring design.

Production car: Toyota Prius c (2012)

A year after the concept made its debut, a production version went on sale. In Japan, it was known as the Aqua, but the original name was retained for markets in North America and Oceania. Technically, not much had changed, but the design was now far more conventional, possibly because Toyota didn’t feel that its customers wanted a mainstream car with the concept’s dramatic impact.

Concept car: Toyota FT-1 (2014)

The startling FT-1, seen in public for the first time in January 2014, was a long, low and handsome coupe with partly race-inspired styling a very inventive door mirror design. Toyota had a free hand in creating the car, which was not the case when a similar production model went into development.

Production car: Toyota GR Supra (2019)

The Supra was heavily inspired by the FT-1 concept, but it couldn’t look exactly the same because it was a sister car to the new BMW Z4, which was had what are known in the industry as ‘hard points’ in different places. As a result, the Supra had to be several inches shorter than the FT-1, which produced a very different effect. And those remarkable door mirrors had to be abandoned.

Concept car: Kia GT4 Stinger (2014)

Kia’s Californian design studio really let rip with the GT4 Stinger. This 2+2 coupe had such a low bonnet line that the front arches had to extend above it in order to accommodate the 20-inch wheels. Vertical headlights, integrated with brake cooling ducts, were placed at the extreme sides of the vehicle. If Kia had put anything like it into production, minds would have boggled around the globe.

Production car: Kia Stinger (2017)

A Stinger did indeed enter the market three years after the concept was revealed, but it looked very different. This was a liftback with enough room inside for four adults, and it was longer than two cars we considered as rivals – the Audi A5 Sportback and the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe. No doubt it has sold in far greater numbers than the GT4 version could possibly have done, but it’s also possible to regret that the coupe never became available to the public.

Concept car: Lexus UX (2016)

It would be difficult to describe the UX concept as conventionally beautiful, but it certainly wasn’t short of visual impact. Previewing a future subcompact luxury crossover, it had exceptionally aggressive styling, including very prominent front wings and front and rear wheelarches, and looked as if it could cover rough ground with considerable haste if you didn’t mind getting it dirty. The front doors hinged at the front and the rears at the rear, and there was no central pillar, giving uninterrupted access to the cabin.

Production car: Lexus UX (2018)

The production UX first appeared at the 2018 Geneva Show, and it was immediately clear that the styling of the concept, while still quite angular, had been watered down considerably. The typically extravagant Lexus front grille was carried over, so there was no doubt about whose work the car was, but on the whole it really just looked the way you would expect a small Lexus SUV to look. The doors, unlike those of the concept, were conventional.

By Ronan Glon and David Finlay


Concept cars that went wrong when they made production An attractive concept doesn't always guarantee an attractive production car