By contributor
updated 1/19/2007 3:49:24 PM ET 2007-01-19T20:49:24

There are plenty of weird and wonderful vehicles on show at the Detroit auto show this week, but why do carmakers build them, and more importantly, when will we see them on the road?

Carmakers’ concept cars fall into two categories: Flights of Fancy, which adventurously explore creative possibilities, unfettered by frustrating realities such as cost or crash safety, and Future Forecasts, which provide clear glimpses of manufacturers’ directions and sometimes a preview of potential future models.

Of course, some manufacturers fudge the issue, showing planned production models like the Accord Coupe and the Camaro convertible and calling them “concepts” because some details haven’t been finalized, but those are really just production previews.

The Ford Airstream is one of the more fanciful flights from this year’s show, and it’s little wonder that troubled Ford Motor Co. sought refuge in a bit of fantasy.

With the retro-chic Airstream, Ford invites us to remember the days when the Apollo astronauts were quarantined in the sleek aluminum-skinned trailers after visiting the moon and Toyota was the punchline to Detroit jokes.

“This car really celebrates the best of American pioneering innovation,” explained Freeman Thomas, Ford’s director of North American Strategic Design.

The metallic egg shape might encounter some difficulties meeting front crash test standards, but it sure looks cool. Ford’s purpose is to show that future crossover vehicles needn’t follow the orthodoxy of today’s tall wagons.

Inside, the Airstream wears the bright hues of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a 360-degree video screen at the center looks as psychedelic as any ’60s lava lamp.

Ford calls the Airstream’s hydrogen-powered hybrid electric fuel cell system the HySeries Drive. The Airstream can travel 25 miles running on juice from its 336-volt lithium-ion battery pack (don’t poke a screwdriver in there!), but the hydrogen fuel cell can propel the vehicle another 280 miles while achieving the equivalent of 41 miles per gallon.

Chevrolet is thinking about electric power too, and showed its new E-Flex System wrapped in a smartly styled four-door sedan that would excite many buyers today.

General Motors has concluded that the wheels of its cars will be turned by electric power in the future, with a variety of sources providing the necessary voltage.

At its heart, the E-Flex system is an electric drivetrain with a motor, batteries and controller to coordinate the two. That’s the “E” part of the name. The “Flex” part refers to the possible sources of the electricity consumed by the “E” half of the system.

Power could be produced by the 1.0-liter, three-cylinder gasoline engine that serves as the Volt’s on-board generator. It could also come from the 110-volt wall outlet in your garage, which will charge the lithium ion battery pack enough to let you drive 20 miles to work and 20 miles back again. That is far enough for 80 percent of Americans to get to work and back on pure electric power, the company said.

If you do need to drive farther than 40 miles between charges, the generator engine can burn E85 ethanol (85 percent ethyl alcohol, 15 percent petroleum gasoline), at the rate of 50 miles per gallon. With gasoline accounting for only a fraction of the fuel burned, the contribution to greenhouse gas production and consumption of increasingly problematic gasoline is the equivalent of getting 175 miles per gallon.

Alternatively, the generator could run on domestically produced and renewable bio-diesel fuel, or the conventional engine could be tweaked to run on pure ethanol. These possibilities are the source of the “Flex” portion of the title.

Turning this fantasy into reality hinges entirely on the development of a compact, cost-effective lithium ion battery pack that will still weigh 400 pounds. GM says that could happen by 2010 or 2012.  Meanwhile, all the rest of the parts of the car are under full development, so when the battery arrives, a car very much like the Volt will be ready to go.

How serious is this program? GM has appointed a vehicle line director, which is the usual course for a production vehicle, and the team has been working full-tilt on E-Flex and the Volt since February. And there is no rest for the weary — the day after the auto show preview, the engineering team was back at work in their lab, according to a GM spokesman.

The Mazda Ryuga and Nissan Bevel also recall Detroit’s glory days in another way — as pure styling exercises meant to excite show goers about possible design trends.

“Ryuga is useful in gauging the reactions of those who see it,” said Laurens van den Acker, design division general manager for Mazda.

Nissan’s Bevel continued its experimentation with unorthodox styling both in concepts and production in an effort to set its products apart from their more generic competitors. This effort has met with mixed results, as evidenced by the quixotic Quest minivan which has never gained popularity.

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