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Concept cars focusing on alternative fuel

In recent years, manufacturers have played up the visual and aesthetic qualities of their concept vehicles. But alternative-fuel technology is the focus of forward-looking concept cars unveiled at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show.
Ford Verve — how the next-generation Fiesta might look.
Ford Verve — how the next-generation Fiesta might look.Ford
/ Source: Forbes Autos

In recent years, manufacturers have played up the visual and aesthetic qualities of their concept vehicles. But alternative-fuel technology is the focus of forward-looking concept cars unveiled at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show. Here are the highlights:

Audi A4 2.0 TDI e Concept
Audi is showcasing new diesel technology in the latest version of its compact A4 sedan. The cryptically named A4 2.0 TDI e Concept features a diesel engine that Audi claims is the cleanest ever, yet doesn’t compromise on power: It delivers 143 hp, averages roughly 46 mpg and emits less than half a pound of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that some scientists say contributes to global warming) per mile. The engine automatically switches off when the car stops, then restarts as soon as the brake pedal is released, like many hybrids do. An innovative gel battery powers the vehicle’s electrical system. The battery stores energy from braking and coasting using an alternator that converts the power and sends it to the battery — technology also found on current hybrid vehicles. Audi is doing other little things to improve fuel efficiency: The engine only draws as much motor oil as is required, and a new automatic air conditioning system requires 20 percent less fuel than the previous model. A version of this new diesel engine, including an optional ultra-low emissions system, will be available mid-2008 on the Audi A4 and the company’s large SUV, the Q7. Audi officially debuted the new production version of the A4 Sedan at the show.

BMW X6 Concept
The BMW X6 Concept supposedly christens a new vehicle category: BMW calls it the “Sports Activity Coupe.” Really, the X6 BMW’s latest SUV, following the midsize X5 introduced in 1999 and the compact X3 released in 2003. Some speculate that it could end up replacing the X5, on which much of its design is based. The concept offers a mix of sports car and SUV styling and uses the term “coupe” — normally reserved for two-door vehicles — in reference to this four-door as a way of playing up its sporty character. This is a tactic Mercedes-Benz has used with its CLS-Class. According to BMW, the X6 is distinguished by its xDrive all-wheel-drive system, new drivetrain and Dynamic Performance Control chassis. We take this to mean that, like all other BMWs, it will be fun to drive.

Ford Verve Concept
The Ford Verve Concept provides a good idea of what the next-generation Ford Fiesta will look like, and borrows the structure Mazda uses on its smallest car, the Mazda2, which isn’t sold in the U.S. A system called Convers+ is incorporated into the upper-middle part of the dash, with a screen and controls meant to evoke the intuitive design of some cell phones. Interior curves are meant to envelop, but a gradually sloping roofline and windshield that arcs back and blends into the roof offer a sense of openness and space. The eighth-generation Fiesta is expected to go on sale in Europe in late 2008, and a Fiesta will be offered in the U.S. beginning in 2009. Ford will use the public and media’s reaction to the Verve Concept to help direct its future small-car designs — a tactic Chevrolet is using with a trio of small cars unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show (read about those cars here). The Verve may help inform a future redesign of the Ford Focus as well.

Opel Corsa Hybrid Concept
General Motors’ new Corsa Hybrid Concept features a 1.3-liter diesel engine paired with a lithium-ion battery and electric motor. The engine is based on a 75-hp engine in the existing Corsa, which GM says is the world’s smallest four-cylinder turbo-diesel using the latest “common rail” technology. The Corsa Hybrid Concept gets about 62 mpg, GM says, and emits just 0.36 pounds of CO2 per mile, roughly a 25 percent improvement over the non-hybrid Corsa. Like many hybrids these days, the diesel engine switches off when the car is stopped, and restarts when the brake pedal is released. Torque from the electric motor is supplied on demand for hard acceleration, like when overtaking another vehicle in the passing lane. According to Rick Wagoner, GM’s CEO, the manufacturer intends to sell eight different hybrid models in the U.S. by the end of 2008, which is more than any other automaker currently offers.

Honda Accord Tourer Concept
Yet another wagon not bound for the U.S. is Honda’s Accord Tourer Concept. (Read about why wagons are more popular in Europe here.) Honda says that it gives a “strong indication” of what the latest Accord wagon, called the “Tourer,” will look like when it debuts in Europe mid-2008. The company said the concept car’s “wider lower look signals a more sporty, emotional styling approach.” The vehicle is said to come with a range of advanced low-emissions engines. Honda will also debut new chassis technology on the upcoming production version of the Accord Tourer. The concept version showcases Honda’s new diesel technology, called i-DTEC, which the company says offers a high level of power and torque but with top fuel efficiency and quiet operation. The i-DTEC will power one version of the new Accord for Europe, to be introduced next year. Another version of the i-DTEC diesel is designed to meet more stringent U.S. emission regulations without the need for cumbersome technology (a urea reservoir that must be monitored and refilled periodically) to neutralize harmful emissions. Honda will consider introducing this latter diesel in Europe, in addition to the U.S. and Japan, said Takeo Fukui, the company’s president and CEO.

Hyundai i-Blue Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)
Hyundai has ambitious plans to mass-produce fuel-cell vehicles in ten years and the hydrogen-powered, zero-emissions i-Blue Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle represents the company’s third generation of fuel-cell technology. The i-Blue’s fuel cell “stack,” which takes the place of a gas engine, is housed under the floor instead of the engine compartment as in Hyundai’s second-generation Tucson FCEV. The under-floor design improves weight distribution and contributes to the vehicle’s stretched profile. Powered by compressed hydrogen stored in a 30-gallon tank, the i-Blue can be driven more than 370 miles before refueling. The 134 hp fuel-cell output helps it achieve a maximum speed of 102 mph. Hyundai says the i-Blue drives almost noiselessly and accelerates quickly. The interior includes a steering yoke like on an airplane and a hologram-like head-up display that projects driving information on the windshield. A camera system constantly projects 360-degree outside views to eliminate problems from blocked sight lines. In combination with side- and rear-view monitors, the system is meant to lead to “perfect and safe parking,” Hyundai says.

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell Concept
The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell Concept is a fuel cell-powered four-door with the dimensions of a tall wagon or petite SUV, depending on how you look at it. What’s most interesting is the compact fuel cell derived from the company’s F600 Hygenius research vehicle unveiled in 2005. The fuel cell system is 40 percent smaller, uses 16 percent less fuel, and is 30 percent more powerful than prior versions. Mercedes says new ventilation and dehumidification systems, plus an electric turbocharger have made starting the engine easier in cold conditions, which is sometimes cited as a potential drawback to fuel-cell vehicles. The emissions-free electric engine rates 136 hp and achieves the equivalent of 80 mpg. A production version of the F-Cell is slated to go on sale in the summer of 2010, with small-scale production beginning early that year.

Mercedes-Benz F700 Concept
Mercedes calls the F700 the future of the premium touring sedan. Many of its features are modeled on the S-Class, which could mean that this concept vehicle’s design cues may indicate what the next S-Class will look like. The car gets a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, rated at 238 hp. It’s mated to an electric hybrid module good for another 20 hp. The F700 Concept gets nearly 43 mpg while emitting less than half a pound of CO2 per mile. The automaker says the car accelerates from 0 to over 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. A suspension technology called Pre-Scan uses sensors in the front headlamps to capture an image of the roadway and make necessary adjustments. A virtual personal assistant, called an “avatar,” is Mercedes’ way of taking dashboard interfaces to the next level: A holographic image of a person aids drivers by asking for a desired destination to provide directions, placing a call from a saved phone list, or tuning in a desired radio station. Mercedes suggests that the avatar could someday read aloud important e-mails, access online databases via the Internet or add items to drivers’ appointment books.

Nissan Mixim Concept
The Nissan Mixim Concept is a futuristic-looking, all-electronic, four-wheel drive concept car aimed at “the next generation of drivers.” Nissan set out to please a socially conscious, digitally engaged younger generation with a good-looking, ultramodern electric vehicle (EV). Gullwing-like doors open up and forward to provide easier interior access. The angular styling and muscular stance suggest sport and performance, characteristics not typically associated with electric cars. Inside, the driver sits centrally, with seats on either side. A wraparound LCD instrument panel runs beneath the windshield and a forward-facing camera projects an image of the road ahead. The U-shaped steering wheel resembles a controller for a computer racing game. The all-wheel-drive Mixim is powered by two electric motors (one for the front wheels and one for the rear) that run off of compact lithium-ion batteries. Nissan says the Mixim would have a potential maximum range of 155 miles and an expected top speed of 112 mph. While there’s no guarantee that the Mixim Concept will be turned into a production model, its development is in line with Nissan’s “Green Program,” which has the goal of creating “a more sustainable mobile society.”

Nissan Micra C+C
Nissan is showing a special edition Micra at Frankfurt, called C+C, which stands for “color and concept.” The vehicle is intended as a “mobile test bed” to showcase the latest in paint effects. It includes a new “Liquid Metal” finish which appears, from certain angles, to be wet to the touch. The car’s two-tone paint juxtaposes a “Liquid Gold” effect covering the top of the vehicle with a three-coat pearlescent white paint scheme along the bottom.

Subaru WRC Impreza Concept
Subaru World Rally Car (WRC) race driver Petter Solberg will be on hand in Frankfurt to unwrap the new Impreza-based WRC Concept. The car is a five-door hatchback that Subaru says is “an indication of future styling trends for a world rally car.” Many say this concept will provide design cues for both the upcoming Impreza WRX STi hatchback (reported to debut in October at the Tokyo Motor Show), as well as the next WRC competition vehicle.

Toyota iQ Concept
The iQ Concept is an ultra-compact car — just under ten feet long — aimed at European urbanites who, Toyota says, seek environmentally friendly vehicles that can navigate narrow city streets with enough space for three adults and a child, or cargo like groceries and luggage. The iQ Concept is similar in width and height to the Yaris hatchback, allowing for a spacious interior that makes the car highly functional despite its diminutive size. Styling cues suggest charm and practicality. In giving direction to its design studio, Toyota says it wanted something “forward-looking, intelligent and energetic, while retaining a clarity of purpose and function.” The roof is almost entirely glass and is meant to bring in sunlight or stars to convey a sense of spaciousness. A dark purple and black interior is highlighted by a center console shaped like a manta ray, with a single center dial to control temperature and ventilation. Looks seem to count most here: Toyota gave no details on the fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions it claims for the iQ.

Volkswagen up! Concept
The exuberantly named up! is a four-passenger compact car designed especially for city driving. There are no plans for the up! to head to production just yet, but Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg, VW’s board member in charge of technical development, said that the response from Frankfurt show visitors “will be a decisive test to determine whether the concept has the same kind of potential possessed by the Beetle at one time, or the Golf today.” Volkswagen says the up! offers more space than any other car of similar length. Just like the famous Beetle, the engine sits in the rear. That layout has its advantages, VW contends: All seats except the driver’s can be folded up and removed from the car, or stored in the front trunk for cargo-carrying needs (there’s also a trunk in back). A touch-screen monitor has proximity-sensing technology that reacts to hand gestures to adjust the radio, navigation, travel computer and climate-control system.

Volvo ReCharge Concept
Volvo has introduced the ReCharge, a plug-in electric hybrid that takes styling cues from the C30 hatchback. Electric motors at each wheel provide independent traction and power, fed by a battery pack housed in the luggage compartment. The ReCharge can travel up to 60 miles on electric power alone before a four-cylinder 1.6-liter flex-fuel engine kicks in. The driver can choose the car’s power source with a button on the instrument panel. Volvo said operating costs are expected to be about 80 percent less than those of a comparable gas-only car. “This plug-in hybrid car, when used as intended, should have about 66 percent lower emissions of carbon dioxide compared with the best hybrid cars available on the market today,” said Magnus Jonsson, Volvo Car’s SVP of research and development. Take a 93-mile drive starting with a full charge, and the car will require less than 0.75 gallons of fuel — that’s more than 120 mpg.