Just because an automaker hauls a concept car to an auto show doesn’t mean it will ever get made (we’re looking at you Cadillac Elmiraj, Nissan IDx, and Buick Avista). In fact, more jaw-dropping concept cars never see the world beyond an auto show podium, which is generally the plan from the start. Design teams want to show off their skills and hint at the direction of future models. They want consumers to start paying attention to the models hitting the showrooms; the fancy car at the show is just a tease.
When a concept does make it to production, it’s never the same as the sparkling specimen that captivated audiences at Detroit, Geneva, or Tokyo motor shows. However, it gives critics and car lovers the opportunity to measure the production model set against what could have been. That may be unfair to the car, but after safety requirements, engineering compromises, focus groups, and company bean counters, more than a few former concepts reek of disappointment by the time they hit dealerships.
Though this list is far from exhaustive, here are 10 concept cars (including one van) that fell short after showing so much promise on the auto show circuit.
1. Toyota 86
Many sports car fans love the corner-carving Scion FR-S, but let’s just say the soft-edged final product was a significant departure from the concept. The triangular head and tail lights didn’t make the cut, nor did the aggressively sloped hood. The car will live on after 2017 as the face-lifted Toyota 86, and comes much closer to the original concept, but alas, it still doesn’t have many of the concept’s aggressive lines. Styling may be small potatoes since the car has such fantastic road manners; nonetheless, here’s the notably more sedate Toyota 86:
2. Chevrolet Volt
It wasn’t just a pretty auto show model that got people excited about the Chevy Volt concept. There was a sense of Camaro-esque intimidation to the concept that just never made it into the production model. Introduced in 2011, the first-generation Volt plug-in hybrid not only lacked muscle, it also had little definition, and no head-turning characteristic to quiet the critics skeptical of electric vehicles. Once upon a time, the Volt concept hinted electric cars could be aggressive and make the Prius pale even further in style comparisons. Here’s how the real-world Volt turned out:
Chevy brought some style to the Volt for 2016, but there’s still no trace of the muscular original concept:
3. Lincoln Continental
In 2015, Ford decided to recommit to its Lincoln brand and invest billions to bring the once-proud marque back from the brink of irrelevance. It showed it was serious with the Continental concept, then announced that it would be brought to production in about a year. While the production version (out as a 2017 model) is handsome and contemporary, it somehow lost the concept’s longer, smoother lines and perfect proportions:
4. Pontiac Trans Sport
Eat your heart out, Model X. When the Pontiac Trans Sport Minivan concept hit the stage in 1986 – just two years after the first minivans hit dealerships – its gull-wing passenger door and aerodynamic design caused a sensation. Inside, removable bucket seats and near-360 degree visibility were joined by a “TV-like” display console. Somehow, a minivan had pushed the envelope and got people talking at auto shows.
Unfortunately, the production Trans Sport bowed in 1990 as just another minivan. Its plastic-clad, aerodynamic body was different, but auto journalists of the day took to calling the Trans Sport “the dustbuster.” Honestly, they weren’t far off. Here’s the production model:
5. Dodge Charger
The idea of a four-door performance “coupe” is enough to enrage most purists, but had the 1999 Charger concept been put into production, it probably would’ve been easier to get used to. Even stacked up against the classics from the late 1960s, the proposed twenty-first century Charger looked as if it would hold its own on the drag strip. The back door handles are almost invisible, while the side scoops, low front, and menacing appearance demanded the car be taken seriously.
Despite a huge amount of interest, then-parent company Mercedes-Benz felt the performance-focused sedan wasn’t a cost-effective project and shelved it. When the production Charger sedan did appear, it looked clumsy and bloated compared to the concept. Today’s Charger is pretty sharp, but compared to the original concept, the 2006 Charger fell a little far from the mark:
6. Subaru Impreza WRX
Subaru’s 2013 concept for the fourth-generation WRX suggested aggression, style, and a bit of intimidation were on the redesign menu. Unfortunately, the automaker’s production model went back to playing it safe in design on all fronts. For all its awesome performance at a reasonable price, the WRX’s looks haven’t matched its excitement level in a long time. Here’s how the fifth-generation car turned out:
7. Pontiac Sunfire
Pontiac had a great run of concepts in the 1980s, and its run extended to the wild Sunfire concept from 1990. But by the time a production Sunfire hit the streets in 1994, the thrill was gone. The low-slung form, the slick sports car nose, the cool headlights? Gone, gone, gone. In fact, the Sunfire ended up being a little more than a re-bodied Chevy Cavalier. Instead of going into the future, the Pontiac Sunfire was stuck in the distant past – its J-body platform was already 15 years old. It may have been impossible to pull off, but the scale of compromise was painful following the terrific concept. Here’s what the Sunfire became:
8. Dodge Power Wagon
The ’90s and 2000s were Chrysler’s golden era of concept cars, releasing everything from a modern-day prewar Bugatti (the Chrysler Atlantic), to a world-class supercar (the Chrysler ME412) and Dodge Viper V10-powered motorcycle (the Dodge Tomahawk). But truck fans were in for a surprise when the company unveiled its Power Wagon concept in 1999. Inspired by the iconic military-grade trucks Dodge built from 1946 to 1978, the concept was a perfect retro-futuristic take on a classic design. But instead of a spartan interior, the concept had a luxurious, tech-filled cab, somewhat foreshadowing today’s truck market.
The Power Wagon name was brought back in 2005, albeit as a trim line for the Ram 2500. The current model’s looks are striking too, but probably for the wrong reasons:
9. 2013 Subaru Legacy
Subaru has done this a lot lately. The 2013 Legacy concept hinted at a slim, sexy, well-proportioned sedan that would really stand out in the midsize segment. But when the 2015 production model debuted at the following year’s Chicago Auto Show, the 2015 Legacy dulled the senses of most observers. The Legacy’s comfortable interior and all-wheel drive powertrain have made it incredibly popular, but its styling leaves a lot to be desired:
10. 2005 Ford Mustang GT
In all fairness, Ford scored a major hit with the 2005 Mustang, the fifth generation of the ponycar that took retro back to the future. But again, lost details made a big difference. The Mustang GT concept featured a lower-slung stance, more aggressive fender flares, larger wheels (per concept car protocol), functional fender and hood scoops, and a different rear fascia. The resulting production Mustang ended up just a bit more sedate than its menacing concept had predicted. The fifth-gen Mustang was a good car, but there was still enough lost in translation for us to wonder what could’ve been. Here’s how it turned out:
Additional Reporting by James Derek Sapienza
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