July 5, 2020
Best affordable concept cars that never made it to production

Best affordable concept cars that never made it to production


This never-was Dodge M80 concept might’ve singlehandedly jumpstarted America’s moribund small-truck market in the early 2000s.


Dodge

Most concept cars and trucks wow on the auto show circuit, but are soon forgotten. The show cars, trucks and SUVs featured here have stuck in the minds of Roadshow’s editors far longer, and they serve as worthy reminders that just about every automaker has missed an opportunity or two to bring something great to new-car shoppers in America’s showrooms.

While most show cars tend to be high-dollar flights of fancy, the vehicles seen here weren’t just closer to reality than your average concept, they were designed with a measure of everyday-consumer affordability in mind. We asked our editors to come up with concepts that probably would’ve cost around the (inflation-adjusted) equivalent of $40,000 — only a few thousand dollars more than the price of the average new car. Here’s what their long memories came up with.

2001 Ford Forty-Nine

“It’s the ’49 Ford by a landslide!” proclaimed one showy advertisement for the 1949 Ford. This was the first totally redesigned model the Dearborn-based automaker had offered in more than four decades. Gone were the solid axles, transverse leaf springs and torque-tube drivetrain that had been Ford staples since the Model N debuted around 1906. That car was new from the frame on up, and it had to be. The fate of the ol’ Henry’s company rested on its streamlined, pontoon fenders. 

Luckily for Ford, the ’49 model was a smashing success, saving it from financial ruin. Paying homage to this groundbreaking model range was the appropriately named Forty-Nine concept, which debuted at the Detroit Auto Show
in 2001. Resembling a heavily customized street rod, this design study could have made family cars cool. Instead, at the time, Ford was content selling its municipal-grade Crown Victoria, which was about as exciting as a serving of Metamucil.

With almost impossibly clean flanks and minimal trim, the Forty-Nine concept proved less could be more, just like the original that inspired it. Other retro aspects of this machine’s design included “Ford” spelled out on the hood’s leading edge, rounded headlamps and small exterior mirrors. Inside, the all-in-one circular gauge cluster and two-spoke steering wheel were designs borrowed from the original, as well. But the similarities didn’t end there. Under this concept’s hood was a 3.9-liter, 32-valve V8 backed by a five-speed automatic transmission. Oddly enough, that’s the same engine displacement as the 239-cubic-inch flathead V8 that was offered in the 1949 and subsequent postwar Fords.

— Craig Cole

2015 Mazda RX-Vision

Being a third-generation Mazda RX-7 owner, I usually get caught up the rumors of its return and pay close attention to any of the Japanese company’s exploits involving rotary engines. The RX-Vision concept from 2015 was no exception, being a two-seat, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive show car powered by a next-generation Skyactiv-R Wankel.

With all of that, the RX-Vision boasted the blueprint for a new RX-7 with some gorgeous looks to boot. If Mazda did decide to pull the trigger and return the RX-7 to the production world, the RX-Vision would have been a fitting way to go at the time. A new Acura NSX was confirmed to be on the way and signs of a new Toyota Supra were on the horizon in the form of the FT-1 Concept.

Five years later, there still isn’t a new RX-7, which is a bummer. Nor does Mazda have a production vehicle utilizing a rotary engine, though it’s reportedly tinkering around with this layout for hybrid applications. If the stars align for a new rotary-powered sports car, I know that Mazda already has a good starting point with the RX-Vision.

— Jon Wong

2006 Volkswagen GX3

Of all the vehicles on this list, the Volkswagen GX3 is not only the most unlikely of them to exist in any form, it’s very likely the concept that came closest to landing in dealerships. This three-wheeled concept bowed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2006, and it came within a hair’s breadth of series production, with prototype test vehicles spotted for months as VW worked to iron out the trike’s performance and buildability.

When it was revealed, the California-designed VW concept promised scintillating-for-the-day performance (including 0 to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds and 1.25 gs on the skidpad), good fuel efficiency (46 miles per gallon city on Europe’s then-current test cycle), and a startlingly affordable price — under $17,000. For perspective, that’s about $4,000 cheaper than a base Mazda MX-5 Miata that same year, or just over $22,000 in today’s dollars. Powered by a 1.6-liter four cylinder yoked to a six-speed manual, the rear-wheel-drive GX3 autocycle weighed well under 1,300 pounds, featured tuning by Lotus and looked like an absolute riot.

All of this was music to my ears as a young, cash-strapped automotive journalist. I went so far as to put my name on a list at a local VW dealer. The GX3 was slated to arrive in dealerships in the spring of 2007, but that day never came — despite VW execs saying they could make money on the vehicle right from the outset. Why? The fun police. Especially in a world before autocycle legislation, VW’s product-liability lawyers apparently just wouldn’t approve a vehicle without stability control, airbags or other safety features. Bummer.

— Chris Paukert

1998 Jeep Jeepster

Here’s a concept that I think both should have been built years ago and should be put into production now. The Jeepster was Jeep’s idea of a crossover that combined the attributes of a sports car with an off-roader, a fairly radical idea back in the 1990s, but a wholly normal one now.

Compared to the Wrangler of the time, the Jeepster looked like it was from two decades in the future. And sure enough, it still looks pretty modern now. The Jeepster was dominated by short overhangs, a long hood, flared fenders and a coupe-like roofline with a soft top that rolls all the way back. It even had an electronically adjustable suspension to maximize capability both on and off the road.

The Jeepster used the same 4.7-liter V8 from the not-quite-released Grand Cherokee of the era, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive. I think something like the Jeepster could totally work in 2020 as a road-oriented counterpart to the Wrangler. Build it off the next-gen Grand Cherokee’s platform, give it FCA’s rumored new inline-six, and bam! You’ve got a Jeep “sports car.”

— Daniel Golson

2015 Toyota S-FR

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Wait, didn’t Toyota make the FR-S?” Yes, before Scion was put out to pasture the Toyota 86 was indeed called the Scion FR-S in the US of A. But the S-FR concept was meant to be a smaller, lighter and, most importantly, cheaper sports car.

The S-FR was intended to bring Toyota back to its sports car glory days of the ’90s, when it offered the Celica, MR-2 and Supra as three successively pricier fun options. With the Supra back in the lineup and the 86 still soldiering on, the front-engine, rear-drive S-FR would have been an even more lightweight way into the Toyota sports car family.

While its cutesy styling wasn’t to everyone’s liking when the car debuted at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, the car was said to be going into near-immediate production the following year with a 128-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine and a price in the Japanese market of just $12,500 (around $13,600 today). Yes, that cheap. Sadly, talk of the S-FR almost immediately vaporized after its debut, but not our desires for something this fun and that cheap.

— Tim Stevens

1989 Plymouth Voyager III

What better vehicle to embody the weird concept car designs of the late 1980s than the Plymouth Voyager III? I mean, it’s a minivan that you can split up!

That modularity was the Voyager III’s raison d’etre. The front cab of this massive van could split off into its own compact car. The cab’s rear wheels were hidden by those spats, tucked away when everything is hooked up. Why bother buying two cars when you can have a family hauler capable of shrinking for quick trips into busy areas? 

The powertrain was also delightfully weird. There were two separate engines, one for each half of the vehicle. At least one of them used propane as its power source. The powerplants could work individually or in tandem, a mechanical complexity that I’m sure would result in vehicle repair bills rivaling home repair bills.

(Note: While we couldn’t find many photos of this older concept, we did locate the delightfully grainy in-period video from the Chicago Auto Show shown above.)

— Andrew Krok

2007 Dodge Demon

Long before “Demon” meant an 840-hp Challenger, Dodge planned to use the name for something drastically different. Originally debuting at the 2007 Geneva Motor Show, the Dodge Demon Concept was a small, two-seat roadster — then-DaimlerChrysler’s answer to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.

The specs were promising: 172 hp from a 2.4-liter I4, a six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive and a 2,600-pound curb weight. It looked production-ready, even as a concept car, and Dodge had every intention of building this roadster. Hell, I even got to drive the concept (briefly), and it felt damn near ready to roll.

So, what happened? Shortly after the Demon’s introduction, DaimlerChrysler split, Chrysler was sold to Cerberus, budgets were cut, projects were scrapped and then the whole industry fell apart, with Chrysler (and other US automakers) eventually requiring a government bailout. As the company struggled to keep its core products competitive, that left no room for a small, two-seat roadster — cool as it would’ve been.

— Steven Ewing

2001 Hyundai HCD6

Today, Hyundai Motor Company enjoys a sterling reputation after completely reinventing itself in 2009 with the debut of the sixth-generation Sonata, but there was almost nothing cool about the brand before that turning point. However, at the 2001 Chicago Auto Show, we got a rare glimpse of the automaker’s fun side with the awesome HCD6 Concept.

Billed as an “affordable exotic,” the Hyundai HCD6 was a two-seat roadster built around a mid-engine, rear-drive platform. With jewel-like headlamps up front, muscular flanks integrating side intakes and a truncated rear with central, high-exit exhaust — like a McLaren 720S Spider — the little speedster looked like it could’ve been a compelling alternative to the Toyota MR2 Spyder, which was still being sold at the time.

Peering through the see-through cover aft of the cockpit revealed Hyundai’s Delta V6 — the same 2.7-liter from the 2000 Santa Fe SUV — with an increased output of 215 hp. That’s not bad for a tiny roadster made even more lightweight with carbon fiber body panels.

— Antuan Goodwin

2007 Ford Interceptor

File this one into the “oh, what could have been” cabinet. The Ford Interceptor concept came from a time when big sedans were making a, well, big comeback. The Chrysler 300 had made a splash, and Dodge got its version in the form of a reborn Charger. At the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, Ford showed its own version of an entry in that segment.

The Interceptor did its best to portray a tough-guy attitude, with a front fascia full of barred chrome, as was the Ford design trend at the time, and a rather muscular, yet rather elegant rear end. Based on the Ford Mustang platform, the Interceptor copped a minimal front overhang and a seriously beefy stance at the rear. In all, it was meant to recall some of Ford’s iconic sedans from the past, and to make things better, there was a 5.0-liter V8 tuned to make 400 hp under the hood, and a six-speed manual transmission.

This was absolutely an era-appropriate concept car. Whether it was ever under serious consideration isn’t immediately clear, but it could have given Blue Oval folks a real alternative to the 300/Charger duo. Both of those continue to find success today. Instead, we got a reborn Taurus with some design cues from the Interceptor. Oh, what could have been.

— Sean Szymkowski


Suzuki

2011 Suzuki Regina

Don’t remember the Regina? Don’t feel bad. It was one of those weird Tokyo Auto Salon debuts that was odd at the time and then fell into the dustbin of history. Still, I think it looked pretty cool in a Japanese-trying-to-be-French kind of way, and I wish it would have been built.

Originally known as Regina and later renamed G70 (as shown in the above photo, which is only like one of two that still exists somehow), this concept’s styling was a mix of Citroën DS and Ami, but with a plasticky sensibility that weirdly worked, and on paper, at least, the engineering sounded good, too. Suzuki imagined it as a 1,600-pound car that could eke out 75 mpg, so it’s unlikely to have been exciting, but hey, it’s a Suzuki.

Sadly, Suzuki fell off the automotive map in the US in 2012, so we never got to see if the Regina (definitely not pronounced like the city in Saskatchewan) would have played well in our market, though I suspect not.

— Kyle Hyatt

2016 Jeep Wrangler Trailcat

While it seems that everything else at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been Hellcatted, the Jeep Wrangler has yet to push out more than 300 hp. However, at the 50th-annual Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah in 2016, Jeep finally stuffed a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 under the hood, making my dreams of conquering the trails and the race track come true.

OK, maybe “conquering a race track” is a bit optimistic. After all, the Trailcat was not built for cornering. Solid Dana 60 axles front and rear and nearly 40-inch BF Goodrich Krawler T/A KX tires meant this Jeep, while pushing out 707 hp, was still better suited for the dirt than the pavement. However, a six-speed manual transmission was there to up the driver-involvement quotient. 

Though the Trailcat remains a concept, all hope is not lost. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk sports the famous Hellcat engine and boasts an amazing ratio of power per dollar. However, it’s a Wrangler with 707 horses that really gets my heart all twitterpated. Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?

— Emme Hall

2015 Honda Project 2&4

Never have I seen a concept where I thought “I need this in my life” more immediately than the Honda Project 2&4. Making its debut at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, Honda would drag this little two-seater out to almost every subsequent global auto show for at least the next year. It was like Honda was teasing me with it, but it sadly never found its way to production.

The 2&4 was billed as a motorcycle/car hybrid, a roadster-like four wheels and two seats but power coming from a two-wheeled source. Specifically, the company’s RC-213VS, itself a street version of the company’s then-current MotoGP racer. While a 999-cc engine may sound small for a car, this engine produced 212 hp in race trim. And, of course, it was a pretty small car.

How small? Try 893 pounds small. The concept had room for two, slightly offset seats, but was shown with one of those seats deleted, a cowling covering extra space and giving it a shape not unlike Honda’s classic Grand Prix racers of yore. The (non-removable) driver’s seat was intentionally positioned as close to the ground as possible, giving the ultimate sensation of high speed. Honda wanted to build it and, more interestingly, wanted to make it affordable, but alas, it was never to be.

— Tim Stevens

2002 Dodge M80

The Dodge M80 concept debuted as retrofuturism styling was reaching a fever pitch globally. This compact pickup, which drew on stylistic hallmarks of the 1930s and 1940s, rumbled onto stage at the Detroit Auto Show in 2002, just as parent company DaimlerChrysler was basking in the runaway success of its PT Cruiser and Ford was rolling out its short-lived throwback Thunderbird. The early 2000s were a particularly fertile time for DCX-family concepts, and the M80 remains one of the company’s very best efforts. 

Based on the chassis and mechanicals of the traditional Dakota midsize truck, there were rumors the M80 could actually foreshadow that model’s replacement. Instead of pie-in-the-sky show-car tech, the M80 was eminently buildable and surprisingly light. Its 210-hp V6 was powerful enough that Dodge estimated a 0-to-60-mph time of around 8 seconds (no great shakes today, but near that of the 5.9-liter Hemi V8-powered Dakota R/T at the time). The M80 also had a robust interior that combined a simple feature set with attractive aesthetics.

Sadly, the brilliant little M80 was likely undone by fears of the industry’s then-moribund small truck sales. The latter became a self-fulfilling industry prophecy, with automakers refusing to give small-truck buyers new vehicles to choose from. Had the M80 made it to production, I don’t think the bottom would’ve fallen out of the segment, as rivals like the Ford Ranger would’ve had to up their game instead of being put out to pasture.

— Chris Paukert

2011 Mini Rocketman

Despite the name Mini, the company’s products have gotten awfully large in recent years. That’s been the case for a while now, and back in 2011, Mini showed a concept car that imagined a back-to-basics approach at pint-sized motoring: the Rocketman.

Measuring about 11 feet long, 6 feet wide and less than 5 feet tall, the Rocketman was significantly smaller than a Cooper Hardtop from the same era, and thanks to its carbon spaceframe construction, was relatively light, too. Inside, it had what Mini called a “three-plus-one” seating configuration, and the company said the concept used an efficient powertrain that would’ve been capable of something like 78 mpg.

I keep holding my breath that Mini will someday create a super-small car like the Rocketman that slots below its now-porky offerings, but I think it’s gonna be a long, long time before anything like that comes to fruition. 

— Steven Ewing

2012 Chevrolet Code 130R

The thought of a US automaker showing off a sporty compact car for production in 2020 seems humorous, but eight years ago, General Motors had an idea about such a car in the Code 130R. The concept bowed at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show alongside a second, youth-focused concept, the Tru 140S.

It’s the Code 130R that was more spectacular of the two. It rode on a rear-wheel-drive platform, packed a turbocharged, 1.4-liter I4 with mild-hybrid technology and supported three pedals with a stick-shift. It was a totally rad, American answer to the Subaru BRZ and other sporty compacts. It also managed to rock a retro-but-kind-of-modern design that I still think looks playfully angry in a way, and it came at a time when “performance” at Chevy only meant dropping more cash on a Camaro or Corvette.

I think it should’ve seen production, but as GM mulled it over, the market made a swift shift to crossovers and SUVs. Maybe the world’s youth would’ve fallen in love, or found a spiritual successor to the Cobalt SS, but I suspect GM brass pointed to the Camaro and a forthcoming turbo-four variant to cover their bases and keep the Code 130R on the shelf. And just like that, my dreams for a baby Chevelle died.

— Sean Szymkowski

1996 Ford Synergy

Remember when 2010 was some far-off time that would almost certainly look like The Jetsons? Yeah, I remember it too, which is why it’s fun to look at old concept cars, like the 1996 Ford Synergy here, which imagined a midsize family sedan in the year 2010.

While we certainly didn’t get a Taurus from Ford that looked anything like the Synergy, wouldn’t that have been the coolest? I mean, look at this thing. It’s practically plucked from Tron, with insane styling on the front end that almost makes the car look like a garden implement. And the rear end almost has a pre-war coachbuilt feel to it. Imagine going to the dealer, buying this and having it be seen as a practical decision.

While the styling never materialized, its powertrain definitely reeks of modern technology. Under the body was a 1.0-liter engine that fed power to an electric motor, targeting 80 mpg overall. Voice recognition was also a neat little addition — something that’s practically standard on every new vehicle now.

— Andrew Krok

2001 Toyota RSC

I don’t just think Toyota should have built the RSC concept SUV back in 2001 when it was first unveiled — I think the company should build it now. It was a rally-inspired, two-door crossover with futuristic looks, and it rode on the then-current RAV4 platform. What about that wouldn’t work in 2020?

The RSC — “Rugged Sports Coupe” — was designed by Toyota’s CALTY studio in California, with the brief to create “an entirely new concept.” Despite being designed nearly two decades ago, the RSC still looks fresh as hell. It’s got awesome boxed fender flares, insect-like lighting elements, center-exit exhaust and a great stance thanks to 19-inch wheels, short wheelbase and raked hatch. The interior was a lot more concept-like with a minimalist look and racing bucket seats. The styling could easily be updated to more fit in with 2020 design language while keeping the original concept’s spirit and coolness.

Toyota didn’t disclose what kind of powertrain the RSC used beyond saying it had four-wheel drive, but I’ve got an idea of what a modern version could use. The new GR Yaris is within a few inches of the RSC in length and wheelbase, and it uses a legit four-wheel-drive system. Oh, the GR Yaris also has a 268-hp, three-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. Now imagine that in the RSC’s body, which could be produced in a higher volume to keep costs down — and be sold worldwide, unlike the Yaris. Toyota, are you listening?

— Daniel Golson

2014 Kia Stinger GT4

Don’t get me wrong, the production Kia Stinger is one of my favorite cars on sale today, but way back in 2014, the (very different) Stinger GT4 concept took all my preconceptions about the value-oriented Korean car brand and kicked them in the ass.

With a seriously sporty long hood, short-deck coupe styling and a focus on low weight and driver engagement, the GT4 concept is one of my all-time favorites and one that I still harbor some hope for Kia building. As concepts go, it’s not that outlandish at all, and with a 330-hp four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual ‘box, it would give many establishment sport coupes a real run for their money today.

When it comes to specific design touches, you can see that the Stinger GT4 was meant as a kind of love letter to the designers’ favorite sports cars. The fabric door pulls scream Porsche, the body shape and cargo area call to mind the Datsun 240Z and the shifter puts me in mind of Volvo’s V70 and S60R with their (in)famous “Space Ball” gear lever.

— Kyle Hyatt

2006 Chrysler Imperial

Imposing design: check. Sparkly brown paint: check. (It’s brown, right? I’m a bit colorblind.) Hemi-V8 power: check. Suicide doors: check. Huge interior space: check. For me, Chrysler’s Imperial concept from 2006 checks all the right boxes; it’s everything I want in an upscale sedan and more.

This stately four-door was intended to be something of Rolls-Royce Phantom competitor at a Mopar price, but alas, it never came to fruition. The automaker had intended to build this design study on a stretched version of the Chrysler 300’s underlying platform, lengthening the wheelbase to a suitably regal 123 inches, an increase of 17. It was also supposed to be half a foot taller and glide along on monstrous 22-inch wheels, but high fuel prices and economic fallout from the Great Recession put the kibosh on all this. 

Nothing about the Imperial’s design or configuration was outlandish enough that it couldn’t be built. It didn’t feature a cold-fusion drivetrain, full-autonomous capability or seats stuffed with feathers plucked from the wings of Pegasus. It’s a car Chrysler should have built, a model that could have elevated the brand to heights it hasn’t seen since the 1920s. 

— Craig Cole

2008 Mitsubishi Concept-RA

When the Mitsubishi Concept-RA debuted at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, it provided a glimmer of hope to Eclipse coupe fans. By that time, they had been served two underwhelming generations of Eclipses that didn’t live up to the reputation of their predecessors. Turbocharged engines and available all-wheel drive were quite far back in the rearview mirror, but the Concept-RA featured both.

Mitsubishi never officially said the Concept-RA previewed a next-gen Eclipse, but it wasn’t much of stretch to think it could’ve seen production. The sport coupe concept’s 2.2-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder churned out 201 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque, routed to all four wheels through the all-wheel-drive system borrowed from the Lancer Evolution

Sadly, elements of the Concept-RA never did make their way to a new Eclipse coupe, which disappeared following the 2012 model year. And that’s too bad, because an Eclipse with a turbo engine, all-wheel drive and slick looks would have caused quite a commotion in the sport compact world. Plus, it would have finally given the Eclipse faithful a proper successor to the first- and second-gen cars. 

— Jon Wong

2013 Nissan IDx Nismo and Freeflow

The Nissan IDx Nismo was part of a conceptual duo that debuted at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, rolling onto the scene alongside the IDx Freeflow. Together, the IDx concepts hinted at a revival of the compact Datsuns of the 1970s with their reverse-slant noses and boxy profiles, but the red-and-black Nismo concept was easily the more exciting of the two, especially for fans of compact performance.

The concepts shared similar bones, with the IDx Nismo differentiating itself with a rear-wheel-drive powertrain and a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine. This would’ve likely been a hotted-up version of the Juke Nismo’s powerplant, so reckon around 200 hp. If there’s one detail that gave me pause, it’s the CVT with a six-speed “manual shift” mode. This concept really deserved a true manual shifter.

Aside from the flashy red and black graphics, the IDx Nismo also featured a larger, wider wheel-and-tire combo than its fraternal twin, as well as a side-exit exhaust. The interior was also more race centric cockpit than the laid-back Freeflow. Entering the party just a year after the Chevrolet Code 130R concept — also featured on this list — the IDx concepts could have been cheap, fun and efficient competitors to Toyota’s 86 and Subaru’s BRZ.

— Antuan Goodwin

2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata Speedster

When the standard Miata isn’t light enough, here comes the Speedster concept from the 2015 SEMA show. Tipping the scales at just over 2,000 pounds, the Speedster went without a windshield or roof. I’d recommend a full-face helmet for this one, y’all.

Also cutting weight were carbon-fiber seats and 16-inch Extreme Gram Lights wheels for reduced unsprung weight. The Speedster was finished off in a new color called Blue Ether.

While we will never see the Speedster in production, I dig that Mazda’s concept went after the hardcore enthusiast. The company managed to take an already great, lightweight sports car and turn it into something better and purer. However, if you want to simplify and add lightness to your own Miata, please keep the windshield intact. 

— Emme Hall

First published April 2.



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