The auto industry is perhaps unique among purveyors of consumer goods in that it lets the people that make its products and the public that buys them indulge their imaginations.
Concept cars preview future production models, test out new ideas, or just attract attention like nothing else, and each new auto show season brings a garage full of them to cities around the world.
Over the past few months, from Paris to Shanghai, we’ve seen everything from an electric SUV, to a self-driving future pod car, to plug-in hybrid sports cars. Here are the top 10 standouts from that impressive field.
Originally debuting at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Audi Prologue takes its name quite literally. It’s a clear preview of the styling and technology direction of the next generation of Audi production models.
On the styling front, the two-door Prologue takes a longer-lower-wider approach to Audi’s current – very successful – design language. Under the hood, there’s a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 with 605 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque.
For the interior, Audi essentially turned the entire dashboard into a touchscreen, while the center console is made of thin, bendable OLED film. There’s actually so much tech that Audi installed a beefed-up, 48-volt electrical system to power it all.
An electric SUV from Aston Martin… why not? The Aston Martin DBX concept shocked (pun intended) the world at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show with that combination of decidedly un-Aston traits.
Despite its taller profile, the DBX manages to look as sleek as Aston’s traditional motors, and with one electric motor powering each wheel, it promises to be similarly exhilarating to drive should Aston use that setup in an expected production SUV due out in a few years.
The DBX shows that Aston Martin’s unique character can survive in a future where SUVs rule the luxury market, and tough emissions standards voce engineers to get more creative when it comes to powertrains.
It’s not often that Bentley makes a major change to the types of cars it builds. The current Continental series dates back to 2003, after all, and the company will still brag about 24 Hours of Le Mans wins from the 1920s.
That makes the EXP 10 Speed 6 truly radical. While still a bona fide luxury car, it’s much smaller and closer to a traditional sports car than just about anything Bentley has ever made.
Propulsion for the sleek coupe comes courtesy of a hybrid powertrain, with enough grunt to get the EXP 10 Speed 6 up to 200 mph. Other up-to-the moment touches include 3D-printed components and a 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
First there was the Volt, and now there’s the Bolt. That one-letter difference signifies a big move, as Chevy prepares to launch its first mass-market, all-electric production car.
The Bolt has already been confirmed for production as a replacement for the limited-market Spark EV. Unlike the Volt, it relies solely on battery power, with no gasoline engine to serve as backup power.
What the Bolt does have is a claimed 200-mile range, and an estimated price tag of $37,500. If Chevy can hit those two targets with the production version, it could be a major breakthrough for electric cars.
This concept-car preview of the 10th-generation Civic was a surprise hit at the 2015 New York Auto Show. It represents Honda’s intent to imbue its bread-and-butter compact with a little more style and excitement.
The concept showcases a new design language that marks the first substantial styling change for the Civic since 2006. With a low stance, wraparound taillights, and plenty of aggressive scoops and spoilers, it checks all of the sport-compact style boxes.
That sporty styling is totally appropriate, because a version of the high-performance Civic Type R is finally slated to come to the U.S.
A production model based on this concept will debut later this year. Some styling details may change, although that crazy green paint is expected to remain as a production color option.
A Hyundai pickup truck doesn’t sound very appealing right off the bat, but the Santa Cruz is a surprisingly cool concept.
The Santa Cruz isn’t a traditional pickup, but rather a cross between a pickup and a car. Hyundai sought to create the best of both worlds by offering truck-like utility and styling, with car-like comfort and fuel economy.
Unveiled at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, the Santa Cruz features a 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine with 190 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, paired with Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel drive system.
The Santa Cruz hasn’t been confirmed for production yet, but if it ever gets built, it will further blur the line between cars and trucks.
When it was unveiled at the 2014 Paris Motor Show, Lamborghini called its Asterion plug-in hybrid a “hyper cruiser.” That’s just about the perfect way to describe it.
The Asterion combines a 5.2-liter V10 engine with three electric motors, for a total of 910 hp. That’s enough to launch it from 0 to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds, and on to a top speed of 198 mph.
That’s pretty astonishing, especially considering that Lamborghini didn’t even want to build this car in the first place.
Lambo is resolutely anti-hybrid, but acknowledges that it may need to build one eventually to meet stricter global emissions standards. The Asterion shows that the company will be ready when that day comes.
These days, Lincoln isn’t much more than a collection of rebadged Fords, but the Continental concept shows a way back to its past status as a real luxury carmaker.
Unveiled at the 2015 New York Auto Show, the Continental is a flagship sedan that would help restore Lincoln’s reputation if built. If you ever forget it’s a Lincoln, just look at the headlights and grille, which feature tiny repetitions of the brand’s logo.
On the inside, the Continental is just as luxurious as its classic predecessors. Standout features include 30-way adjustable seats, and a fully-reclining rear passenger seat that seems aimed at the Chinese market, where many buyers prefer to be driven rather than drive.
In a nod to efficiency, the Continental is powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6. It’s part of Ford’s ubiquitous EcoBoost family.
While the technology still isn’t road ready, car companies and many industry analysts are convinced that self-driving cars will soon be available to the public.
Taking one of the first guesses at what those future cars will be like is the preposterously-named Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept, which debuted at CES earlier this year.
Mercedes seems to think the autonomous car of tomorrow will look like a hot dog wrapped in aluminum, the better to maximize interior space and flexibility.
With manual driving no longer necessary, Mercedes believes owners will use their cars as mobile lounges. In self-driving mode, the steering wheel retracts and the two front seats can rotate 180 degrees to face the two rear seats.
Mitsubishi’s impressive-looking full-size SUV concept marks the return of a cult classic, but with a new twist.
It’s a boxy, off-road ready truck like the company’s old Montero, but with an efficient plug-in hybrid powertrain and next-generation tech.
The hulking GC-PHEV is powered by a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 and eight-speed automatic transmission, teamed with an electric motor and 12-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. That combination is good for 335 hp, sent to all four wheels.
On the inside, virtually every surface features some kind of tech. There’s an augmented-reality windshield, a Driver Monitor that uses cameras to check a driver’s level of alertness, and something called that “Tactical Table” – a giant screen placed right between the four seats.