Car companies sometimes find the way out when it’s too late.
They introduce head-turning concept cars that promise great things when all is not well under the surface. These design studies occasionally reach production and successfully turn around a brand; that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is when a promising concept breaks cover a year or two before the company that built it goes into a slump or shuts down entirely.
Join us for a look at some of the concept cars that could have saved the brand that made them but, for a multitude of reasons, didn't:
International-Harvester Scout III (1979)
International-Harvester planned a third generation of the pioneering Scout model in a bid to regain the SUV crown from Ford. Called Scout Supplemental Vehicle (SSV) internally, the Scout III could have arrived in showrooms as early as the 1981 model year with a modern-looking design characterized by a new-look front end with vertical slats and square lights as well as a fastback-like roof line, a real novelty at the time. It would have been one of the first off-roaders to surf the coupe-SUV wave.
SUVs were in hot demand during the 1980s so, if properly executed, the Scout III could have allowed International-Harvester’s car-building division to survive long enough to see the 1990s. Executives consigned the project to the attic when they decided to stop making SUVs in order to focus on other areas such as heavy-duty trucks. Remnants of International-Harvester now exist within machinery giant CNH Industrial and heavy truckmaker Navistar.
Chrysler – Lamborghini Portofino (1987)
Chrysler made the Portofino concept largely to flaunt its acquisition of Lamborghini. Fully functional, the design study received two sets of scissor-style doors that opened in separate directions and a mid-mounted V8 engine borrowed from the Jalpa.
If launched, it would have likely cost a small fortune and arrived as an expensive limited-edition model. It wouldn’t have been a hit, unless we’re talking about the financial hit Chrysler would have taken after developing it, but a Chrysler built on a stretched Jalpa platform would make for a fascinating classic car in 2019. It would have elevated Chrysler’s image during the 1990s, too. Chrysler strictly speaking didn't and doesn't need saving, but is now a shadow of its former self as a car brand, with just two models on the market in the US today.
Eagle Jazz (1995)
Chrysler-owned Eagle presented the Jazz concept as a representation of its future. Its design and proportions made it look like nothing else on the road while giving it a style that motorists either loved or hated. Significantly, it proved Eagle had a pulse and was capable of thinking on its own.
The Jazz likely wouldn’t have reached production unchanged but the free-thinking approach to design that it showcased could have saved the brand. It instead settled for selling badge-engineered Chrysler and Mitsubishi models until it was put out of its misery in 1999.
Plymouth Pronto Spyder (1998)
Plymouth was a brand without an image or a purpose in the middle of the 1990s. The Prowler started to change that with its wild, hot rod-like design so the company considered moving further into performance car territory. While it was preparing the PT Cruiser, which ended up going on sale as a Chrysler, it also developed a concept named Pronto Spyder that aimed to offer the thrill of a high-end, mid-engined car at a relatively affordable price.
The roadster received a turbocharged, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that sent 255 hp to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. It looked tamer than the Prowler but it was exponentially more exciting than the production cars Plymouth was building at the time. Plymouth decided the Prowler didn’t need company, and the marque was shut down unceremoniously in 2001.
Oldsmobile Profile (2000)
Oldsmobile claimed the Profile concept unveiled in 2000 combined “the practical features of a utility vehicle with the ride, handling capabilities and interior refinement of a sport sedan.” In other words: Oldsmobile had finally discovered the hatchback. The company needed to break with tradition in order to survive and the Profile hinted at what its future could look like.
Decision-makers correctly predicted tech would become increasingly important during the 2000s so they packed the Profile with state-of-the-art features like in-car internet, a key card and a gear selector dial. Oldsmobile could have become an automotive ground-breaker had it fine-tuned the Profile into a production model but an alarming lack of funds froze the model at the concept stage.
Oldsmobile O4 (2001)
With the O4 concept, Oldsmobile took drastic measures to make a car that appealed to younger buyers. The design study broke cover as a two-door, four-seater convertible with removable targa tops and an unusually tall belt line. The sheet metal hid a platform borrowed from the Opel Astra; Oldsmobile really did all it could to avoid making yet another land yacht.
Brand officials vaguely claimed the second-generation Alero would draw inspiration from the O4 but General Motors shut down the brand in 2004 before the model could reach production.
Rover TCV (2002)
Rover’s design well came dangerously close to running dry in the early 2000s. The cars in its portfolio tilted towards the boring, predictable side of timeless. The Touring Concept Vehicle (TCV) unveiled at the 2002 Geneva auto show previewed a fresh design language that looked towards the future, not the past.
The TCV could have reached showrooms right when demand for high-riding models sky-rocketed; it might have even helped Rover return to America - though heaven knows what its former SUV arm Land Rover would have had to say about that. Insiders suggested the TCV concept was a candidate for production but MG Rover couldn’t afford to renew its range.
Saab 9-3X 4x4 (2002)
In 2002, Saab predicted the trends governing the automotive industry in 2019 with surprising accuracy. The 9-3X 4x4 concept was Saab’s first off-roader but it retained an unmistakable element of sportiness accented by its swept-back design and its 280 hp V6 engine. It was a concept that could satisfy a thrill-seeking driver up a mountain pass and confidently venture off the beaten path once at the top.
If approved for production, the 9-3X 4x4 could have arrived on the market in time to enjoy a near-monopoly on the high-performance crossover segment. It didn’t; financial issues were already nipping at Saab’s heels. The 9-3X nameplate returned in 2009 on Saab’s short-lived answer to the Audi A4 Allroad.
Lancia Fulvia Coupe (2003)
The 2003 Fulvia Coupe concept illustrated one way to bring style and charisma back to the Lancia line-up. It could have done wonders for the Italian firm’s tattered image if it had been executed well enough and packaged into a broader model offensive.
Cash-strapped, parent company Fiat instead chose to steer Lancia down the path of badge-engineering. As of 2019, it’s teetering on the brink of extinction, with just one ageing model, the Fiat 500-derived Ypsilon.
Mercury Messenger (2003)
The Messenger concept introduced in 2003 was styled under the guidance of Gerry McGovern, who today runs design at Land Rover. It previewed the look every member of the Mercury line-up would adopt during the 2000s. “Mercury is to be a design-driven brand. The Mercury DNA is delivering vehicles that are energetic, distinctive, intelligent and charismatic,” McGovern affirmed after the concept's introduction.
That’s not all the Messenger had to say. It also proved long-suffering Mercury still had what it took to build a head-turning car that was as fast as it looked thanks to a potent V8. Insiders quietly suggested the design study would reach production on a platform shared with the Ford Mustang but the project never received the proverbial green light for production. Sadly, Mercury continued making uninspiring cars until it was shut down in 2011.
Pontiac G6 Concept (2003)
The fifth-generation Grand Am stood out as one of the least inspiring cars ever to wear the Pontiac badge. The firm attempted to silence its critics when it traveled to the 2003 Detroit auto show to introduce the G6 concept. Low, wide and sporty, it hinted the brand was about to turn itself around by injecting a double dose of performance and desirability into the Grand Am’s replacement.
The G6 Concept could have spawned Pontiac’s first enticing family car in decades. It didn’t; the G6 arrived in showrooms in 2004 with a watered-down design and a front-wheel drive platform shared with the Chevrolet Malibu and the Saab 9-3.
Rover 75 Coupe (2004)
Designers turned the 75 into a stunning-looking coupe to celebrate Rover’s 100th anniversary. The arched roof line peaked above the front passengers and gracefully flowed into the rear end while the subtle use of chrome trim added a touch of understated elegance to the design.
The coupe market was still a promising space in 2004 so a two-door 75 could have elevated the rest of the Rover line-up (and paved the way for a new design language) by bringing prestige back to the brand. It remained a concept, however, and MG Rover collapsed less than a year after the 75 Coupe concept made its debut.
Mercury Meta One (2005)
The 2005 Meta One concept indicated Mercury came up with many creative and innovative ways to save itself. It was based on the Ford Freestyle which was hardly surprising; every car in the company’s 2005 portfolio started life as a Ford. Instead of simply replacing the Blue Oval badge with its emblem, Mercury gave the Meta One a brand-specific design that broke nearly all ties with its Ford-badged sibling and powered it by a brand-new diesel-electric hybrid powertrain rated at 248 hp. Technology borrowed from Volvo – which was under the Ford umbrella at the time – made the Meta One Mercury’s most advanced car.
The Meta One was precisely the kind of car Mercury needed to build in order to thrive. Instead, it continued selling the badge-engineered Ford cars that led to its demise.
Smart Crosstown (2005)
In 2019, Daimler’s Smart brand struggles to stay true to its minicar roots while meeting the growing demand for SUVs. It should look back to the 2005 Crosstown concept, which took the ForTwo’s design in a much more rugged (and almost Jeep-like direction). 14 years after its introduction, it remains a few styling tweaks and a couple of mechanical upgrades away from becoming the smallest SUV on the market.
Hummer HX (2008)
General Motors could have morphed Hummer into its answer to Jeep and Land Rover. The heritage and the credibility were there. The HX concept unveiled at the 2008 Detroit auto show suggested product planners seriously considered going after the Wrangler, a model without any true rivals. If launched, the HX would have arrived as a Wrangler-sized and -priced off-roader tentatively called H4. It would have been the firm’s entry-level model.
Hummer shut down in 2010 before the H4 got the chance to see the light that awaits at the end of a production line. In 2019, the Wrangler still enjoys a monopoly on the no-nonsense off-roader segment.
Pontiac G8 ST (2008)
Chevrolet, not Pontiac, is the General Motors firm most closely associated with the car-based pickup. And yet, Pontiac was tipped to receive its own version of the Holden Ute developed and manufactured in Australia. The close-to-production G8 ST concept promised a 361hp V8 engine in its top-spec configuration.
The trucklet would have helped troubled Pontiac re-invent itself as a performance-oriented manufacturer, and the renaissance could have saved the brand, but the model offensive came too late. Pontiac shut its doors in 2010.
Saturn Flextreme (2008)
Chrysler 200C EV (2009)
Saab PhoeniX (2011)
Fisker Atlantic (2012)
Fisker secured a substantial $528 million (£406 million) loan from the American government in 2009 to develop, build and sell eco-friendly vehicles. It launched its first car, the plug-in hybrid Karma, and planned to expand its range with a second, more affordable model previewed by the Atlantic concept. This four-door model could have helped Fisker gain a foothold on the American market by making its cars available to a wider audience but costly problems with the Karma’s battery pack forced the firm to put the development process on hiatus in 2012.
The Atlantic was still on the backburner when Fisker filed for bankruptcy in 2013. The firm was resurrected as Karma Automotive by Chinese investors in 2015 and Henrik Fisker gave his name to a new automaker in 2016 but neither plans to resurrect the Atlantic, which is a shame.
The 9-3 1.9TiD saloon managed three and a half stars in our road test. We like the estate a lot more – it’s stylish, comfortable and decent to drive – but not enough for the full four stars. Call it three and three quarters?