The concept car has long been the darling of the new-car show circuit. From Detroit to Paris and everywhere in between, automakers have unveiled these wild concepts as automotive harbingers of designs to come. With plenty of smoke and mirrors and the requisite Vegas-style lighting and music, these design exercises are paraded before auto show audiences with the same pomp and circumstance normally reserved for the ridiculous runways of the fashion world.
Automotive journalists delight in reporting on these creations and hope to get a glimpse of what the automakers may have planned for the future. Most of these concepts embrace the MAXStaffs belief of what a car should be equipped with: gigantic wheels with no-profile rubber; high-displacement powerplants with efficient engine- management systems; technologically advanced electronics in purpose-built interiors; and sleek low-slung bodies that make the car look more like a projectile than an automobile. But alas, for all the hype surrounding these concepts, many of these designs are usually a few years from production or just too radical for mass consumption.
What do we mean by too radical? How about a car with no headlights, turn signals, mirrors, or door handles? Some of these concepts are even constructed completely of balsa wood or foam and some even have no engines or running gear. Concept cars may look cool, but our burning desire for instant gratification demands that we experience these rides first-hand. After all, the primary function of a car is a mode of transportation, right? Imagine our surprise when Ford Motor Co. had its people call our people (Thats actually us, were not big enough to have our own people.MAX) to invite us on a real live, genuine media driving evaluation. Ford provided three cars for our perusal: the Cougar Eliminator, which first gained prominence at the 98 SEMA show; the Fusion, an Escort ZX2 concept; and Puffed, an SVT Contour equipped with a couple of blue bottles. Our drive wound from Santa Barbara, California, through the delightfully twisty Highway 33 to Buttonwillow Raceway in order to see how these cars run on the track.
This silver car looks like a mild- mannered 98 SVT Contour until you get into the throttle. A 100-shot NOS kit provides some additional muscle to the already potent Duratec 195-horse V-6. An NOS Time Based Progressive Nitrous Control System offers an initial shot at 40 percent and gradually ramps it up to full flow, and a throttle control system will only allow the system to engage between 4,000 and 6,800 rpm. In order to handle the additional torque from the two trunk-mounted 10-pound bottles, a GKN viscous-coupling limited-slip differential is employed.
This cars only telltale exterior sign was a very cool, yet discreet, blue Puffed trunk badge. This car definitely displayed the best road manners, but the SVT suspension (while a tremendous improvement over the LX and SE models) could not contain the sedans tendency to roll heavily in the corners. We would liked to have seen more of a Touring Car treatment with some serious brake, wheel, and suspension upgrades to complement the nitrous. Although, we should give a thumbs up to Ford for specing the 99 SVT with BFG g-Force T/A KDWssome of the most capable rubber weve ever rolled on.
Ford engineers teamed up with Roush Racing to build the Fusion, which began life as a 99 Escort ZX2. The ZX2 rolls off the floor with a pretty potent 2.0L Zetec DOHC 16-valve four-banger making 130 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque. The crew at Roush immediately tore into the engine by replacing the stock pistons and rods with upgraded units, adding an SVO cylinder head, a larger Griffin radiator, Roush high-flow air filter, stainless steel header, and an Arvin muffler and tip. The biggest upgrade is the Eaton supercharger with a water-to-air intercooler and Roush accessory drive pulleys. These mods rocket the Fusions numbers up to 230 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque. The engine bay also announces itself visually as the manifold cover, supercharger, and intake system are all powdercoated fly yellow.
While the power is impressive, it was the Fusions slot car suspension that really stuck in our minds. On both the hard corners of Highway 33 and Buttonwillow the chassis handled everything that the supercharged engine threw its way. The Fusion was lowered 1½ inches with Roush springs, and Roush front and rear strut tower braces and X-Sport struts by Bilstein were also tossed into the mix. Rolling stock is comprised of 215/40R17 Goodyear Eagle F1s and 17x7 Prime Tuners, while a complete set of Energy Suspension polyurethane suspension inserts helps tie the whole thing together.
The interior is fitted with a set of intense-looking yellow and black FloFit seats, with matching rear seat inserts, yellow gauge faces, a B&M shifter, an Auto Meter boost gauge, and a Roush pedal set. The exterior also received the essential body modifications. A Roush chin spoiler, side skirts, and rear spoiler combine with a rear valance from Inform Design. Unfortunately, the aero pieces were a little too subtle for our taste. Were not asking for combat scoops and towel rack wings but we would like to see a greater departure from the ZX2s stock form. This car rocks in terms of performance and handling, and the engine compartment and interior cosmetics are also up to par, but the pedestrian ground f/x seem out of place on this high-spirited roadrunner.
The new 99 Cougar has already become a popular platform for tuners as we spotted more than a few at last years SEMA show. However, the most radically tuned example was at Lincoln-Mercurys booth. Inform Designs (the very same company that provided the sedate rear valance for the Fusion) did not hold back with the Eliminator and produced a stunning ground f/x package that also complements the original lines nicely. After the aero kit was fitted, the body was coated with PPGs Harlequin Chrom-O-Flair paint. The mystic paint scheme and unique body kit ensure this Cougars exclusivity. The cars stance is improved with Eibach springs, which lower it by 1½ inches. As if this werent enough to win the crown for the most ferocious-looking cat, the Eliminator also features quad carbon fiber Borla tips and 18-inch TSW VX-1s wrapped with 225/40R18 Goodyear rubber. Goodyear may not seem like the most aggressive choice in rubber, until you realize that these Eagle GS F1 Fioranos are the same model and size that come on the front of Ferraris F355.
After SEMA, the MAXStaff knew the Eliminator was a looker, but would the performance live up to the looks? The stock Cougar comes with either a 125hp four-cylinder engine or a 2.5L 24-valve DOHC Duratec V-6, which puts out 170 horses with 165 lb-ft of torque. The Eliminator mates the V-6 to a Vortech supercharger, and a K&N air filter and the Borla cat-back exhaust for a 70-horse increase the boost power to an even 240. A Quaife LSD handles the added torque, and Brembo brakes with cross-drilled rotors are mounted on all four corners to assist in the deceleration efforts.
The Eliminator does a great job of taking the Cougar to the next level. The car exhibited nice road manners, with the exception of a twitchy off-center feel as a result of the 18s, and when we laid into the throttle, the Eliminator responded with loads of power and sporty agility to match. Unfortunately, our track time with the Eliminator was cut short because of a malfunctioning catalytic converter (lets not forget, these are concepts). In closing, we would like to send a great big shout out to the powers that be at Ford. These concepts are real cars that can be driven, and theyre not only based on current production platforms, they also utilize name-brand tuning products. Its nice to see the big guns at Ford intermingling with the sharp shooters of the aftermarket. We only hope the other car makers will take notice.