We all love to see the sexy stuff. The bleeding-edge vehicles that draw the crowds at any serious and important car show. But what exactly do they do besides draw crowds and stimulate dreams? And whatever they did before, do they still do it?

The term concept car is not fully defined. It can mean anything from something straight off the dreamer drawing board all the way up to relatively finished products a few steps shy of production readiness. Some concept cars are displayed just to gauge general reaction, others as a way to fine-tune the final look and direction of a car that has already been thought through and prepped for the assembly line.

Sometimes the showgoer will see a car that is midway through its development life, a more finished product that has gone through engineering for pedestrian protection and aerodynamics that can significantly change the way the final product looks. Other times you may see a product specifically designed to generate foot traffic and buzz. It is in the interests of designers to incorporate the demands of realistic production into any concept car because a concept may prove so well accepted by the public that it will go straight into production.

The Lexus LC is a sporty GT Coupe that first saw light in 2012 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was a dynamically-styled, futuristic-looking two-door that was meant to showcase a possible design direction, and it was loved and controversial for its daring. Because of the response, Lexus did a rare second concept car, the LF-LC Concept 2 that debuted in 2015.

The Lexus LC500 made its global debut for the media in November 2016 and will be on sale as a 2017 model, and signifies a strong statement about the brand’s future direction. In this case, there will be four years from concept to rolling production vehicle.

The time between public debut and reality can be shorter, because what the public sees is further down the road and is being used to fine-tune. As the world becomes more interested in design, carmakers are making bolder steps to draw on the emotional.

German carmaker Audi has always been forward-thinking with models such as its bauhaus-inspired TT. The two-door sports car was almost more design icon than sports car, and by keeping the original design intact the company had problems later.

The clean curves looked wonderful but were too smooth for air flow, and there were reports of the car breaking out on high-speed curves. This was answered initially with a bold-on rear wing and later one that was retractable. The retractable wing is now used regularly by many brands to keep designs clean and aerodynamicists happy. Show cars are designed with such demands in mind, as it is a drawback to deviate too much from a vehicle that the public loves.

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Different companies have different views on the development and use of concept cars, and often the directions change. Often formally known as concept and development cars, these vehicles can be anything from empty shells to rolling and moving products. The ability to roll and drive them, even if not in final roadworthy form, is useful because of the need to move and position the pieces constantly.

For Japanese carmaker Toyota and its Lexus brand, such cars are a way to showcase technology and design. They spend money and resources to give the public a glimpse of the future and to in turn gauge responses. The programme is a platform to test new ideas and create improvements.

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Companies such as Audi say their concept and development cars are engineered to be the most technologically-advanced, innovative and ground-breaking vehicles in their segments. It also uses the vehicles as a way to gauge acceptance. Cars such as the R8 supercar and the Q7 SUV were first seen as the Audi Le Mans Quattro and the Audi Pikes Peak Quattro Concept respectively, both drew heavily from motor sports heritage and both were significant departures that went on to prove important, valuable and financially successful.

Bentley tested the waters for its landmark Bentayga SUV with the EXP 9F Concept. Some companies do not release official concept cars under their own name.

Ferrari considers itself unique, and says that it has never done concept cars. The company says that every Ferrari is a concentration of cutting-edge technology and advanced performance-oriented concepts. As such, it says it has no need for theoretical, non-production-ready concept cars to be shown to the public. Some concept cars that may be seen as linked to the prancing horse are entirely conceived and built by Italian design and engineering company Pininfarina.

It is wondered now though if these concept cars hold as much importance as they used to. Many in the industry question the need for such cars and such shows but it may be that they are too entrenched in the business side of the car world. Looking at numbers and seeing things on a flat screen are fine if that is what you do for a living. But getting a feel for the emotional reactions of the public, the enthusiast, the working press in person is always valuable.

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Concepts that were never slated for production such as the Toyota FJ Cruiser turned out to be the most important modern heritage model for the company. It was all wrong for production, design, safety, visibility, modularity and flexibility, and it is so different that it has yet to develop a viable successor. It is now considered an icon, and enthusiasts and collectors are buying up the units from the final production run.

Cars have always been more to us than the sum of their parts, numbers and specs. They move us between dream and reality, between aspiration and acquisition. Concept cars, as important as they are for the numbers side of the business, are perhaps even more important for the emotional side.

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