For as wild as concept cars tend to be, they can also be pretty similar. They all boast beefy specifications, extreme designs, and — these days — lots of the same futuristic features. They tend to fall into three camps: flashy luxury or sports cars with lots of bells and whistles, more utilitarian concepts built to embrace our seemingly inevitable autonomous future, or a mish-mosh of both. That’s what’s refreshing about this wild new one from DS, which is a division of the PSA Group in France. It’s called the DS X E-Tense, and it looks like something straight out of Speed Racer.
That’s mostly because of the odd seat layout and the almost complete absence of an interior, which makes the DS X E-Tense look like a mid-21st-century version of a mid-20th-century Mercedes-Benz Formula One car. The driver sits in an open cockpit on the left next to a seat that’s enclosed in a bubble of glass on the right. Whatever purpose this offset layout serves, it’s a refreshing break from the raft of concepts we’ve already seen at auto shows this year that, to my eyes, are already starting to bleed together. You can only see so many cabin-wide touchscreens or theoretical augmented reality implementations before they all start to sound the same. The X E-Tense has none of that. As DS puts it, somewhat dismissively, the X E-Tense “is very different from the current, near-obsessional quest for characterless mobility.”
It does, however, have at least one ridiculous “spec” and a few quirks. Two electric motors power the front (yes, just the front!) wheels and are capable of working together to generate up to 1,000kW, or 1,360 horsepower in “circuit” (or race) mode. Circuit mode “allows the driver to savour the exquisite performance of the suspension engineered by DS Performance, the technical team behind DS’s Formula E programme,” the company says. It’s a lofty quote, but to be fair, DS is currently running second in Formula E’s fourth season — and driver Sam Bird just won a race in Rome after the leader’s suspension broke. What’s more, DS says, unspecified “new technology” will allow the car’s carbon fiber body to recover its original form after a crash.
The X E-Tense comes at a curious time — it was announced at the Beijing Motor Show within hours of Ford’s decision to almost totally phase out passenger sedans in North America in the coming years. Ford’s not the first to try this, and it certainly won’t be the last, if sales data for SUVs and trucks are any indication. I don’t think DS’s new concept is any sort of specific repudiation of this trend; it was in the works long before the Blue Oval decided to upend its coming car lineup. But I’m certainly now more interested in — maybe even excited to discover? — what happens to “concept cars” as we shift away from the accepted definition of “cars” in the first place.
Until now, I think most of us had been operating under the assumption that even autonomous cars would still look a lot like sedans in some sense, even if their interiors changed to accommodate the removal of human driving. But Ford’s move seems to have a lot of people recalculating the future. If sedans winnow almost completely before autonomy hits — which seems totally possible given the breakneck pace that car companies around the world are adopting more SUVs and / or trucks — then won’t that assumption be wrong?
In other words, is the DS X E-Tense the first of the last of sedan-style concepts? Maybe. We’ve already seen an uptick in outrageous SUV and crossover concepts, like the Lexus UX or the Nissan Xmotion. At the time of their respective unveilings, these felt like curiosities, something worth more of a chuckle than most “normal” concept “cars.” Looking at it through this new lens, it doesn’t seem so hard to believe that the concepts we’ll be ogling in five years will all have a high ride height and the ability to fit a family of five on top of the wild stylings, futuristic gadgets and gizmos, and other accoutrements we expect.
If that’s the case, I think that’s all the more reason to enjoy the DS X E-Tense. It’s a retro-futuristic darling that echoes road racers of the early 1900s while unmistakably looking like a car that won’t exist for decades to come. And if things keep changing the way they are, maybe it won’t exist at all.