January 15, 2009 The 2008 oil price bonanza seems to have given the U.S. auto industry a much-needed kick in the pants - pity it was closely followed by a crippling recession. While last year's petrol prices in America still seemed outrageously cheap to many Europeans, the spike was enough to finally put fuel economy and smaller cars on Big Auto's agenda. Take this concept from Lincoln, Ford's luxury brand, better known for its enormous presidential limousines. The 'C' Concept is Lincoln's vision of a luxury compact. Its 4cl, 1.6l, 180-horsepower Ecoboost engine gets 43mpg on the highway, 25% better than the Ford Focus manages - and its reconfigurable dash, hubless steering wheel and spooky KITT-style omnipotent conversational computer ("Eva, I need the most fuel efficient route to Luciano's") combine to make it one of the most unabashedly "futuristic" concepts shown at this year's Detroit Auto Show.

Lincoln's C concept was unveiled on Monday at Detroit, the company calling it "a big idea for a small car" and an exercise in "sensible indulgence," chasing young, wealthy urbanites who crave luxury but "want to play their part in helping the environment by moving to a smaller vehicle." A new type of consumer, says Lincoln, who has "gotten used to the idea that you could pay more money for a smaller version of the real thing."

The C concept's cavernous center-opening doors and bench seats hark back to its limousine heritage, but exterior-wise it's small, solid, refined and practical all the way, with more than a hint of Renault about it until you hit the big apple-pie grille.

The 1.6 liter, 4 cylinder turbocharged Ecoboost engine features twin individually variable camshaft timing that can vary the timing of intake and exhaust cams independently. It also uses a central-injector EFI system, which gives fine fuel-air mix control to achieve emissions and economy goals, and also prepares the engine to adopt additional economy measures like stratified lean operation and homogeneous charge compression ignition should the market call for them.

Assisted Direct Start shuts the engine down when it's idling with the brakes on, for instance at the lights, and starts it again instantly and very smoothly when the brakes are released or the gas pedal depressed. A regenerative braking system provides the extra electricity required to run the car's sophisticated electronics under these conditions.

The transmission is a dual-clutch paddle-shift 6-speed PowerShift unit, effectively pairing two automatically-operated manual transmissions, one for gears 1,3 and 5 and one for 2, 4 and 6. As one clutch disengages, say from first, second gear is already engaging, meaning very little time or power (and thus fuel) is wasted in shifting. Both clutches disengage when the car coasts with the brakes on, and in first gear there's controlled forward "creep" from a standstill to mimic a traditional auto and 'hill mode' automatic braking to stop the car rolling backwards on a slope. Lincoln claim the PowerShift system provides an instant 9% cut in fuel use as compared with older 4-speed automatics.

The brake discs are mounted to the wheel rims instead of closer to the axle, a concept used to excellent effect by Erik Buell on his innovative Buell motorcycles. They allow the calipers to exert a higher stopping torque, which is transferred more directly to the rims than other systems can. The discs have a much larger diameter, but less weight than normal discs, which aids unsprung weight and suspension performance.

Notable interior innovations include headrests that stay retracted into the seat back for optimal driver vision, but extend automatically when somebody sits down, cleverly mounted bench seats that look as if they're floating in air, and a hubless steering wheel that allows unimpeded vision through to the C Concept's amazing dashboard.

The dash is a great example of logical functional separation and intuitive user interface. Speed and tacho in the middle, car functions like vehicle diagnostics, fuel economy, trip information on the left, and passenger-related functions like audio, climate control, navigation and phone integration on the right.

Control is through any of three interfaces - touch screens, steering wheel-mounted thumb-pads and voice recognition. Mobile phone integration is considered key - the C Concept establishes a bluetooth interface and then allows voice-activated dialling, texting and media playing. It also uses the phone's internet connectivity to access nav and traffic information, plus other web services.

Up to this point, the so-called SYNC system is being packaged up to be included in almost all 2010 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

The C Concept then takes it one step further with a computerized 'companion' avatar (Eva) that responds to conversational speech commands. Frighteningly, Eva has access to all vehicle and SYNC-enabled functions and can read web pages or e-mails out to the driver on the go. The system is also apparently able to sense a driver's mood through a combination of voice tone and driving style, and will pick soothing songs to calm you down if you start getting worked up in traffic. See the video below for an idea of how Lincoln imagine this happening - and then compare it to your experiences with voice-recognition systems in use today. Yeah, slight differences there.

Loz Blain

View gallery - 33 images