In the US market in the mid-2000s, there were a number of trends in the automobile market. ‘Peak Minivan’ had passed and SUVs were emerging as the car the future; hydrogen and diesel were the fuels of the future (and, as the joke goes, always will be); and tiny box cars were an unlikely hit in both the youth and senior markets.
The gold standard for these cars was Toyota’s Scion xB, based on Kei car models back in Japan (but bigger). In America, these boxes were a sort of anti-car, flaunting all the conventions of style and packaging. Young buyers saw them a sort of blank canvas for customising, and senior buyers liked their ease of entry and dining-chair-upright seats that were easy on weary backs.
Also in play was the move away from the suburbs to the city, especially for Gen-X’ers and Millennials, who found the urban vibe energising after growing up in the blandness and traffic of the ‘burbs. But the city could still be a bit of pioneer experience after the severe declines of the previous decades. It was a place where you needed to be cautious, but the energy and opportunity was worth it.
Ford decided to weigh in on the discussion of these trends with a concept car that both tried to capture the cultural zeitgeist and perhaps comment on it. Revealed at the NAIAS in Detroit in 2006, the SYNus was a tiny, armoured truck lookalike with a surprisingly friendly interior.
First, the name: Although it looks like it is pronounced ‘sinus’, it is actually pronounced sin-you-es. SYNus was a sort-of acronym for Synthesis Urban-Sanctuary. Of course, there was nothing sinuous about the chunky design, thus increasing the confusion about the name. The working title of the project had been ‘Armadillo’, but was abandoned after it was discovered FIAT had used the name on a previous concept. Other, informal names included ‘Gorilla’ and ‘Fort Knox.’
The SYNus was based on a European Fiesta platform, thus making it much smaller than its bulky massing might suggest. Its overall length was 4013mm, with a width of 1760 mm.
Suspension was beefed up for the additional mass, the visual of which was at least partially offset by the 18-inch wheels. The engine was a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, borrowed from a Ford Mondeo and tweaked to run on biomass diesel (A mix of 80% petroleum diesel and 20% bio-diesel), electronically fuel-injected.
The exterior, designed by José Paris, makes no efforts to hide its bank vault/armored car appearance. Like the Ford Bronco concept of several years prior, the SYNus looks like it was machined out of a solid billet of steel. The front of the car looks like a miniature version of the F-250 truck, and the shape of the side windows and a few other treatments underscore this connection, placing the SYNus, theoretically, in the lineup of trucks “built Ford tough”.
The passenger door and rear door were opened by a combination lock.
Flat glass at the windscreen and doors allowed for panels and shutters to close, turning the SYNus into an impenetrable fortress, called ‘secure mode’. Thinking about trying to force your way into the interior through those narrow slit windows? As New Yorkers say, fuhgeddaboutdit. They were bulletproof.
Turn that combination lock, open the door and a surprise greeted you: whereas the exterior led one to expect a heavy metal or dieselpunk aesthetic, a much softer, almost Japanese-style concept interior greets you. The interior light varies from white to amber, allowing for a warm interior ambience.
The two front seats are of soft memory foam. The front and reverse sides of the seats are the same shape, and slid along a track to create a front- or rear-facing seat. The steering wheel folded away to facilitate the reverse of the driver’s seat.
The rear door was covered by a 45-inch diagonal LCD television screen. Ford claimed it was the largest TV screen to ever be installed in a car. With the rear seat folded and front seats reversed, the SYNus cabin became a sort of inverse of the drive-in movie – a driving movie theatre, as it were.
The armoured exterior/soft interior design solution is not just an urban design theme – there are plenty of examples in nature as well, so there was a bit of an organic logic to the design. The bank vault-on-wheels aesthetic (well executed, in fact) only heightened the effect.
But looking back from a decade on, Ford sent the wrong automotive and cultural message with the SYNus. It portrayed the city as a menacing place, where one must move from vault to vault, unconnected from the very environment one was supposed to adopt as a life adventure.
In many ways it was the suburbanite’s vision of an urban car – Fort Apache on wheels. Attendees at the show must have come away from the Ford stand asking themselves, “Would you really want to live in the city for which this car was designed?”
Fortunately for those people, a friendlier vision of the box car won out. The Kia Soul, with its funky urban vibe and cheeky homeboy hamster mascots, has won the box car battle for market share. It is now the last man standing – or cruising, as the case may be – even as the segment declines thanks to CUVs.
Now about to enter its third generation, the Soul projects a more benign vision of urban motoring, one that sets a better precedent for a car for the future of city driving.
Check out the cheeky Kia Soul vision of urban travel here: