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Mercedes’ Silver Lightning is a sleek, low-slung speedster, piloted by two crash-test dummies who want to save their car from destruction at the hands of the evil Dr. Crash-Barrier.

ted laturnus The Globe and Mail

Every year for the past eight years, the Los Angeles Auto Show has held a competition in conjunction with the show itself. But this one is not about which car goes the fastest, has the most powerful engine, or features the most beautiful body style. This is all about the human imagination and is part of the designers' conference that goes along with the show.

Known as the Design Challenge, it invites manufacturers to submit ideas, concepts and fantasies that reflect their ideas about the future, and what automotive designers can come up with when they're given free rein. As well as demonstrating what the human imagination can concoct, it also allows up-and-coming designers to spread their wings to interact with their peers and mentors.

Entries this year had a showbiz flavour – surprise – and the idea was to come up with a fanciful concept car that would be part of a possible movie scenario, featuring the car as the central character. Entries were judged on "how the vehicle reflects its brand attributes relative to the movie plot; how the vehicle relates to the targeted audience or brand; the level of imagination; the character development of the vehicle; and the uniqueness of the combination of story, car and character."

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Six manufacturers took part in the Design Challenge – Honda, Subaru, Hyundai, Mercedes, Smart and Maybach – and the entries covered everything from a futuristic mechanical horse, to a mechanized Cinderella-type stagecoach, to a multi-terrain airship piloted by a female vampire spy. When nobody's looking over your shoulder, the sky's the limit.

Many of the entries also had a post-apocalyptic theme, wherein the world as we know it has gone away and people are struggling just to survive. Honda's entry, for example, was titled "The Intelligent Horse" and is essentially a mechanized quadruped that traverses a futuristic wild west, where there are no real flesh and blood horses and a showdown over resources is imminent. Utilizing artificial intelligence, Honda's Intelligent Horse "combines both the character and simplicity of a horse with the latest structural, safety and technological innovation."

Mercedes' Silver Lightning is a sleek, low-slung speedster, piloted by two crash-test dummies who want to save their car from destruction at the hands of the evil Dr. Crash-Barrier. Reminiscent of Mercedes' 1930s-era W125, the Silver Lightning has hub-less wheels and is built for speed, not comfort. Like all of the entries in the competition, a healthy dose of imagination on the part of onlookers is required. In other words, don't look too hard, just go with the flow.

The winning entry came from Smart and had a much more optimistic flavour than its competitors. Titled the Smart 341 Parkour, this little package is the key ingredient in a futuristic fantasy involving Annie Angle, an intrepid reporter, who sets out to get the scoop on some missing robot-creating grannies, who can apparently knit robots and need to be found, pronto. In search of the scoop of a lifetime, Annie jumps into her 341 Parkour, which can climb buildings, fly and hover, and park itself vertically.

The 341 Parkour was also more than just a few drawings on a computer screen. Designed by Sylvain Wehnert, Emiel Burki, and Phillipp Haban, all of whom work at Mercedes Advanced Design Studios in Germany, it was on display at Mercedes' Carlsbad facility, and although it didn't fly, hover, or scramble up buildings, it was nonetheless an intriguing exercise in automotive sculpture and design.

New SL coming

Designers at Mercedes-Benz's Carlsbad design studio – one of four the company has around the world – are supposed to let their hair down to see what they can come up with when production considerations are factored out of the equation.

The Carlsbad facility was where Mercedes gave reporters a sneak peek of its latest SL roadster, which, when it goes on sale later this year, will have all-aluminum construction and a body shell that features front bass woofers built into the actual structure itself. Mercedes is claiming that its "FrontBass" concept will render door-mounted speakers obsolete and will give the new SL superb stereo sound, even with the top down. The car will also be some 100 kilograms lighter than its predecessor.

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One other technical highlight of the SL that is worth mentioning is the use of friction steer welding, which, briefly put, bonds two aluminum surfaces together without the use of heat or electricity. Apparently, a rotating, round-headed drill bit, spinning at tremendous speed, creates enough heat to plasticize aluminum and "weld" two surfaces together. Mercedes claims it's almost as fast as the conventional MIG/TIG welding process, and is completely emission-free, as well as consuming less electrical energy.

No word yet on when the new SL will go on sale, but according to the company, it will be officially presented "before the year is out."

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