I’m not exactly sure what was in the water or gin or drug-spiked milk or whatever American car company execs drank at the turn of the recent century, but there seems to have been an odd fascination with iconic French cars. Chrysler almost made a plastic 2CV, and General Motors seems to have built a very advanced Citroën DS successor, the GM Precept.

The General Motors Precept was a concept car from 2000 created with the goals of making a very low-emissions vehicle that was capable of 80 MPG. GM actually managed to do it, albeit by pushing the technology of the day to its limits and coming up with something that would be about as mass-production ready as a pair of Spanx made from carbon nanotubes held together with antimatter lasers.

GM had some electric drivetrain and advanced aerodynamic expertise from their EV-1 electric car project, and they put all of that to use — and much more — in making the Precept. The Precept was a hybrid, but not exactly in the same manner like the fairly common combustion engine/electric hybrids we have today: the Precept was what’s known as a parallel hybrid where, unlike a Prius or something, there’s actually two (actually, sort of two-and-a-half) totally separate and distinct drivetrains, one diesel, one electric, in the car.

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Up front and driving the front wheels was a 34 peak HP electric motor, along with its associated controller, batteries, cooling system, etc. Around back is a 1.3L 3-cylinder Isuzu turbodiesel engine driving the rear wheels, and along with that, a 13 HP ‘multipurpose unit’ electric motor that’s tasked with acting as the diesel engines’s starter, the generator to recharge the NiMH batteries, a balancer/leveler to eliminate the need for transmission synchros, and even assisting the other two motors under hard acceleration.

If this all sounds complex, with its three separate motors, it sure as hell is. As a contemporary Car and Driver article described:

It is also the only car with four distinct coolant circuits (engine, electric motors, batteries, and turbo intercooler), three separate voltage systems (12, 24, and 36), and 16 radiators...A total of 47 microprocessors must report for work to make the Precept roll down the road.

Damn. If this thing actually made it to market, there probably would have been a rash of guys wearing Mr. Goodwrench coveralls hanging themselves with a combination of 12, 24, and 36V volt-rated wire.

Incredibly, the system and the car did seem to work. It had an amazingly low 0.16 drag coefficient (a VW XL1 has a Cd of 0.19) and actually did get pretty damn close to 80 MPG (79.6 demonstrated). But what I find most astounding is how much it looks like a very modernized Citroën DS.

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The basic, subtly teardrop shape is total DS. The skirted rear wheel, the long, centrally-creased hood, the window line, the thick C-pillar, the dual headlights under glass — if you gave it a more comfortable-looking interior and slapped a couple of chevrons on there, I’d totally believe this was Citroën’s updated 2016 DS.

Of course, it was neither a Citroën, or meant to be. The Clinton-era program that spurred the development of these sorts of hyper-efficient cars, the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle (PNGV), died when Bush came into office in 2000, and the big three soon quickly forgot to give a shit about such expensive, advanced, and (to most people) unsexy vehicles.

So, the Precept prototypes are probably stuck in some warehouse somewhere, perhaps stripped for some other project that really needs 47 CPUs and miles of radiator hoses. That’s kind of a shame. It would have been amazing if this thing had made it to market somehow.

Now, with hybrids everywhere and a huge focus going into aerodynamic design, you can see that GM’s concept was years ahead of its time — much like the DS was.


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.