Honda built a peanut on wheels. Nissan built a two-seat jet-like car that leans into turns. BMW built a high-performance hybrid that looks like it wants to eat you.  Chances are, none of them will ever see production. But the wildest concept cars built this year do give us clues to what the cars of the next 10 years might look like – and Nissan officials insist they might actually build that two-seater.

Concept cars are design studies. Automakers give their designers a blank slate and a budget. The companies hope to learn more about what’s possible, and perhaps to uncover an idea that will make them billions in the future. Engineers hope to realize dreams from when they were kids doodling personal jetpacks and heli-cars on their Trapper Keepers. The results aren’t usually intended for production – they’re intended to inspire crazy thoughts that might lead to the next Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt.

In 2009, we saw fewer concept cars than usual on the auto show circuit. Cash-strapped automakers were understandably less willing to bankroll sports cars that convert into submarines (2008’s Rinspeed Squba) or fabric-covered supercars (last year’s BMW Gina). But a few wacky ideas made their way from sketches to sheetmetal, and they help us see what might be coming in the near future.

Let’s start with that peanut…

Honda P-NUT Concept

Engineers disagree over what will power the cars of the future. Some automakers are building ultra-efficient gasoline engines to stretch the remaining supply of petroleum further into the future and make it cheaper to use. Others are hard at work developing electric cars, or testing hydrogen-powered vehicles. It’s hard to know exactly what sort of engine will power the car you buy in 20 years. So Honda designers built a car that can use any of them.

The P-NUT (that’s Personal Neo Urban Transport) squeezes a lot into a small space. The little car made its debut during December’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Its unique seat layout puts the driver front and center with two seats behind, and gives three people as much legroom as a large sedan in a car that’s just two-thirds the size of a small one. But the real trick is the engine – or, rather, the engines. The P-NUT has a modular engine bay. Owners can swap out motors – pull one out, put a different one in – in a process not much more complicated than pressing Lego blocks together. It can accommodate a gasoline engine, a battery pack and electric motor, a hybrid drivetrain, or whatever they think of next.  

Chances of Production: None. Honda says it’s just a study.

Nissan Land Glider Concept

Driving the Nissan Land Glider must feel exhilarating. We can’t say firsthand, because Nissan hasn’t let the press behind the…wheel? Actually, the driver steers the Land Glider with what looks like the flight yoke from a 747, but that’s not the car’s coolest trick.

The Land Glider is electric, and while the only model Nissan has shown off so far seats just one, there is space for a second seat behind the driver. The vehicle, which first appeared at the Tokyo Motor Show in late October, is so narrow that you could park two side by side in some parking spaces. The roof and windshield are integrated, a single piece of curved glass like a jet cockpit. All of the jet design cues, in fact, are probably appropriate because of the Land Glider’s best trick – it leans into turns like a motorcycle. It must feel like flying.

Chances of Production: Incredibly, Nissan says they’re considering it.

BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept

Hybrid cars are traditionally a bit slow off the line, and about as intimidating as a pocket protector. But BMW designers have proven that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Vision Efficient Dynamics concept, which debuted in December at the Los Angeles show, is a diesel-electric hybrid, a combination of two unsexy things – but it goes from zero to sixty in less than five seconds and looks like the Batmobile’s badass sports car cousin.

Amazingly, it does it all that with just a three-cylinder diesel engine and a pair of relatively small electric motors. The key is its light weight – BMW designers developed new, layered polymers for the body that provide the rigidity of a steel frame with very little weight, as well as a Lithium-polymer battery that packs a lot of power in a small, light package.

Advanced throttle software means that each of the three engines can provide 30-second bursts of added power, so the car could have as little as 163 horsepower in normal driving, or as much as 356, depending on how hard you punch the throttle. And you would punch it. Hard. Frequently. The looks of this thing would demand that.

Volkswagen L1 Concept

158 miles per gallon, with no exotic new fuels and no hybrid technology -- nothing but an old-fashioned diesel engine and an aerodynamic shape. That’s Volkswagen’s goal. The company’s L1 Concept has been through two versions now, with the latest one looking almost production-ready when it appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September

The L1 is the most minimalist car imaginable. It’s a sleek tube, with a single passenger seated behind the driver. It’s low to the ground – the roof sits about four and a half feet from the roadway.  And it weighs just 850 pounds, or about a third as much as a Honda Civic. Even the side mirrors have been left off to eliminate drag. Cameras take their place. The combination, VW says, is good for more than 150 miles per gallon.

Chances of Production: VW says this is an ongoing project, with production in mind, but they won’t release it until they get it to 235 mpg. We expect a third concept version.

Subaru Hybrid Tourer Concept

Subaru is known for all-wheel-drive cars that can get their owners just about anywhere in just about any weather conditions – but the Japanese automaker’s long-time emphasis on traction and turbocharged muscle doesn’t mesh well with today’s focus on fuel economy. The 2010 Subaru lineup has improved fuel economy, but the company believes it has found a way to combine hybrid tech with all-wheel-drive traction.

The Hybrid Tourer Concept is the answer – it has a small, turbocharged gasoline engine with a pair of electric motors, one driving each axle. The combination means all-wheel-drive traction with hybrid gas mileage. It first appeared at the Tokyo show in October, and came to the U.S. for December’s L.A. show.

The car has another unique trick, too. It features gullwing doors so large they make up most of the sides of the vehicle. When those huge doors are opened, loading and unloading the wagon-shaped car with all sorts of cargo is a simple task. The driver can also raise and lower the entire dashboard to fit their body type and improve visibility.

Chances of Production: Subaru says the Hybrid Tourer Concept is a preview of future designs, but the huge wings are, unfortunately, just for show.