Read about Ralph Gilles’ address to the Chicago Economic Club
by Jim Choate, Contributing Editor • skip to part 2
The 102nd edition of the Chicago Auto Show, held at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, runs from February 12th through February 21st, 2010. I attended the media preview days on February 10th and 11th.
At first glance, the show seems to be as big as ever despite the current lull in the economy. After walking the floor and getting my bearings, I realized that the show floor is not as large as it was, even compared to last year. In 2009, the Chrysler Group area took the entire southern end of the South Hall from the food court area south to the walls - it was from this food court vantage point that I took the images of the expansive Chrysler Group display area.
This year, the displays end with the food court, leaving a vast area of space walled off from view and unused. It’s a similar story on the north end of the North Hall, where the food area and the ‘third party vendor area’ used to reside is now empty and everything has been pulled ‘forward’ a bit. None of this is really surprising considering the economy and that many longtime show displays are no longer in business. Pontiac, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer all had displays last year - all are gone this year. Chrysler’s former setup with three test tracks dropped to two last year and down to just one Camp Jeep track this year. On the upside, there seems to be more space to accommodate the large crowds that attend the show, and there was enough space for Chevy to sponsor a ‘family fun’ area with two giant inflatable slides.
The new auto show “set” for the Chrysler Group brands is a big change from shows of the past. No longer does the giant Ram head logo dominate the display area, and the unique test track of recent years has been scaled back to a single “Camp Jeep” track featuring several Wrangler Unlimiteds (and at least one Liberty) that show-goers can ride in and experience a small taste of what Jeep is about.
There were several customized Wranglers on display, along with the Mopar Underground “Lower Forty” Jeep Wrangler. The three recently announced new Jeep editions (Jeep Liberty Renegade - slotting between the Sport and Limited models, the Jeep Wrangler Mountain edition, and the Jeep Wrangler Islander edition) were on display, and the rest of the Jeep lineup was also present. One glaring omission was the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee - it was scheduled to be on display and then pulled. Ralph Gilles stated that Chrysler Group’s new edict is to not show a new model until within 3 months of the vehicle being available to consumers. That being said, we expect to see the new Grand Cherokee at the upcoming New York Auto Show, where numerous Jeeps have been released in recent years.
For Dodge, one of the highlights is the new “Furious Fuschia” Challengers (which, according to Ralph Gilles, received 1500 orders within hours of its announcement) - shown along with the “Plum Crazy” and “Detonator Yellow” colors also available. These “Furious Fuschia” editions are intended to commemorate 40 years of Challenger performance.
Featured in the center of the Dodge display is the “Connected” Grand Caravan that shows off communication, navigation, and entertainment options that are available for purchase today. This minivan showed off available options like a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, FLO TV & SIRIUS Backseat TV, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, dual DVD screens, iPod integration, navigation, and voice command capability for all the mentioned services plus hand-free Bluetooth-enabled phones. It’s pretty clear that they’ve not done a great job of pushing these technologies and services (while Ford’s SYNC and Kia’s UVO garner far more attention) so it was good to see them making this effort.
Dodge announced the Grand Caravan “Hero” model during the show via press release. Starting with a base Dodge Caravan SE model, the Hero gets among other things a set of aluminum wheels, steering-wheel audio controls, tri-zone climate control heated mirrors, and the 3.8L/6-speed drivetrain. On display at the show was a Grand Caravan “Rush” Concept vehicle - details were sketchy but it appears to be on larger stylish wheels and might have even been lowered a bit, clad in “Redline Red” paint.
The Dodge Caliber was represented by the new “Rush” and “Mainstreet” models and also showed off the new interior design - most folks I spoke with seemed to feel that the new interior design was leaps and bounds over the previous interior, and while some still thought the plastics were hard others felt it was no worse and actually better than other vehicles in that price point. I personally think that the texture of the old interior along with the angular design and many cuts and seams was the bigger problem, not so much the actual ‘hardness’ of the plastics used.
Caliber is to be available in Express, Mainstreet, Uptown, Heat, and Rush models. Those wanting an R/T model should look to the Rush, as it appears to to be the only Caliber offered with the 2.4L engine - all others use the 2.0L engine.
Avenger was represented by an R/T model, while the new Express package for the SXT model was also announced - Express adds power drivers’ seat, heated mirrors & cloth seats, Media Center 430 radio (the former MyGig) and other options to the SXT.
Charger was also represented by an R/T model which now gets a Media Center 430 with uconnect Phone standard and optional AWD. A “Chrome & Tunes” package adds chromed wheels, alarm, EVIC, and more, and the “Super Track Pack” is also available. Other changes for the Charger include a new entry-level model with a standard 3.5L V6 replacing the oft-maligned 2.7L along with ABS, ESC, traction control, a power driver seat and more. AWD is optionally available as well. All new is the Charger Rallye model that gets a touring-tuned suspension, 18” wheels (with 20” wheels as options), rear sway bar, and a rear decklid spoiler. An available “Chrome & Leather” package throws in more goodies and AWD is also available.
Nitro dropped SE, SXT, and R/T and now appears with Heat, Detonator, and Shock models. It appears the chrome grille has been axed - all Nitros will have body-color grilles along with 20” wheels on all models.
Journey gets a Crew model which adds the third row seating, rear climate control, a premium gauge cluster (I have yet to see one, so I can’t say what is premium about it), more chrome trim inside, and a subwoofer among other things. The 5+2 seating is now standard on the R/T model.
Viper enjoyed a big chunk of the display space, showing off the cars and several of the awards and trophies the car has won over time. This is to be the last model year for the existing Viper, and Ralph Gilles has mentioned that a new Viper is being worked on for the future, perhaps as a 2012 model.
Chrysler’s display put the focus on the 300S models and with good reason - they are beautiful in their details and should serve to keep interest up until the arrival of the new 2011 Chrysler 300, said to be in December of 2010.
Also shown is the Chrysler Town & Country Walter P. Chrysler Signature Series edition minivan. The interior here is significantly more upscale in appearance with unique “Macassar range” (some would call it “zebra”) wood trim and very nice two-tone leather seating.
PT Cruiser makes a statement for its final year with the Couture Edition (named after pioneer Allan Couture); the two-tone paint and “Radar Red” leather interior are quite eye-catching and a big contrast to the stark angular plastic of the “towel bar” handle and “swiss cheese” door panels. On the other hand, it’s priced at only $19,995, which could make some folks overlook such things.
Sebring sedan and convertible were shown - and while almost every other model in the display had some kind of new or special edition to show off, the Sebring got nothing but its de-ribbed hood and now black-faced gauge cluster. I’m expecting the current Sebring to soldier on until it’s significantly revised later this year.
On the turntable was the “Chrysler Design Study” based upon the Lancia Delta. David Zatz covered this when it appeared in Detroit in January, and my own opinion still stands - I like it, but the grill shape isn’t “Chrysler” and it looks awkward and out of place when made to fit in the Lancia’s grille space. Will it play in Peoria? Probably not, but it should certainly play in the North Shore and the more affluent areas.
The new Ram brand easily dominated a third of the display space (with Jeep taking another third and the other brands sharing the rest) - but that’s to be expected, as there was at least one representation of every possible model that Ram offers. The “suspended upside-down HD truck” was there, as were many HDs outfitted in different fashions. Dakota was represented by a single “Big Horn edition” and much emphasis was put on the awards the Ram 1500 and HDs have won recently.
Ferrari wasn’t represented officially during the media days. Perhaps Chicago isn’t a big Ferrari market. Maserati made do with a single example - a sharp black Gran Turismo model. Fiat was showing the same two 500 models from the Detroit show - the black 500 “elettra” EV model and the white 500 Abarth model - along with (I think) the same two models next to the models. One thing that I think would really have been smart would have been to have at least one 500 on the show floor that people could actually get in. I understand the 500 intended for the US market (to be built in Chrysler’s Toluca, Mexico plant is undergoing some revisions - but to see “how it fits” is a big deal for folks attending this show. The Fiat 500 is anticipated to be available in the US in December of 2010.
Chrysler’s Global Electric Motorcars group, which had in previous years taken up quite a bit of display space, was this year relegated to two models in the corner of the display, sandwiched between the “Furious Fuschia“ Challengers and the Camp Jeep track. It’s hard to justify pushing GEM products as viable passenger car transportation when they are limited to streets less than 35 mph in most areas and their cost (~$12,000) is bested by cheap gas and cheap cars like the Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, and Chevy Aveo.
The IDEA electric van from Bright Automotive (Bright IDEA - get it?) was on display at the Bridgestone tire booth. While folks might have seen it or read about it before, it does have some very nifty features like the passenger seat than flips/folds into a cork-surfaced work table with cupholders; I noticed one Mopar-related detail immediately. The center stack is right out of the current Jeep Liberty.
They’ve added a pod on the top for a PDA-type device and the radio is replaced with the electric transmission lever, a cubby hole, and a USB port - but from the vents down to the HVAC controls, it’s identical. Upon closer inspection, almost the entire upper dash is from the Liberty - looks like only the aforementioned top of the center stack and the instrument panel are different. Light-weight materials are a major part of the IDEA, as shown with the aluminum shelving that weighs only 18 pounds and the large carbon fiber bulkhead.
Of course, there is more than just Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram at the show. During the media preview days, displays are still being built, vehicles are still being moved about, and things that were not there on day one sometimes appear on day two. Because of this, I tend to walk the entire show floor multiple times over. Here’s a recap of those walks.
Toyota’s focus was on the announcement of the new 2011 Avalon. Some folks have observed that Toyota has a goal to become just like GM, and the Avalon at first glance represents their attempt at offering a Buick or Oldsmobile - it’s definitely larger and more upscale than the Camry, and overall isn’t a bad looking car -it’s just not anything that’s all that exciting. The first feature of the new Avalon mentioned is the “redesigned accelerator pedal and brake override system” - no surprise there since those are hot topics with Toyota right now. Two more features of note: the 3.5L V6 is rated at 20/29 mpg - not shabby at all for a 268 horsepower carryover engine in a full sized car - and the rear view mirror features a 3.3” display with colored guidelines to assist when backing up into a parking space or driveway.
A lot of focus was also put on the newly redesigned Sienna minivan. Hyped by a “mommy like/daddy like” marketing pitch that highlights features that appeal to parents, there were at least 5 of the new minivans on display. The new second-row premium seating is a big feature and might offer something to folks shopping other minivans - primarily the Honda Odyssey.
Speaking of the Odyssey, Honda showed of an exterior styling concept for the next-generation Odyssey. Looking a little more aero than the previous model, the key styling feature was the “lightning bolt” bottom window line, which Honda claims will offer better visibility for rear-row passengers. (What they don’t mention is how that styling was lifted from last year’s Chevy Orlando concept.) Also featured at Honda is the upcoming CRZ hybrid and the Accord Crosstour, essentially a slightly lifted hatchback Accord.
Ford showed off the newly redesigned Edge crossover, with what they claim is all-new styling. To me, it looks pretty darn similar to the current model with changes to the lighting and fascias, with bigger changes appearing inside. The bigger news was the introduction of the Transit Connect Electric (a plug-in electric version of the standard Transit Connect van that seems to be doing well) and the Transit Connect Taxi. What makes the Transit Connect Taxi unique is that while it comes with a standard gas engine, it can be converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or propane (LPG.) The Transit Connect is very well suited for taxi duty and seems to be a good way for Ford to go once the existing Crown Victoria production comes to an end. There’s lots of room inside for passengers and their cargo. The new Ford Fiesta is also heavily shown - both the 4-door hatchback and the 4-door sedan; although while I can appreciate some folks’ need for a trunk, the looks suffer greatly compared to the hatchback. The new Focus was also shown, along with rest of Ford’s massive lineup.
Not much new was shown here, with Mercury looking particularly bare. Recent news has Mercury bringing back the Tracer, based on the new Ford Focus - but I question that move, wondering if there really needs to be a Mercury model smaller than the Milan, and if so, would something Fiesta-based be a better option? Volvo also seems to be treading water in regard to new product. Lincoln got to show off the new corporate grille on the MKX crossover, and that’s about it.
Dead center of the display shows the various TDI diesel offerings from VW, all stickered with “NOT A CONCEPT VEHICLE” decals. VW is covering just about every market segment today - but will it dilute the brand? That remains to be seen. The CC is a beautiful car, and the styling on the Chrysler-Built Routan is arguably better than on the Town & Country - but the Routan still doesn’t get the nifty features like Stow’N’Go seating or Swivel’N’Go seating. Then again, do VW buyers care?
MINI is always a fun and upbeat booth to visit, but I was somewhat disappointed that the newest concepts ( Coupe, the Beachcomber/Countryman) weren’t there. Just the standard Cooper/S and the Clubman/S were there, and while still sharp little cars, the interest is starting to wane.
Nice vehicles, questionable styling.
While nothing in the BMW display really caught my eye (they apparently did show off a new Alpina B7 model,) what DID catch my eye was actually on the drive in - a BMW 120i 5-door, which isn’t offered in the US so I’m not really sure how it was out on the road to begin with. It has that “bread truck” styling they offered on the old Z3, which I really liked. Again, the perception that US buyers hate hatches and need trunks deprives us of another good car.
Audi made the mistake of showing one of every model they offer, in the exact same color (save for the R8 which was in a separate area.) And since the same styling is used across the model line, nothing stood out at all. Maybe put the S models in red, or use different colors for each model range - something. With nothing for the eye to grab on to, it was very easy to walk right on by.
Mazda showed off the Mazda2 - which looks a lot smaller than its Ford Fiesta brother - along with the rest of the line-up. One surprise was when we found a Mazda Tribute in the far corner of the display - I honestly wasn’t aware they were still making those.
The SLS-Class, with its gull-wing doors, was a big visual draw. Past that, it’s similar to Audi in that all the cars were the same color. And try as a might, I found nothing around the ML-Class and GL-Class vehicles that indicated they used the same underpinnings as the new Jeep Grand Cherokee.
While Fisker has done some good designs, the front end of the Fisker Karma hybrid is not one of them. The grille is a mustache, and not a good-looking one.
The iMIEV, Mitsu’s small electric vehicle, was on display. Mitsu is working with Best Buy to put the Geek Squad in iMIEVs before they go on sale to the public. It’s small, but not as small as a smart fortwo. The Outlander was also a focus for Mitsu; it now wears a front fascia similar to the Lancer. While it looks pretty good on upscale Outlander models, it looks quite awkward and out of place on a base Outlander with plastic wheel covers and no exterior trim. The Galant, Endeavor, and Eclipse soldier on - keeping at least some of the lights on at the plant in Normal, IL - but for how long?
Nissan decided at the last minute - a week before the show open - to attend here. Not much new of note, more just a token effort to let people know they are still alive it seems.
With a decent pop from their Super Bowl “Sock Monkey & Friends” commercial hyping the new Sorento, Kia’s sales have been on an uptick when others have been tanking. Part of that is because they are offering very good vehicles at a decent price - it’s like they zeroed in on what mainstream America is looking for and aimed for that with their latest designs and offerings. The Forte is taking more than a few Civic sales away from Honda, the Soul is snagging interest from the Scion/MINI crowd, and the Ray concept shows that Kia isn’t just about basic transportation anymore. Beware when you visit, there’s an open Karaoke setup here.
Chevy showed off the new 2011 Silverado HD pickup and a 75th Anniversary Diamond Edition Suburban. The new HD is bigger, stronger, sturdier and more powerful. The special edition Suburban is essentially an LTZ model with different wheels, different roof rack rails, triple-white paint, and special badging. The Camaro was shown in all trims, as was the major ‘star’ of the display - the Chevy Equinox. Volt was there, as was Cruze - both out of reach of showgoers hoping to try one on for size.
The XTS concept was on display. More than one person referred to it as a “Cadillac Malibu” - not for its size, but for its rather bland styling when compared to the CTS.
Buick showed off the new Regal and the Regal GS concept - but both are out of reach for checking out interior details. The LaCrosse and Enclave were available for showgoers, and both are very good examples of what Buick can offer - very well-appointed and well-executed. Rumor has it that Cadillac may move the Escalade to the same architecture as the Enclave (and Traverse, and Acadia) - to be honest, they could simple swap out the grille and badging and call it a day, the Enclave is THAT good.
The Granite concept doesn’t belong at GMC. Word is that it was supposed to be a Pontiac before the brand was killed - but it’s not a Pontiac either. It could be a Chevy, but Chevy already has the upcoming Orlando (on which the Granite is supposedly based). Leave it a concept and let’s move on. Acadia gets a Denali edition, which seems to exist only to practice for building an Escalade on this architecture. Otherwise, GMC continues to exist as, as my father would say, “Chevrolet’s with lock washers.”
People that buy Subarus seem to know what they want and need - it’s those that don’t consider a Subaru that are the tough nuts to crack. They say they responded to their customers and made the Outback wagon/SUV bigger - but now it seems to encroach on the space taken by the Tribeca. The Legacy is nice enough, but other than the standard AWD doesn’t seem to offer much more than others in its class. Same with Impreza and Forester. There wasn’t one time I walked past the display where someone there wasn’t trying to get me into one of the vehicles to check it out.
Suzuki has a problem - they exist and many people don’t know it. While they soldiered along with GM Daewoo vehicles for a long time, now they have newer offerings - just not the people to buy them. The SX4 is a pretty decent tall sedan/hatchback (developed alongside Fiat’s Sedici that’s not offered in the US) - and now they market the AWD-equipped hatchback as a crossover. The new Kizashi mid-size sedan is a very nice car - it’s on the small size of mid-size (much like the Dodge Avenger or Chrysler Sebring) but might be attractive to folks considering a compact car. The Equator pickup truck (a rebadged Nissan Frontier) is more pushed as a tow vehicle for Suzuki’s motorcycles, ATVs, and PWCs than as a vehicle of its own merit. Word has it the Swift compact car is on its way back to the US (last time here most folks knew it as the Geo Metro) and that might be the niche they need to get people in the door.
Shown here was the home-market (Korean) Eqqus sedan. Pushed as a competitor to cars like the BMW 7-Series, it’s certainly a premium looking and equipped vehicle. Last year, the question was “would people consider a $35-40K Hyundai in the Genesis?” With that question answered, the Eqqus will test that same question, pushed to the $45-50K range.
The Genesis continues to impress folks (but that grille needs to go), and the new Sonata can sit right in line with the VW CC and the Mercedes CLS as a very attractive “4-door coupe” design. The Elantra Touring wagon now offers a better-priced entry level model ($16K, down from $19K) which should attract more attention. The Accent Blue 3-door fights with the Nissan Versa for “cheapest car sold in America” - but I think folks would rather drop $10K on a used car rather than for a new one that comes sans radio, let alone sans A/C. The new Tuscon crossover/SUV is also featured, along with the Genesis Coupe (which, while probably not taking too many sales from Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger, is likely giving the Eclipse and Scion tC and other such coupes a few fits.)
Pushed as a family-friendly and affordable experience, the Chicago Auto Show runs from Friday, February 12th through Sunday, February 21st. The showfloor is open from 10am to 10pm each day except for the last day when the show is only open until 8pm. Adult admission is $11, seniors and kids 7-12 are $7, and kids under 7 are free. Tickets are available online at http://drivechicago.com/ and it’s highly recommended to buy tickets in advance, as lines at the show can be very long. Attendance is usually lighter on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Rest rooms can be found on the bottom levels of the two center ‘food courts’ and along the north wall in the South Hall, and along the outside walls in the smaller North Hall. There are food options in both halls, as well as a Connie’s Pizza and McDonald’s - but beware, as they are pricey options. Plan on eating before you get there or after you leave.
There is a Metra Electric Train stop right at McCormick Place, however it may require a bus transfer (or two) and some walking to utilize it from certain locations outside Chicago - you can try using sites like http://www.metrarail.com and Google’s “Transit” service to find the best way to the show via public transportation. For those driving to the show, be aware that parking at McCormick Place is $19 for 12 hours at either Lot A or Lot C. Free shuttles are offered on the WEEKENDS ONLY that run between the Millennium Park and East Monroe parking garages, where parking is only $14.
For those opting to park at McCormick Place, I suggest Lot A. It’s accessible from the Stevenson Expressway/I-55 via Martin Luther King Jr Drive, exit 293D. (Pay VERY close attention to the signs for Lot A access - it’s VERY easy to make a mistake and be where you don’t want to be!) On the exit ramp, keep LEFT, and once you turn left, keep RIGHT. You’ll wait at a light for a longer-than-you expect amount of time, and you’ll want to head STRAIGHT towards the parking garage access road that runs alongside the building. The access road turns right, and then right again where you’ll stop and pay. They do take plastic. I recommend you head for level 3, because there is direct access from the parking garage to the show via a covered walkway - this is great for leaving your coats (but not your valuables!) in the car while you attend the show. There are elevators between levels, so if you get on another floor, just use those and head for level 3. Alternatively, there is underground parking in Lot C, which is under the “old” McCormick Place (now called Lakeside Center.) Take the Stevenson Expressway/I-55 north and exit to Lake Shore Drive/US-41 SOUTH. Exit at 31st street and make a left, go across LSD and make another left onto the access road - follow the signs to Lot C. Once you are in Lot C, it’s a LONG walk through the garage, through the Lakeside Center, across the covered pedestrian bridge over LSD, and to the show. Lot B is outdoor parking. I used it once, and that’s why I recommend lots A or C.
Bring good shoes - the show covers 1.2 million square feet of space.
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