Chrysler at the Chicago Auto Show in 2012

First staged in 1901, the Chicago Auto Show is the largest auto show in North America and has been held more times than any other auto exposition on the continent. This year marks the 104th edition of the Chicago Auto Show. The largest auto show in the country uses 1.2 million out of the 2.7 million square feet of the McCormick Place complex, and is split into the McCormick North Hall and McCormick South Hall locations. We’ll start the show in the South Hall.

Lexus

There weren’t all that many new debuts or concepts at this year’s show, which freed me up to go and actually get in and out of vehicles to try them on for size. I need to pay attention to such things more today because my kids won’t stop growing and I’ll need to replace a car soon. My longtime auto show coverage companion Jim Hrody (6’7”) made a suitable stand-in for my kids.

I tend to be a bit realistic. You won’t find me gawking about too much at the upper end and luxury/sport brands that I cannot afford, so if you are looking for high-end auto coverage, you might not be satisfied with my coverage. Also note that during media days there may be some vehicles not on display that may be rolled out for the public show. With that, here we go…

Chrysler

Chrysler Group’s showfloor area was large this year, covering about as much space as Ford and Toyota’s areas combined. The area was split into space for each of the five brands (Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, SRT, and Fiat) and featured three separate test track areas where show-goers can ride along to get a feel for the vehicles in different situations.

Challenger on course

Jeep

The Jeep test track – arguably the biggest attraction at the Chicago Auto Show for the past few years – featured the Grand Cherokee and Wrangler Unlimited.

Rubicon on track

During media preview days this year, we caught a trail-rated Jeep Patriot out on the test track for the first time – and apparently the last, as once it finished its round trip it was parked. It didn’t do badly around the track, but a spotter was required on the “rocky” area of the track and that is likely what keeps the Patriot off. That’s not to say the trail-rated Patriot and now Compass aren’t capable; rather it’s that they aren’t as capable as a Grand Cherokee or Wrangler.

The Grand Cherokee lifted a wheel on a couple of sections of the track as well. Only the Wrangler was able to go around the full track with no wheel lift at any stage. This year, cameras are mounted on-board the track vehicles, and the video from those cameras are displayed on various screens outside the test track.

Jeep course

The Mopar Compass True North model, previously revealed last week, was on display to show off a number of Mopar accessory options now available for the Compass. All other Jeep models were also on display, along with a demo station showing Mopar accessories being installed onto a Wrangler.

Dodge

Challenger acceleration track

The full Dodge line was represented, excluding the recently discontinued Caliber and Nitro. Charger was shown touting the 31MPG rating with the Pentastar V6/8-speed combo along with the Mopar Charger Redline – complete with lift-off hood and non-street-legal 426 engine. Challenger was shown in a very bright orange that I didn’t recall seeing before, Avenger was represented by a red R/T model and Durango showed off with an R/T and a Citadel model (but no Black and Tan interior). The Journey was there in both SXT and R/T trims, as was the Grand Caravan. The main focus this year, however, was the Chicago debut of the new 2013 Dodge Dart.

Dart GTS concept

While it made a big splash last month in Detroit, I think it made just as big of a splash here in Chicago, with no less than 6 Darts on the show floor in varying trims, a cut-away Limited highlighting interior and safety features, and a dash/IP display to show off the configurable dash display.

Dart dashboard

Because they are pre-production models – three of the Darts didn’t even have a VIN number attached – they will likely remain locked (as was the 2013 Ford Fusion, which bore a sticker, “Locked for your safety”). However, we were able to take advantage of an unlocked R/T model to try it on for size. Watch your head. If you are familiar with raked A-pillars and cab forward design, you'll be instantly familiar. Not saying that's bad, but it's very similar to my 1998 Stratus, which my wife hates because she always hits her head on the A-pillar getting in.

Dodge Dart with six foot seven Jim Hordy

The steering wheel adjusted for tilt and telescope - but it didn't tilt down enough for my own personal taste. I like to sit just a bit higher, so this struck me as odd - if I didn't raise the seat the steering wheel would be even higher. The seat adjustments are also odd to me - I'm coming from a Stratus with manual seats - when raising the seat it also moved a bit forward, like in an arc, requiring adjustment of the seat back as well. At one point, moving the seat up only moved the rear of the cushion up, thus leaning me forward. Had to futz about a bit to get the “just right” setting. (Later, I would find that this happens on quite a few other power seats in other cars as well.)

Dodge Dart GTS tribute

The 7" dash screen setup is very customizable, so the tech geek in me was happy. Controls were all easy to reach. No complaints once the seat was dialed in.

The back seat is a bit tight. Hrody deemed the back seat not suitable for him, but for me it was fine. Not "6 hour road trip" fine, but fine.

car road course

The detail inside the car and the materials are amazing. I was hard pressed to find flaws. Opened the console lid, the buttons and ports inside are backlit. Fuel filler release button is in the driver door, also backlit. The rear seat center armrest has its own closeable storage tray.

The materials are far better than in the Caliber. Granted, this was the R/T, so you have the leather seating and stitching and all that. But the contact points that you touch frequently - door window sill, door armrest, center console armrest - were very good. Knowing these were pre-production I had expected some issues, but I don't think I'd complain if these were full-on production models; the fit and finish was that good. It certainly does not look cheap, regardless of Edmund’s comments.

On the second day of the media preview, we parked across the way from an unbadged Dodge Dart in the parking garage, replete with manufacturer plates.

Dart in garage

Ram

The Ram test track featured various Ram four-door pickup truck models, most with loads in the beds. The Ram C/V Cargo Van was in a featured spot; not just a stripped Grand Caravan, the Cargo Van has a number of enhancements and changes to make it truly “cargo van” worthy. Where they didn’t mess about too much was in the front seating and dash/IP area – the seats in the C/V are just as comfortable as those in the standard Grand Caravan and controls are within easy reach.

Ram course

A few larger 2500 and 3500 class trucks are also on display, as well as the many variations on the Ram 1500 that are offered, including the recently announced Ram Laramie Limited (essentially a Ram Laramie Longhorn without the large “belt-buckle” styling cues).

Ram course

Chrysler

With only four models to its lineup, Chrysler put its best foot forward by featuring the newly-redone 300 in various trims, including the Luxury Edition, the 300S, and the recently debuted Mopar ’12 300. The 200 and 200 Convertible were also on display, as was the Mopar 200 Super S. Town & Country is also represented with a standard model as well as a Braun-modified model for folks with wheelchairs.

200S

Fiat

Fiat 500 Abarth

For the first time since its return to the Chicago Auto Show, Fiat did not show an older original Fiat 500 model. This time, the space was filled with new 500s, from the standard Pop, Lounge, and Cabrio models, to the Gucci special edition, to the newly announced Abarth editions. Allpar found the Fiat 500 fun to drive; the Abarth edition looks to be “stupid-fun” with the additional power. Pricing starts around $22500 – for some it may just be the ideal pocket-rocket or weekend track car.

The car test track featured cars from Chrysler, Dodge, and Fiat (what? No Journey?) and ends with a short acceleration/deceleration run. Hrody and I felt that the vehicle with the best “seat of the pants” acceleration was not the 300 or the Challenger (or the 500), but the Chrysler 200.

Fiat fit for adult?

SRT

The SRT brand featured the current offerings, including the Grand Cherokee SRT-8, the Chrysler 300 SRT-8, and the Challenger 392 SRT-8, along with the Charger SRT-8 Super Bee and the new Challenger SRT-8 Yellow Jacket. All are desirable, exciting, and more money than I can afford, but all very cool just the same.

mopar 300

Three Mopar test tracks this year - Jeep, Ram, and cars (Chrysler, Dodge, and Fiat.) And for the first time, they had a Trail-Rated Patriot on the Jeep track! I have photo proof! (Above, with one wheel in the air). The Ram track has a small hill, the suspension test section, and is pretty much like it has been for years. It's right behind the Ford truck display area, where they just kind of sit there.

Other brands

Details on the other brands are available at acarplace.com (around half the show is there now).

Getting to the show

DATES: Friday 2/10 through Sunday 2/19; 10am-10pm (Sunday 2/19 10am-8pm)

TICKETS: $11 adults, $7 seniors over 62 & children 7-12, children under 6 free with paid adult (discount coupons available at various new-car dealers, BP gas stations, and local participating banks)

PARKING: While there are shuttle buses and public transporation, McCormick Place offers three lots: A ($19), B ($14), and C ($19). Lot B is outside, south of the show building, and while it’s cheaper I don’t recommend it unless you are driving a tall vehicle and have no other choice. Lot C is underground, next to Lakeside Center. Walking to the show from Lot C is a bit of a hike, but is all indoors – walk from the garage to the main building, then over to the Grand Concourse over Lake Shore Drive to the show.

My choice is Lot A, which is a multilevel parking garage next to McCormick Place West. Park on Level 4 and you are on the same level as the enclosed bridge over Martin Luther King Jr Drive that connects the West building with the North and South buildings. If you cannot park on Level 4, get as close to the elevators as you can to make getting to the bridge easier. Using Lot A or C and the covered walkways makes it easier to leave your bulky coats and such locked in your car.

Lot A is best reached by taking Cermak Rd east, following it as it becomes MLKJr Drive south, then follow the signs to Lot A. Lots B and C are reached by taking the 31st Street exit off Lake Shore Drive and following the signs.

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