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Chrysler at the Chicago Auto Show in 2015

by Jim Choate and David Zatz

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As usual, the media attending the Chicago Auto Show, despite being numerous, were, between presentations, lost in the huge spaces of the immense indoor car show. During public days, when the show is the best-attended in America, there are even more cars - and more crowds.

The Chicago Auto Show is absolutely massive, thanks to the huge McCormick Place, which can hold six conventions at once, and has on-site parking, an on-site train station, and an on-site hotel.

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There were a surprising number of new launches, as the Chicago Auto Show - with help from Nissan, which did a great deal to attract journalists to the event - re-invigorated itself. Perhaps the next step would be moving the show to spring or summer, given that the weather is often well below freezing and windy.

Overview and "Concepts and Technology Cars" Preview

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On the day before the media days began, there was a three hour demonstration of concept cars and high-tech vehicles (which FCA took to include ProMaster City and Ford assumed meant their Explorer police cars) in a separate garage, quite a walk from the main halls and the attached hotel.

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The garage had room for test drives, and the Charger Hellcat went out repeatedly, roaring and squealing its tires despite warnings to drivers to take it easy. The Ford Explorer police car was taken out for many much slower spins, its siren periodically echoing off the walls.

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The Nissan Leaf electric car was present along with the redesigned Chevy Volt, which now hits over 400 miles. FCA had the largest group of cars, with Renegade, ProMaster City, two Hellcats, Ram 1500 Rebel, and a matte Fiat 500X.

The big show

When one walked into the show, it was hard to find Chrysler, or for that matter any FCA brands at all. This is the view from the entrance to the North Hall, where Maserati and Alfa Romeo were... you can see Volvo in the distance; the luxury FCA brands are on the other side. Ferrari was off on its own somewhere.

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On the other side was another huge hall, this one dominated by Ford and Toyota. Ford does not use their signature blue lighting in Chicago. They started with their guppy grille cars, with a Mustang GT350 out front on a dyno (because, you know, manufacturer tuned dynos are so meaningful) which periodically roared out its power, echoing off the walls and competing with the tire squeals of a 392 Charger being launched down a mini drag strip.

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By the way, if you ever wondered how they moved Ford dealership signs around, it's in these boxes.

Box Packaging and labeling

The refreshed Chrysler 300 is shown in its four levels of trim - Limited, S, C, and Platinum. Those who automatically think "Hemi" with the 300C may be shocked to learn that it has not been the case since 2013, as the Pentastar V6 is now the standard engine across the line, with the 5.7L Hemi V8 optional; the eight-speed brought acceleration up to first-generation V8 standards. All wheel drive is now exclusive to V6 models, and all engines now use the 8-speed automatic with the rotary shifter (lovingly referred to here at Allpar as "The Knob.") LED taillights get a nice halo ring and upfront the wing badge floats near the top of the grille.

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The Chrysler 200 is the brand's top selling car, and was #8 in mid-size cars in 2014. It's on the smaller end of mid-size cars but is well-equipped in comparison to others in the segment. Among the models on display is a 200S model outfitted with Mopar accessories.

The Chrysler Town & Country was Chrysler's #1 seller in 2014 (out of three vehicles). It's been said that minivan buyers are going upscale with their purchases, and the T&C is loaded with amenities that address that trend. For 2015, the T&C gets navigation and the power third-row seat as standard. The optional DVD system now supports Blu-ray discs and offers an HDMI input. Also new for 2015 are two new levels of trim - the entry-level LX and the range-topping Limited Platinum.

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The Mopar Garage was against the back wall, but Mopar had various accessory and parts displays throughout, and Jeep Performance Parts had a setup in their area near the back wall and Mopar Garage (which showed a Mopar Charger and the Challenger T/A concept).

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The Jeep test drive included a Wrangler, Cherokee, Renegade, and Grand Cherokee this year - no Compass or Patriot. You can read about (and see a video of) our whirl in the Renegade.

The FCA display started with Chrysler, then went to ProMaster, Fiat, Ram, and Dodge, keeping the desirable Hellcat and Viper in back, near the test tracks - the old "milk in the back of the store" ploy. Six-foot-seven Jim Hrody continued his tradition of testing various cars, with the 200 and the Viper. The 200 easily passed in front, failing in back. Viper was tight but possible.

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The Viper was, like Corvette and SLS, difficult to get into - though not as difficult as the Mercedes, by far. The wide sill was an issue for some. Getting in and out gracefully requires some practice.

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In addition to the Jeep test drive, there was a track which, when we were there, included a 392 Charger SRT, Fiat 500, and a new Chrysler 300. The little drive started with an acceleration strip.

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The new Cherokee might look a little odd, but over 180,000 people bought one last year. There are a myriad of models and trims - even those with 2WD only. If you were looking at a Chrysler 200 but wanted more room and utility, go look at a Cherokee.

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The venerable Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are what most folks think of when they think "Jeep" - it's fun, it's a convertible, the ergonomics and ride have been vastly improved over the years. Plenty of folks buy them for the looks alone, but you can still take these out where the roads don't run - make it back, too.

The Grand Cherokee remains in Jeep's top 3 of sales and continues to impress. It may not be able to be lifted and have big tires like the ZJ Grand Cherokees of the past, but it's still got fans that appreciate it for what it is. The Grand Cherokee SRT is the best selling SRT model of all time, and there's a diesel as well.

Ram Rebel was shown off in the Ram section, and we actually conducted two interviews within its comfortable confines. Some reporters had apparently not encountered the RamBox storage system before.

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There were two Vipers, one red one, and one with a special paint scheme to show off the new "concierge" system where you can pay to get your choice of color, a plant visit, and other benefits, with each car guaranteed to be "one of one."

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Still, the word of the day at Dodge is "Hellcat." Both the Charger and Challenger Hellcat models were on display, along with the rest of the current Dodge lineup. Dodge has been deemed the performance brand of FCA US, and in the coming years we'll see some of the older models refreshed or replaced to reinforce that brand.

Fans of the Dodge Grand Caravan that don't like the standard light/dark interior colors can add the "Blacktop" package with an all-black interior. The Journey crossover and the Dart "large compact/small mid-size" are finding new fans, and the Dodge Durango provides 3-row seating and the higher towing capacities that come with a RWD-based design.

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Check out the Dodge Charger racing video game that uses an actual Charger as the controls (but ignore the 14-year-old "Grab Life By The Horns" marketing billboards that appear in the game - note to Marketing, if you want to make that break between the Dodge and Ram brands, don't let things like this happen.)

No car show would be complete without engine displays. Chrysler had a few on tap, but the lighting for the VM diesel was unusually good, hiding the plexiglass box. Mazda's engines, incidentally, were not even kept behind plexiglass - at least not for media days.

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Dominating the Fiat section of the display were several 500L models. The 500L's styling isn't for everyone - some will call it quirky, others ugly - but there is no denying the feeling of open space when inside. New for 2015 is a "regular" 6-speed automatic transmission, in addition to the existing manual and DDCT. For those that can't/won't drive stick and don't care for the operation of the DDCT, the traditional automatic may be just the thing to get folks to take a look at the 500L.

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The Fiat 500X (above) is new and may become the most popular model in the line-up. Not as tiny as the 500 and not as quirky as the 500L, the 500X takes aim at the fast-growing small crossover/SUV segment (think Nissan Juke), as well as some of the small wagons (think Kia Soul.) Don't think of the 500X as being the same as the Jeep Renegade - despite being built in the same plant in Italy, the two cars are very different. The 500X will be the first Fiat car to offer the Chrysler 2.4L Tigershark engine with the 9-speed automatic.

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The 500 continues for those looking for something small but fun, even more so in Abarth trim. The 500 soldiers along as the brand's top seller, but that spot may be in jeopardy as Fiat launches the next entry in the 500 family.

Ram Laramie Limited Launch

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The big news at the show was the reveal of the new Ram Laramie Limited model. This new model replaces the current Laramie Limited with new interior trim and features, new (and controversial) grille design and new (and also controversial) tailgate design - not unlike the Ram Rebel.)

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The 2015 and 2016 Laramie Limited, a visual update to the existing trim package (and extension to more trucks), would probably have been ignored if not for the radical grille redesign. This, and the use of more chrome from bumper to bumper (literally), brought a lot of attention to the Laramie Limited.

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Most comments on-line were disparaging, but the most accurate was likely posted in Automotive News by a reader, calling it nearly as gaudy as a Ford. Indeed, the Ram was downright restrained compared with the Fords that were right across the walkway from it. In person, the Rams are not nearly as gaudy as they may look in photos, and according to the lead designer, they look best in their natural habitat. Either way, it seems unlikely that this grille design (or that of the Rebel) will be used on all the 2016s.

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The huge RAM lettering on the tailgate and the RAM letters in the grille may well be due to the brand's higher market share and the company's desire to make it clear. Ford has had huge logos on their grilles and tailgates, and the ram-head is likely less well known than the blue oval or bowtie; in any case, from the rear, one had to almost be right behind the pickup to see that it was a Ram, and now one can tell from space.

Again, whether the word RAM replaces the ram's-head icon across the board is yet to be seen; Ford uses huge letters on the grille of the Raptor but it's not on the other trucks. What is likely is a fairly large RAM stamped into the tailgate, as DODGE was back in the 1970s.

The black wood with silver accents is best shown through photography rather than described with words. The phone/small tablet holder works fine while standing; we didn't test it while moving.

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Luxury trucks are a big deal for truck makers today and highly profitable as well. Ram continues to tout the EcoDiesel 1500 with a new HFE model that reaches a class-leading 29 mpg highway. The new Promaster and Promaster City vans are finding their niches, but I was a bit disappointed that there was not a Promaster City Wagon on display to show off against Ford's Transit Connect Wagon.

There was both a ProMaster City and a Transit Connect. They both had joyfully smooth sliding doors, and nicely implemented rear doors, though the edge goes to the ProMaster City's huge handle which, again, was very smooth in operation. The ProMaster City has a more pragmatic and useful interior, the Transit Connect a more car-like one. If looks are more important, the Ford has the edge; but the Fiat Doblo-based ProMaster City seems more functional.

Alfa Romeo and Maserati

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When we visited the Maserati and Alfa Romeo areas, they were still getting ready (it was the day before the media days were officially to open). There were already six Maseratis on display - all Ghiblis and Quattroportes, no GranTurismos.

The Maserati and Alfa Romeo areas were equal in size to, and in back of, the Volvo setup.

Volvo, now owned by Geely, debuted a refreshed XC90, with new styling that is a large departure from Volvo-under-Ford which was already a huge departure from Volvo-under-Pehr-Gyllenhammar.

In any case, the Maserati and Alfa Romeo displays were essentially carryovers from Detroit, with vintage Alfa Romeos to replace Americans' images of the crooked-nameplate-bearing Milano. The 4C coupe and convertible are fine advance scouts for the brand, with impressive performance for cars powered by 1.8 liter four-cylinder engines.

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About the Chicago Auto Show

The Chicago Auto Show is held each February, with hundreds of vehicles on display, more than 1 million square feet of show floor space, and, this year, three indoor test tracks - one for Jeep, one for various other FCA cars, and one for Toyota. The show runs until February 17, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day (except on February 17, when it closes at 8 pm).

First staged in 1901, the Chicago Auto Show is the largest (in area) auto show in North America, and has been held more times than any other auto exposition on the continent. This year, there are a constant stream of events, practically every hour. Getting to the show is easy via rail.

General admission is $12 for adults (ages 13-61), $6 for children (ages 7-12) and $6 for senior citizens (ages 62 and up). Any child 6 years or younger may enter the show free of charge when accompanied by a paying adult. Weekday discount tickets are available at area new-car dealers, participating Fifth Third bank locations, and Shell gas stations.

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