Chicago now is the first major auto show of the calendar year, unless you count CES (and we don’t), and so with the Detroit show moved to June this year, there seemed to be some hope the Windy City would take its place with several important new car introductions and maybe a concept or two. Our colleagues at Motor Trend for example, brought in a team big enough to cover, say, the recently deceased IAA in Frankfurt.
The Chicago Auto Show is a big consumer event, with large numbers of the public showing up after the press days. As in previous years, the new stuff consisted mostly of mid-cycle facelifts and special edition trims, but at least Chicago isn’t in decline the way the bigger, more important shows are.
Appropriately, two of us attended Chicago for Automobile magazine, and while that means you’ll only see two bylines in the comments and criticisms below, it should be obvious that we’re not short on such comments and criticisms.
HIT: Ford GT Liquid Carbon Edition
We’ve seen the whole-car-in-carbon-fiber thing before, but… ooh, does it work for the Ford GT. Ford is building each one from a single batch of carbon fiber, to help ensure the weave is perfect and can be properly integrated into the car’s design. In person, the effect is breathtaking. Hopefully Ford has built a drainage system around the display to handle all the drool this thing is bound to generate. And $750,000? I’ll take two, please. Put them on my corporate card.
REVELATION: Ford GT is the new Bugatti
More horsepower in a car like this is always welcome, but a 50-percent premium for perfectly matched carbon fiber? Ford says it will limit this car’s production to 12 per year, all made available to customers on the sold-out list, so as not to flood the market with these cars and diminish their value. That’s a total of 36 of these through the production run ending in 2022, or $9 million more than the customers on the allocation list had expected to pay. I predict we’ll see Ford rolling out variants of the GT for years after they’ve finished building them, milking it the same way Volkswagen Group milks Bugatti’s hypercars.
HIT: GMC Yukon
Finally, only 23 years after Ford started installing an independent rear suspension in its Expedition, General Motors is following suit. Both Chevrolet (Tahoe, Suburban) and GMC (Yukon, XL) benefit from the upgrade, along with a much-improved third-row seat, but of the two GM trucks, the Yukon is the big winner—it’s definitely better looking than the Chevys. Also notable is that the Denali gets a unique dashboard, while the lower-line Yukons share their dash with the Tahoe and Suburban—an acknowledgement that they didn’t do enough to differentiate the Sierra Denali from lesser pickups. The new dash may not be any better, but at least it’s different. Bottom line is that GM’s new royalty-size SUVs are impressive, and for the first time in years, Ford has something to worry about besides GM buyer loyalty.
MISS: GMC Yukon
I didn’t realize how big the new SUV’s snout is until I walked past a couple of them on the stand, including one with the Denali grille and another with the XT4 grille. Who’d have thought the Cadillac Escalade (not present at this show) would have the understated design?
HIT: Mercedes-Benz Metris Weekender
We’ve heard lots of vans pitched as potential replacements for the Volkswagen campers, but this is as close as I’ve ever seen, and it’s going into production. Super-cool, super-social, and it pops its top. Still needs a sink and a stove, though. After all, we are not barbarians.
MISS: Genesis GV80
I like the look of Genesis’ first SUV from the outside; there are a lot of genuine concept-car cues, like the LED light pipes around the headlights and taillights, that look great in person. But the miles-off-the-ground stance is a bit awkward, and the interior strikes me as a little… well… clumsy. The basic layout is nice enough, and I like the quilted leather used throughout, but some of the controls, particularly the dials for the shifter and climate control, feel too plasticky. This is the age of genuine materials, and bits that look like metal should be made of metal. It’s rare to see the South Koreans put a foot wrong, but this feels to me like the bean counters saw the bill for what the designers really wanted and had a panic attack.
HIT: Jeep Gladiator Mojave
The black and orange Mojave lettering looks right on the show model’s Granite Crystal paint (other colors are available), and the optional Steel Gray leather interior is designed to resist scorching from the sun’s rays. It doesn’t have the hotrod engine or (fortunately) the widened body of the Ford F-150 Raptor, but it does come with a slick suspension featuring Fox shocks. For those who like total control, it’s available with a six-speed manual gearbox as well as the eight-speed automatic.
MISS: Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator High Altitude
The black 20-inch wheels look like they come from a local aftermarket shop. As authentic as the Gladiator Mojave looks, the High Altitudes scream “poseur.”
MISS: Million-mile Nissan Frontier
A million miles is worthy of recognition (Lexus missed an opportunity with Matt Farah’s million-mile LS430), but when a thirteen-year-old, million-mile Frontier looks almost exactly like the brand-new re-engined Frontier you’re introducing at the show… well, that’s really not a good look.
MISS: 2020 Nissan Frontier
If Brian Murphy had managed to hold off on flipping the odometer on his 2007 Frontier until next year’s Chicago Auto Show, maybe he’d have scored the all-new next-generation midsize truck from Nissan instead.
HIT: The Ford Stand
Ford’s stand is arguably the best of the show. With the Liquid Carbon GT out front, Mustangs galore, the new Mach-E, a full-motion driving simulator and the whimsical STEAM Machine (a Transit XL decked out with kid-friendly science exhibits), it’s bound to be mobbed. The CAS crew was right to give it pride of place at the front of the South Hall.
MISS: The Audi Stand
Audi usually brings a beautifully designed display stand wherever it goes, but at Chicago its display is buried at the back of the South Hall, seemingly little more than a bunch of cars on carpet. It looks like one of those low-budget off-limits “Exotic Car Gallery” displays typically found in an auto show basement. Audi’s almost-all-AWD lineup makes it perfect for Chicagoans, so why is Audi giving show-goers the second-city treatment? Car shows are about attracting buyers, Audi. You can and should do better.
HIT: 2021 Jaguar F-Type
Facelifts often turn out to have ill-conceived blemishes on the original model designer’s vision. Think Series III Jaguar E-Type of the early ‘70s. These days, the facelifts are limited to front and rear styling, the grille, maybe the hood, and the front fenders. But the redesigned grille, the new side vents, and the Leaper badge applied to the sides (for the first time ever on a Jaguar) works pretty well. This mid-cycle update ought to extend the life of Jaguar’s sports car for several years.
HIT: Chevrolet TrailBlazer
I somehow managed to miss (heh) this at the Los Angeles Auto Show, but what a stunner the little TrailBlazer is—an obvious rip-off of the Nissan Kicks and Hyundai’s little Venue, I suppose, but I prefer to think of it as an accurate homage (and with a much better name—“Nissan Kicks” still makes me cringe). Chevrolet has become a bit staid in its styling and this shows a real effort to do things differently and (cue gravelly cigar-chomping New Yorker voice) give the kids what they want. Viewed in the context of the broader spectrum of General Motors—Suburbans with independent rear ends, a commitment to skip hybrids and go straight to EVs, and a mid-mounted engine for the 2020 Corvette?—it shows a willingness to march boldly into the future.
HIT: Ultimate Track Contest
Jaguar and Hot Wheels brand ambassador Mike Zarnock scored a Guinness World Record for Most Loop-the-Loops by running a Hot Wheels car, sans power booster, through seven loops, two more than the previous record. Then Jaguar announced the Ultimate Track Contest, challenging college engineering teams to beat this record. They’ll get more than 100 feet of Hot Wheels track, and must setup their track designs and run them through a local Jaguar Land Rover dealership’s showroom, offices, or service garage, by April 30. They’ll be timed for running a Jaguar Hot Wheels car through the eight loops in the shortest possible time, without the car falling off the track, and they’ll also be judged for the track’s complexity. The winning engineering team’s school gets a $50,000 scholarship.
HIT, MISS, AND REVELATION: Chrysler Pacifica AWD press conference
It had been a while since I’d seen a truly bizarre press conference, but Chrysler just reset my counter. After announcing the new all-wheel-drive Pacifica, what looked like a giant condom descended from the ceiling. We then stood and watched for a couple of long minutes while this thing inflated into what I believe was supposed to be a giant snow globe. I kept waiting for snow to start blowing inside, but that didn’t happen—instead, they projected pictures of snowflakes on the outside. A bunch of children ran onto the stage, the projected snowflakes began to spin, and the children began to wave their arms as if they were worshiping the giant-condom-slash-snowless-snow-globe. A Pacifica drove up, the children were shooed back off the stage, the van spun around a bit, then the condom deflated and was hoisted into the ceiling and that was that. You can see the whole strange spectacle here—skip to 6:00. Was this a hit, a miss or a revelation? Hell, it was all three.
HIT: Dogs for adoption at the Subaru stand
Subaru has long used the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles shows to set up a pen and let local pet adoption organizations bring in puppies for showgoers to take home. I usually miss the dogs, because they’re often saved for the public show days, but Subaru did not have a press conference or anything new to unveil here, so it had a puppy festival going on during both media days. Thanks to the comfortable time cushions between the press conferences, I hightailed from the Chrysler Pacifica presser in the South Hall of McCormick Place to the North Hall to spend some attitude adjustment time with the adoption puppies. On Thursday, they were cute little Catahoula leopard dogs, all from the same litter, a few dozen feet from the next presser at Hyundai. I took the time to watch them play and put out of my mind how these auto shows, relics of the 20th Century, have been devolving toward irrelevance the last few years.
MISS: The entire automotive history (or show management?)
Detroit has moved its auto show from January (perfect time to launch the following year’s models) to June (zzzzz…), and that leaves Chicago as the perfect heir apparent. Chicago is well timed, centrally located, and well-attended, and media folks like me love it. So where are the massively big debuts? Ford’s Liquid Carbon GT seems like it would definitely be a Detroit reveal, and the GV80 is arguably the most important Genesis product to date, but it’s clear the automakers still see Chicago as an also-ran truck show. Either the manufacturers need to take a second look at the Second City, or the Chicago Auto Show staffers need to sell harder.
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