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2009 Chicago Auto Show Highlights

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By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

The big news at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show was the weather. We come here every year in February expecting bitterly cold temps with harsh wind chills. We were pleasantly surprised this year by mild - even warm by February standards – temps. But we found little to warm up to at the 101st Chicago Auto Show.

It would be interesting to know whether the show’s tone was as dismal during economic hard times of the past. This year in Chicago, we found some intermittent enthusiasm and optimism, but little to back it up. Not that there was a pall of doom and gloom, though there was some of that. It was more just a lack of depth and breadth of new products.

The keynote address to start the show was by Hyundai’s boss, John Krafcik. His message was clear. “The biggest competition we have now,” he insisted, “are the used cars in people’s driveways.” They may not really need to replace their slowly aging car. After all, cars are made infinitely better than they were 20 years ago. Car makers now have to produce vehicles that people lust after.

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At the Ford stand we were introduced to the new F150 Harley-Davidson Edition – no surprise – with spectacular interior and motorcycle-cool trim. Ford also revealed winners of a contest among small business owners to create uses for the upcoming Transit Connect, a small, front-drive commercial truck built on a dedicated platform, long a mainstay in Europe and now coming to this side of the Pond. A service dog trainer, a kayaker, a maid service company and a couple others submitted Transit Connect designs to meet their small company’s needs.

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Best news at the Ford stand was the promise of a new Taurus SHO, this time a twin-turbo, 365-hp, EcoBoost-powered performance sedan reminiscent of the SHOs from the 90s with Yamaha-built engines. They were fast, fun and reasonably frugal. This reporter flogged a ’97 SHO to 175,000 miles then passed in on to a niece who put another 50,000 on it. The new Taurus design will lend itself well to this performance version.

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The hit of the Chicago Auto show, I think most observers would agree, was Chevy’s wildly angular updated version of the Stingray race car of 1959. Much of that design was later reflected in the second generation (C2) Corvette beginning in1963. The split rear window, shark-nosed wild design we saw on the floor at McCormick Place was just a shell, but a beautiful and dramatic one, indeed. A running version of the concept is starring in the upcoming, second generation of the Transformer movie.

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Hyundai, still on a roll, presented the production version of the stylish, rear-drive Genesis Coupe we saw in New York last spring. We now have pricing and details – like the entry-level being a 210-hp, turbo I4 at just 22-grand and a 304-hp V6 with standard leather at 25-grand. They’ll also be offering an “R-Spec” version with Brembo brakes and other goodies for amateur racers. These Koreans are certainly making their mark.

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Over at Chrysler we didn’t find much new in the automotive arena. The redesigned heavy-duty truck line got all the attention. Both the pickups and the chassis-cab versions are thoroughly updated, including the addition of independent rear suspension with coil springs (like the regular duty pickups). Both sheet metal and interiors are significantly updated and upgraded.

The introduction at Kia was a bit less dramatic than at sister company Hyundai. Kia presented the new Forte small sedan, replacement for the bread-and-butter Spectra. It appears at first glance to be a good update with some attractive styling details, though it still looks pretty plain from some angles. More dramatic at Kia is the soon-to-be-released Soul, a boxy little competitor for Scion Xb and Honda Element.

Not much else of substance came out of Chicago this year. Mazda celebrated the 20th anniversary of the iconic MX5 Miata, Suzuki touted some magazine-massaged Equator pickups, Acura debuted a 280-hp, V6 TSX, and Subaru mostly bragged about being one of the only auto makers to show an increase in sales (however slight) in 2008.

Finally, John Davis, host of the longest running automotive TV program, presented their car of the year pick. At MotorWeek they call it the “Drivers Choice Awards” and they honor vehicles in more than a dozen categories. But the overall winner was the Volkswagon Jetta TDI (turbo-diesel), the first 50-state compliant clean diesel, using no urea injection. We previewed the Jetta TDI in California last year and agree that at about 45-mpg, with impeccable handling, great styling and design, it is a winner.

With well over a million square feet covered with cars, SUVs, trucks and other things vehicular, and drawing more attendees than any other show, the Chicago Auto Show is considered the biggest consumer show in the country. It was not nearly the media event we’ve seen there in the past but I’m guessing, with all the wonderful products on display, the public will barely notice.

Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell, Shunpiker Productions and Cannell & Associates, All Rights Reserved