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TACH's 2011 Chicago Auto Show Wrap-Up

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2011 Chicago Auto Show Wrap-Up
The Auto Channel Press Pass Coverage
By Steve Purdy, Thom Cannell and Larry Nutson

CHICAGO - February 13, 2011: Having just come off our high from the intense press days at the Detroit North American International Auto Show last month it’s a relaxing job to cover the February Chicago Auto Show. A leisurely day of only 10 press conferences, instead of the 17 in one day we had in Detroit, left us fresh and ready to enjoy the company of our colleagues at the evening events.

A Ford Transit Connect taxi, a courtesy from Ford and driven by off-duty Chicago Police officers, took us to the show from our downtown hotel. Easy in, easy out and economical, Ford expects to be selling taxi versions of the small utility truck soon. Actually, the taxi is a response to New York City’s “Taxi of the Future” proposal. The roomier and more economical Transit Connect would be a vast improvement over the dinosaurian Ford Crown Victoria’s that rule the taxi trade.

The Midwest Automotive Media Association started the day with a breakfast and keynote speech by Ford’s marketing boss Jim Farley who talked about all of the social media initiatives they are making, one of which was introduced in a Super Bowl ad. They’ll be doing a reality TV show called Focus Rally America based on a bunch of youngsters traveling the country in 2012 Focuses meeting a variety of challenges while interacting with social media fans and friends. Like infotainment systems, Ford appears to be ahead of the curve in terms of social media marketing.

As part of the kick-off breakfast MAMA presented their first-ever Family Vehicle of the Year award voted on by their members. Criteria centered around practicality for family use. Runners up among the nine finalists were the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Honda Odyssey. But, the winner turned out to be the pretty and practical Hyundai Sonata sedan.

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The first press conference of the day blared to life at over 150 decibels as Chevrolet revealed a new level of excitement for the hot Camaro. The glowing, red ZL1, slated for sale to customers early next year, is a mighty racecar ready for the track right out of the box. The supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 is only available mated to a six-speed manual transmission and promises 550 horsepower. With racing suspension, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels, massive 14” Brembo brakes it should handle as well around corners as in a straight line. Since most buyers will primarily use the car on the street its cosmetics make it special as well, particularly the functional carbon-fiber air extractor comprising much of the hood, not to mention suede bucket seats, custom stitching, and every electronic appliance Chevrolet offers. We did have thoughts of Chevy possibly joining Ford and Dodge with a purpose-built drag race package.

Also on the Chevy stand in honor of the marque’s 100th anniversary and this year’s running of the 100th Indy 500 race, we find the first of 500 limited edition Indy 500 Pace Cars, a dramatic white SS with orange racing stripes down the middle. By the way, that’s a 425-horsepower car in standard livery. I think it will be a good couple of years for Camaro. ( See Complete Chevrolet Press Conference)

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One of the things we love about the Chicago show is the 1.2 million square feet of floor space available for manufacturers to present their products and an amazingly efficient ventilation system so running vehicles indoors is not a problem. In fact, this year there are at least four indoor driving tracks including one for electric cars. Chevy will take folks for a ride on a twisty little low-speed, flower-adorned track in the electric Volt while a product specialist describes the car. Ford has what they call a teeter-totter and sand box sized sand pit to show off Explorer’s electronically controlled chassis dynamics, or as they call it, the Terrain Management System. Toyota built a sand and dirt course to show off trucks and SUVs that looks like a SCORE stadium race event.

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But the best indoor test track, and the one that has been around for quite a few years, is the Jeep display at the far end of the largest hall. Within an 18,000-square-foot area they again constructed what amounts to a thrill ride for folks who’ve not experienced the capabilities of true off-roaders. A series of frame-twisting, tipping and corner-jacking features culminate in a hill that looms 40 feet high and ramps up swiftly at about 30-degrees. From a driver’s perspective that’s straight up! From the top you can see the entire show floor, like being at the top of a Ferris wheel. Don’t miss this one.

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At Hyundai, the auto company with the most momentum, a 429 horsepower R-Spec version of the full-size Genesis sedan features Hyundai’s first 5-liter, direct-injected V8 and an 8-speed automatic transmission. Since the bigger brakes, revised springs and dampers are invisible, you’ll recognize an R-Spec by its subtle cosmetic upgrades like a unique grille and headlamps with internal LED markers. ( See Complete Hyundai Genesis Press Conference). The Hyundai Veloster Rallye car also made its debut with Rhys Millen himself to talk-tech about this racecar. Rhys will again this year tackle Pikes Peak and perhaps a new sub-10 minute record will be set. ( See Complete Hyundai Veloster Press Conference).

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Toyota used their press conference to reveal an all new Matrix and to offer a little bit of feel-good. In honor of the 3-millionth certified used vehicle sold they presented a check to the buyer, a young mother and nurse from suburban Chicago there with her husband and two little kids, to reimburse her for what she spent on her used minivan (about 24 grand) and an identical check to her charity of choice, a nursing scholarship program. She talked passionately about her profession and what it means to be a nurse. ( See Complete Toyota Press Conference)

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Ram Trucks (do we really need a new brand, won’t most owners say and think “Dodge Ram”?) showed off a new work truck as its first and most significant product. The Ram folks think the improving economy means more, and better work trucks will be needed. So they’ve redone one of the 1500 series trucks, calling it Tradesman and improving towing capacity, payload, adding a 390-horse Hemi that achieves better fuel economy, all at a very reasonable price. You can have one in your choice of 5’ or 8’ bed complete with a trailing lip spoiler for less than $23,000 including destination charge. ( See Complete Dodge Ram Truck Press Conference)

Volkswagen, who considers the Jetta GLI as a sub-marque separate from the Jetta, revealed the new golden child. There are three GLI’s and starting price is $23,495 all are replete with turbocharged 200 hp 2.0-liter engine which eeks out 31 miles per gallon on the highway and arrives with a three year no-charge maintenance plan. It also features VW’s Intelligent Crash System to shut off fuel the engine, unlock doors and switch on hazard lights. ( See Complete VW GLI Story)

Acura, who reminded journalists it was the first entry level luxury brand 25 years ago, showed off the new TL with better fuel economy while increasing power and retaining the Super Handling all wheel drive feature, as well as models with front wheel drive. Also on display was Acura’s new TSX station wagon. Are station wagons making a comeback? ( See Complete Acura Press Conference)

Dodge only hinted at its new Viper, but slam-dunked a new and more powerful SRT8 Charger after confiding that its R/T designation would henceforth actually mean something. New R/T minivans for the men who have to have a minivan but want to drive with a bit of spirit, a new Durango R/T that is lowered and de-chromed and Durango Heat with V-6 and similar suspension, all those fell before the SRT8 which designer / head honcho Ralph Gilles described as “so aggressive… never hugged as a child.” Everything is functional from the raised air-extracting hood to blacked-out headlight buckets. ( See Complete Dodge Press Conference)

Appropriate to the Windy City’s urban environs, the show is chock full of electric cars. From the Chevrolet Volt to the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi I-MiEV, smart, Volvo electric C30, Ford Focus EV and Toyota RAV4 EV the air was electric with battery-powered cars.

Also very urban is the new 2012 Fiat 500. A complete Fiat display with an original bright yellow 1970 Fiat 500 shows off this new entry in Fiat’s first appearance at the Chicago show this century.

The media preview wrapped up on day-two with various social media presentations from Audi, Mazda( Intros MX-5 Miata Special Edition) , Ford and others. Appropriately so with the auto being perhaps the ultimate mobile device.

Shunpiker Productions, Thom Cannell and Larry Nutson