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2015 Chicago Auto Show Highlights By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell


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By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell
The Auto Channel
Michigan Bureau


Steve: The Chicago Auto Show bills itself as the biggest in the country and based on two criteria they’re right. The show covers more square footage than any other show with well over a million square feet, and it draws more visitors than any other show at well at over a million souls.


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The Midwest Auto Media Association (MAMA) kicked off the two days of press events with a hearty breakfast, a keynote speaker (GM VP Alan Batey predicting a big year for the auto business and touting his company’s achievements) and the naming of MAMA’s Family Car of the Year Award. After mant test drives and evaluations MAMA members get to vote for their favorite family vehicles, then whittle them down to a few finalists with a final vote a few months before the show. The winner for 2015 is the Chrysler 200. The 200 Convertible was just dumped but the new 2015 200 sedan remains respected.

Mr. Batey, by the way, revealed that we’ll finally see the long-promised new full-size Cadillac CT-6 at the upcoming New York Auto Show and he confirmed that production of the full-electric Chevy Bolt with a 200 mile battery range and $30,000 price tag (after government subsidies) is being fast-tracked with a $200 million investment to the Orion Township Plant (north of Detroit) where it will be manufactured.

Thom: I do hope they revisit their names. Please: Volt and Bolt? Alliterative, yes, but hardly an inspiring name for an electric car. Perhaps they are hoping people will understand the rather antique use of “bolt” for a quick start or bolt of lightening. Even Olympic sprints announcers don’t use that word unless associated with Usain Bolt, record holder of both 100m and 200m titles. Time for a contest on Facebook and Twitter?

Steve:

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Kia gets our vote for the best music with a local Chicago band entertaining us as we waited for the press conference to begin. They also get my vote for the concept car with the most pure fun baked in—an off-roader called Trail’ster based on the compact Soul compact car. They showed another concept based on Soul, the Soul’ster, suggesting some of the other stylized things they could do with this versatile little car. The Trail’ster sports an unusual paint color called “Polar Pearl Snowdrift” and aluminum skid plates to suggest off-roadability.
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It looks like the ground clearance is barely increased so its dirt-cred is in question, but I loved it anyway. It has a 1.6-liter turbo making 185 horsepower driving the front wheels and a decent-size electric motor for the rears. Unusual, but sounds functional.

Thom: Back when electricity was being reintroduced to autos 15 years ago or so, one method of creating two pairs of driven wheels was “road coupled”. That is, one pair driven by a combustion engine, the other by electricity. That’s how Trail’ster rolls, its rear drive e-motor adding 35 horsepower for a total of 220 horsepower and 285 pound-feet of torque. I spoke to its designers (failed to get a card, darn it) and confirmed that they do have a blank canvas to play with. We even considered whether split rear doors a la Mini Clubman could appear. The idea, for a concept, was not seen as impossible. Coolness for Trail’ster include its roll-back canvas top, unlikely to make production, and red accented wheels. Positive feedback will encourage a production version.

Steve: Big news at Honda was the reveal of the all-new, third-generation, three-row crossover Pilot.

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That popular kid-hauler has gone from a boxy look to a sleek, more modern design with more than a passing resemblance to chief competitors including Nissan Pathfinder. They’ve added 3.5 inches to its length, better ingress/egress to the third row and substantial content to bring it up to date. I was surprised to learn they’ll be offering an optional 9-speed automatic transmission to go with the updated 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6.

Thom: Pilot adds many cleaver features like wet/dry storage at the rear, a possible 82-quart cooler there as well. Second row captains chairs are more common, but a bench keeps the passenger max at eight. For kids, the rear entertainment system now includes HDMI input and Blu-ray player. Honda’s V-6 continues to offer cylinder deactivation and it is up to 300 pounds lighter.

Steve: Brian Sweeny, GM VP and president of Chevy, revealed a new version of the ever-popular Silverado pickup simply called Silverado Custom.

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It’s apparently just the work truck with a V-8 and priced to compete right in the middle of the competition. Bigger news was the reveal of the freshened Equinox small crossover, one of the division’s best selling vehicles. Unfortunately, they showed it in black under harsh lighting so I was unable to photograph it decently but I’m sure Thom, a much more accomplished photographer than I, will get a good shot. I didn’t find the new Equinox much different from the current model.


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Thom: Yes, some genius chose a brilliant black against a black background and spotlights; nobody who needed images was pleased. That said, I’ve been a big fan of Equinox since introduction and the refresh is quite handsome with LED DRLs and fog lamps, dual element tail lamps, and the useful side blind zone alert and cross traffic alert. I-4 and V-6 engines remain unchanged.

The Silverado Custom emphasizes why mid-sized trucks are again in the news. This is essentially a work truck with rubber floor mats ($100 for carpet) and some entry-level features. Add the 5.3-liter V-8, and it will be priced in the low $30,000s ($33,870 including destination, they proudly say) and that’s 2WD. Huh? Deleting the V-8 for a V-6 will save about $240. It’s for practical owners who appreciate the low Total Cost of Ownership, according to Chevrolet officials.


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Steve: Acura made a splash in Detroit with the new NSX super sports car and they’ll bring it here for public days, but the news from the stand was their new small luxury crossover RDX. This is the third generation and while it has been as good as anything in its class – and there is a lot of great competition in that class – it has not sold particularly well. This substantial update may change that.

Thom: Neither of the entry cars have been well received in various circles, the ILX or RDX. Both have been upgraded this year, as was the MDX flagship SUV. RDX, now in its second generation, features LED headlamps, VTEC 3.5-liter motor with cylinder deactivation, and plenty of new technology.



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Steve: Adrenalin was the theme at Nissan as sales, marketing and operations boss Fred Diaz,recently recruited away from RAM, showed us both the 370Z NISMO (super high performance) Roadster Concept and the GT-R LM NISMO race car that will compete at Le Mans 24-Hour Race later this year.
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The race car looks like no other because it has its engine in the front and an odd-looking cockpit. What I found really exciting at Nissan though was the full-view picture flashed quickly on the screen of the new Maxima that we will be seeing at the New York Auto Show in a couple of months. The Maxima is way overdue for a full redesign and this tease looked intriguing, to say the least.

Thom:Maxima surely resembles their last concept car, with very few changes. It’s sure to turn heads, likely open some pocketbooks based on style alone.


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Steve: One of the smallest Asian players in the North American market is Mitsubishi. They have only six models but they seem to be keeping their heads above water. One of these is the least costly full-electric little car in the market called I-MIEV priced at just 23 grand. Their contribution to the buzz at the Chicago show was the 4-passenger GC-PHEV Concept plug-in hybrid. Stylish and content-rich it would be nice if they could produce this car but I would be surprised if something like this would come to fruition for Mitsu just because of development costs.

Thom: The GC-PHEV is to say the least, oddly styled. The front is owl-eyed (in a handsome way) and the rear features a southern-belle bustle. We’ll surely call that distinctive. Less so was the interior that has a narrow ping-pong table stretching front-to-rear like a flat Berlin wall. I’d like to see the production version with the same front, more conventional rear hatch, and zero runway strip.

Steve: RAM had the best video showing hardworking trucks and hardworking guys, all sweaty, covered with dirt, dripping oil, blasting through show drifts, generally being tough and tenacious.

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RAM boss Bob Hegbloom followed that gritty video by talking about how the brand needs a more luxurious and premium version of the truck. He explained that a thing’s value partly comes from its exclusivity so they are introducing the Laramie “Limited.” I’ll bet they build as many as they can sell, so they will be “limited” only by demand. The new model will include lots of luxury amenities, standard navigation, 20-inch wheels and be available on the 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks.

Thom: That Limited starts at the mid-$40s and can easily run above $60 grand for a 3500 with Cummins diesel. What’s compelling is that for many buyers, the $60,000 truck tows a far pricier horse trailer or boat, or trailer making the truck the low-priced piece. However, what knocked me out was Berber carpets, thick ones that snap into pre-formed rubber mats for winter. Rear map pockets are leather—nearly all the interior surfaces are leather and the finest in the entire company—with silver buckles. Woven into door panels are small filigree patterns, headrests have woven Ram emblems, and most of the knobs are turned aluminum. Even the driver information center and navigation screen use distinctive screens. Detail - endless attention to detail.


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Steve:
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Over at Ford we got a look at the newest Police Interceptor version of the Explorer. Ford has been the leading provider of cop cars since even before the Crown Vic and they continue to court that market. They even have a consulting group of cops who help develop the vehicles and a bunch of them attended the reveal. The other highlight of the Ford booth was the wild and racy Ford GT we saw in Detroit. It thrilled the crowd there. Here in Chicago it is presented in a new color, “Liquid Silver.” I can only say, Wow!

Thom: As a designer, the most intriguing aspect of the GT’s surfaces are the voids, spaces where buttresses flow from the roof to support wheel arches, tiny orifices to admit cooling air or deliver it into the slip stream.


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Steve: Toyota generated just a murmur with updates of their bread-and-butter models: Corolla, Camry and Avalon. Adding just a hint of panache, updating content and creating some “special editions” the Japanese automaker is trying to keep up with the competition, and it looks to me like they’re doing a pretty good job.

Thom: Avalon has always been underrated, appreciated by a few. I’ve seen them go for 200,000 miles with minor mechanical work making them an outstanding investment. The newer, freshened styling won’t snap your neck, but you’ll likely turn for a second glance.


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Lest we forget, Mazda brought one of the three original MX-5/Miata’s introduced in Chicago’s 1989 show (the blue one). They displayed both a dealer-available set of BBS 17” wheels, Brembo brakes, and 5-piece body kit. Nearby, the gorilla in the room is the SEMA special MX-5 Global Cup car. Race the car in any region, win, then win a shoot-out amongst the winners and you earned a shot at the diesel-powered race car.


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Steve: MotorWeek, the longest running automotive TV show seen on PBS and some other outlets wraps up the first day of press conferences with their Driver’s Choice Awards culminating in the designation of their Best of the Year choice. This year it was the Ford Mustang in all its iterations. Of the cars in its class Mustang comes with the broadest range of powertrains from a turbo 4-cylinder to a full-zoot racing V-8. I like that choice.

Other MotorWeek 2014 Drivers’ Choice winners in a variety of classes were: VW Golf. GTI, Subaru Legacy, BMW 4-Series Convertible, Cadillac CTS, Dodge Charger, Alfa Romeo 4C, Kia Soul EV, Nissan Murano, Chevy/GMC Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon, Ford F-150, Audi RS7, BMW i8 and Ferrari’s LaFerrari.


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We got our first good look at the new Jeep Renegade, the small SUV based on a Fiat platform that will be sold here and in Europe. The company insists it will have an off-road competence worthy of the Jeep name. It even includes a low range integrated into the surprising 9-speed automatic transmission. I thought it was a cool design with distinctively European details.


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While Hyundai didn’t make any significant news they showed mid-cycle updates of the Elantra compact line with much bolder grille and other styling tweaks. They also had a new limited edition trim package for the sporty little 2016 Veloster featuring mat-blue paint and wild interior trim.

BMW, Lexus and others hosted press conferences but not much news was made there. Characteristically, the Chicago show is not the most advantageous venue for manufacturers to show off their new stuff, but it is a very important public show. We love to cover it because it is so much more relaxed, informal and accessible than Detroit.

The Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place opened to the public on Saturday, February 14th and runs through Sunday Februrary 22nd. Admission is $12 for adults and just $6 for kids and old folks.

Enjoy the show! We sure did.

Shunpiker Productions and Cannell & Associates, All Rights Reserved