More highlights from the Chicago Auto Show

BMW's i8 electric performance model.

By Allen Penticoff
Special to TRRT

You can’t send a car nut like myself to an event like the Chicago Auto Show and not end up with him/her bubbling over with excitement at discovering new things. While I was mostly hunting for electric vehicles (EV) and plug-in hybrid vehicles there were many other vehicles or technologies of interest. Unfortunately, I can’t get into them all here so I will stick to some of the highlights.

First, I’ll say that one of my technology dreams is coming true. We have the technology to display the traffic that surrounds us and to warn us of encroachments on our lane space. This is beginning to appear in cars, but not quite what I think is the ultimate destination yet – a comprehensive 360-degree graphic display. But there are great inroads. Back up radar has moved to the rear fenders to provide blind spot detection and Honda revealed a simple technology that I wish my own cars had.

The Mitsubishi MIEV.
The Mitsubishi MIEV.

Honda has installed a tiny video camera on the right side mirror. When the turn signal is activated, the camera’s video display shows up on the center console video screen. If desired, the camera can be left on continuously. I’ve been dreaming of something like this for our Volt, which has a serious right-side blind spot. Of course they warn that one should still check their mirrors. I believe the time has come to change vehicle equipment laws and eliminate side-view mirrors as a requirement. I believe the law should state a vehicle should have mirrors or “equivalent” technology. Side view mirrors create a lot of aerodynamic drag that cost us in fuel economy, and are not really all that effective in detecting other traffic. Video cameras and monitors can do a far better job of reporting traffic awareness – and they can be set up to offer minimal or no aerodynamic drag.

I found the Kia Soul EV to be a roomy and comfortable car with easy in and out accessibility. I look forward to driving one someday. The Mitsubishi MiEV is a tiny electric car that is relatively spartan, lacking flat screen displays, but with nice controls. The seats are minimal with the back seat particularly tight but with a big cargo area. The front A pillars are quite large and view obstructing. Overall the MiEV comes off as cheapish – but they cost far less than other production EVs – so they may be a great city car.

BMW's i8 electric performance model.
BMW’s i8 electric performance model.

Over in the BMW area I found the BMW i3 EV and right next to it the exotic BMW i8 EV. While the i3 has been available for a while now, we don’t see them around here. It has nice styling and I found the interior very different from your average car. There are two flat screens on the dashboard, standing up like two laptop screens. Infotainment was on the floor console – the whole of it reminding me of the clean Bang & Olufsen audio equipment maker’s simple clean style. The i3 is not quite a four-door sedan, it has rear-hinged half doors to improve access to the back seat. Again, I’d love to drive one. I’ve written about the i3 and its hot sister, the i8 previously. But here in the flesh were both. The i8 is sexy, but damn near impossible to get in and out of gracefully. The i8 has doors that lift up, gull-wing style. It is not the doors that are the problem, it is that the seats are so low that you have to crawl into them, and fall out of them. My cell phone fell out of my pocket and got down in the space between the seat and the door sill. It is a $136,650 car, so I don’t think many of us will have to worry much about getting in and out, but it is roomy once ensconced in it’s form fitting seats.

There was also the Ford Focus EV. Your basic Focus, but electric powered with a battery range of 76 miles. At this point, I don’t think Ford is trying. They are just after the California pollution points in lowering their fleet mileage average. Although not at the show (or I didn’t see it anyway) is the new Volvo XE90 plug-in hybrid with a Volt-like drive system with 400 horsepower and 7-seat capacity. The Volvo representative I spoke with indicated this is the direction Volvo is heading with their entire line. That’s news.

Other observations were the exciting Buick Cascada convertible and Avenir sporty sedan concept cars. I look forward to these being in production. It would be a mistake not to.  I wondered who are the buyers of the $61,500 Hyundai Equis luxury sedan – nice car, but that’s a lot of cash for a Hyundai. The Ford Transit mini-van sized cargo van now has to compete with clones made by Dodge – their Roadmaster City van and Chevrolet’s City Express van. The news here is that downsizing vehicles is becoming popular with business to save on fuel expenses.

In the next Mr. Green Car I’ll report on some of the talks I heard from auto industry executives.

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