Taking in the 2016 Chicago Auto Show

By Allen Penticoff

After spending three days at the Chicago Auto Show, I can say there is much to be interested in, and much that I learned – plenty of fodder for future columns. Unfortunately, in total there was not much progress in the area of green car technology. The real exception being the introduction of the new all-electric, 200 mile range, Chevrolet Bolt that should be available in 2017.

After listening to the Thursday morning breakfast keynote speaker, Mark LaNeve, vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service for Ford Motor Company, we learned that the automotive industry is gearing up to sell more small SUVs. While bigger SUVs are still quite popular, they have seen an explosion of interest in small SUVs among millennials as well as baby boomers. All like the freedom to do many things with their small SUVs while the baby boomers in particular like the ease of entry and exit. The show floor was covered with many interpretations of the small SUV. I checked out some, since they have better fuel economy than bigger trucks and SUVs – generally in the 30 mpg highway range. I was particularly impressed by the Honda HR-V with AWD in the EX-L Navi trim.

Somewhat bigger and far more expensive is the Volvo 90 XC hybrid. Luxurious, powerful 400 horsepower engine and two electric motors with 12-17 miles of battery only range. I rode along on a “off-road” track in the Toyota RAV-4 AWD hybrid. It has mild off-road abilities (nothing compared to the Jeep Renegade I rode in too). But the advantage with the RAV-4 is that they too have a dual electric motor set up that is new and unique. One electric motor is connected to the engine and provides hybrid action just as a Prius does. The second electric motor drives the rear wheels only when slippage of the front wheels is detected. Thus the AWD only is used when needed – automatically. This makes for a more efficient AWD vehicle. The RAV-4 hybrid gets 34 hwy/31 city mpg, while my driver said he drove one 700 miles and got 35 mpg the whole way.

I had the opportunity to drive a hydrogen/fuel cell car – the Toyota Mirai. It is a comfortable four-door sedan about the size of a Camry or Corolla. It would be quick with its 155 hp electric drive and has 320 miles of range. It easily squealed the tires on the test track. Unanswered was my question about the carbon footprint of making hydrogen to fuel the car. Toyota also had a “Back To The Future” show car with the gull-wing doors like the DeLorean of movie fame – and with a fake “Mr. Fusion” input on this actual hydrogen fuel cell car. Toyota is going into production with the Mirai, but will only be sold in California and overseas where there is hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

Fiat has brought back the 124 Spider. A glorious, fun, convertible sports car. Nissan had a couple of Rogue SUVs rigged up with tracks on all four wheels for extreme snow driving. Hyundai showcased its Genesis luxury line with a stunning concept car – the Vision G. Buick likewise had a gorgeous concept car, the Avista, which I had a faux pas by sitting in when you’re not supposed to (in my defense it was there on test drive day). I learned that a concept car is missing a lot of stuff. Another concept car, “thinking about making” was the little 4-door hatchback Kia Niro hybrid. Kia also had a new concept SUV – the Telluride, that SUV buyers will likely find appealing if it goes into production.

I am an admitted car nut. And I could not have been more nuts about the stunning new 600 hp Ford GT race/street car. While other supercars are also to be seen and drooled over, only the Ford GT had a 3-axis driving simulator that allowed you to try your hand at the next best thing to driving a real one. It has three seats in the simulator and each person gets to have a try at making it around the LeMans racecourse as fast as they can for one lap. I managed a respectable 1:38, but was pokey compared to a young man I rode with who turned in a slick 1:28 – nearly a record for the show so far. It is worth the long wait in line. Another simulator was in a Dodge Viper – around the Nurburgring racecourse. It was set up to move the car some to simulate what it was doing in virtual reality – but is tougher to do right than the Ford GT. Toyota also had a distracted driving simulator where you put on goggles and steer a real car in true total virtual reality while dealing with driving distractions.

So all this is sort of a tip of the iceberg review of what there is to see, do and learn at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. There are many more reviews and topics to come in this column. An update on the parking rates mentioned in the previous report on the show – $23 is for inside all day with $15 remote outside parking. Parking garage A is $36 if you stay more than 16 hours. Go have some warm winter fun at the Chicago Auto Show through Sunday.

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