2012 Chicago Auto ShowPosted on February 10th, 2012
Nation’s biggest consumer show features indoor test tracks
By Nina Russin
Chicago is my favorite of the four major US auto shows because of its emphasis on consumers as opposed to focusing purely on journalists. On its 104th anniversary, the show continued to fine-tune its formula for reaching area car enthusiasts with indoor test tracks and an expanded social media program for bloggers.
A traditional media day opened the show with product reveals from GMC, Hyundai, Kia, Ford and Nissan. A keynote address by John Maloney, president and CEO of Volvo Cars North America at the annual Midwest Automotive Media Association breakfast set an optimistic tone for the product reveals which followed.
According to Maloney, it’s back to business as usual after the industry’s worst slowdown in recent memory. Although gas prices continue to fluctuate, significant declines in the US jobless rate have boosted consumer confidence. Buyers are heading back to dealerships to replace existing cars, the average age of which is now eleven years.
Small cars and smaller engines
Rising federal fuel economy standards and changing consumer attitudes have altered the mix of new models, from a predominance of full-sized trucks in the mid-1990s to smaller crossovers and compact cars today.
In his keynote address, Mahoney announced that Volvo’s new engine family will consist exclusively of four-cylinder blocks. A plug-in hybrid version of the automaker’s XC60 crossover vehicle which debuted last month in Detroit will have a 600 mile range between fill-ups. Similar technologies will give the second-generation XC90 sport-utility vehicle, now under development, better gas mileage.
Hyundai followed by introducing two new variants on its compact Elantra sedan: a coupe and five-door hatchback called the GT. The Elantra Coupe rolls out first, entering showrooms this spring. A 1.8-liter gasoline engine produces 40 mile-per-gallon fuel economy on the highway, when paired with the manual transmission. An upscale SE grade adds a sport-tuned suspension.
The five-door GT is clearly geared towards buyers with active lifestyles. Fold-flat rear seats extend the cargo floor for larger items. There is additional storage under the cargo floor, and a cooled glovebox for beverages.
By minimizing the GT’s curb weight, Hyundai engineers boosted the hatchback’s gas mileage to 39 mpg on the highway. Hyundai’s new generation of direct-injection four-cylinder engines has raised the automaker’s corporate average fuel economy from 36.1 to 36.7 miles-per-gallon over the past twelve months.
More diverse crossovers
Truck manufacturer, GMC is putting its muscle behind an all-new Acadia crossover vehicle, which offers seating for up to eight passengers, but better gas mileage than full-sized sport-utility vehicles.
Kia’s Track’ster concept is based on its popular Soul crossover, adding high-performance features such as 19-inch wheels, a longer, wider footprint and Brembo brakes for driving enthusiasts.
The popularity of Hyundai’s upscale Genesis models and a new Optima SX Limited luxury model make this writer wonder when the Korean automakers will launch autonomous brands to compete against similar Japanese and European marques.
The Kia Optima SX Limited arrives in showrooms next month. The new model builds on the SX performance variant with 18-inch wheels, LED lighting and Napa leather seating. The Optima SX Limited comes with the newest version of UVO: an infotainment system developed by Kia and Microsoft. MSRP begins under $35,000.
Compact vans for small businessesNissan is expanding its lineup for small commercial vans for North America. The NV200, already on sale in Europe and Asia, offers American small business owners an alternative to Ford’s Transit Connect. The NV200 combines a small footprint with a high ceiling for better interior space. All four rows of seating are protected by roof-mounted curtain airbags.
Sixty/forty split rear doors give access to the 123 square foot cargo area. A low lift-over height makes it easier to load large items in back.
Power for the NV200 comes from a four-cylinder engine and continuously-variable automatic transmission. The Nissan NV200 arrives stateside later this year. Nissan will unveil a new NV200 taxicab at the New York Auto Show in April.
Cars for performance enthusiastsFord, Chrysler and Nissan also introduced new versions of their high-performance models, inviting area enthusiasts for peeks under the hood during the social media preview. Ford celebrates the twentieth anniversary of SVT with the all-new Focus ST compact car, and an all-new Shelby GT 500 convertible.
The 650 horsepower drop top is as streetable as it is track-worthy, thanks to an optional performance package with two driving modes. Engineers boosted the aluminum block’s displacement by using plasma coating in place of steel liners. Other performance enhancements include a higher capacity oil pump and pans, new valve seats and cross-drilled cylinder heads. A new intercooler gives the GT the durability for long days at the track. The front end lacks a traditional grille to enhance airflow into the engine.
The transmission gets a new clutch and shift lever. A revised rear axle improves the car’s launch characteristics while large rotors with six-piston Brembo brake calipers in front make the convertible stop on a dime.
Mopar celebrates its 75th anniversary with performance and style enhancements to the all-new Dodge Dart, Fiat 500 and Chrysler 300. A True North Jeep compass celebrates that model’s recently acquired “trail rated” status with a two-inch lift kit, brush bars, rock rails, special wheels and tires.
The Dodge Dart GTS 210 pays homage to muscle cars of the 1960s with a carbon fiber hood, chin spoiler, rear decklid spoiler and dual exhausts. A cat back exhaust system opens up airflow for better performance from the 2.4-liter engine.
The Chrysler Mopar 12 300 features twenty-inch gloss black wheels, performance rear axle and beefed up brakes. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is in the low five second range.
Nissan introduces the refreshed 370Z sports car with an invitation for fans to socially build two project cars. The concept is similar to Local Motors’ global virtual design and engineering communities.
Z enthusiasts can log onto Nissan’s Facebook performance page to give input on the build-out, beginning with the powertrain and followed by the suspension. Nissan will build the cars in a rented studio in Los Angeles, and reveal them at the ZDayz event which begins May 13 in Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains.
Cars for philanthropy
Toyota is using social networking to spread the word about its “100 Cars in 100 Days” philanthropy program. The program, which enters its second year in 2012, invites not-for-profit organizations to compete for free vehicles which will help them to expand upon their services.
Five hundred finalists were selected in 2011 out of 5000 entries. Finalists created an online profile for Toyota’s Facebook page and a video showing how they would use the vehicles to further their respective missions.
The Chicago Zoological Society and the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center were among area winners.
For more information on the Chicago Auto Show at the McCormick Place convention center, visit the event web site.
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