CHICAGO – Temperatures hovering around zero Fahrenheit and a winter storm on travel day weren’t enough to keep auto journalists from descending on McCormick Place for the 2014 Chicago auto show. There were no international journalists, save for a few reporters from Mexico, but the press day crowds were healthy enough in this sprawling convention center. One month after the manic schedule of press conferences at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, journalists welcome the opportunity to stroll calmly from stand to stand at McCormick.
Here’s what we found on our stroll …
HIT: 2015 Subaru Legacy
Opinions on the Subaru Legacy were mixed on the show floor, but I’m quite impressed. No, it isn’t as stylish as a Mazda 6 or Ford Fusion, but the new Legacy is a smart, modern midsize sedan. Its interior materials and design are a big step up from other current Subarus like the Impreza and Forester, and the addition of new safety technology is important in this family-focused segment. My only disappointment is with the powertrains. Although the 2015 Subaru Legacy is slightly more efficient than the old car, I would have liked to see Subaru launch new, modern offerings, rather than simply reheating the current 2.5-liter and 3.6-liter Boxer engines.
HIT: 2015 Subaru Legacy
This is the only all-new car here. It’s not a facelift or trim level or special edition. It’s not a rebadged version of something else (see: the 2015 Chevrolet City Express, a badge-engineered Nissan NV200). Instead of trying to make it look sporty, the Legacy’s designers went for a very Honda Accord-like profile (with a rather Ford-esque grille) to enhance front- and rear-seat comfort and capaciousness. They steeply raked the A-pillars and used high-strength steel in order to keep them as thin as possible and still meet rollover standards. Though the Subaru Legacy is about the same overall length as the outgoing model, it has more rear-seat and trunk space. Subaru says it’s the roomiest interior in the class, larger than Accord or Volkswagen Passat. The carryover 175-hp H-4 and 256-hp H-6 don’t bother me; instead, I’m disappointed that the only transmission that’ll be offered when the car goes on sale this July will be a CVT. The big question, though, is whether an automaker that has achieved great success with vehicles outside the mainstream, like the Outback and Forester, can boost sales of its most conventional model.
HIT: 2015 Kia Soul EV
The funky, youth-oriented Kia Soul is a great vehicle to turn into an electric hatchback. The lithium-ion battery pack doesn’t seem to have a major effect on interior or cargo room, and I actually like the special floating-roof look created by the blacked-out A- and B-pillars and the contrasting white roof. The official word is the car will go 80 to 100 miles on a battery charge (about on par with other EVs like the Nissan Leaf), but Kia says that some prototypes managed far more than 100 miles per charge.
MISS: 2015 Nissan Versa Note SR
I have no problem with the standard Nissan Versa Note. Although bland and unexciting, the Note is sufficiently spacious, affordable, and fuel-efficient. How odd, though, that Nissan chose to create a “sporty” trim level for it. The changes are only cosmetic, and seem totally out of character for a cheap hatchback with a 109-hp engine and CVT.
HIT: Nissan Frontier Diesel Runner
Nissan is testing consumer reaction to the idea of a Frontier — its aged midsize pickup — with a 2.8-liter Cummins turbodiesel four. Diesel could prove to be the panacea for Ford competitors trying to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards while they work on their aluminum programs.
MISS: 2015 Lincoln Navigator
A Lincoln marketer tells me that the Navigator is the brand’s most recognized vehicle, with the most loyal followers, so the full-size SUV has a good future in the brand’s thin lineup. (That’s also why it still has a real name whereas other Lincolns switched to MK- badges.) The only compelling part of this update is the newly-available, fuel-efficient EcoBoost V-6 engine. Meanwhile, the new waterfall grille and full-width LED taillights don’t fit with the boxy Navigator. Chicago is one of the Navigator’s top sales markets, so it makes sense to show the warmed-over SUV here.
REVELATION: 2015 Lincoln Navigator
That waterfall grille stands out like the monolith that disturbs the apes in the opening scene of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Rumors have been flying that Lincoln would move past this grille design. There’s no better way to kill off an iconic design cue than to overdo it on your biggest vehicle.
HIT: Global Rallycross Volkswagen Beetle
MISS: 2014 Dodge Journey Crossroad
The fake brushbar on the lower front fascia of the Journey special trim edition is designed to make the crossover look “more butch.” It reminds me of the fake helicopter hooks on the hood of the HUMMER H2.
HIT: Toyota TRD Pro models
Want proof Toyota is on the right track with these off-road-ready models? A fellow journalist who owns a Toyota 4Runner told me he wants these upgrade parts for his SUV. (Not because he goes off-roading, by the way, but because he uses the 4Runner to navigate deep snow.) The Tacoma, Tundra, and 4Runner are the sorts of vehicles that attract people who actually want to use them properly, and it makes sense for Toyota to provide parts for those enthusiasts.
HIT: Grille script on Toyota TRD Pro model
A car company can recall its heritage without going full-on retro.
REVELATION: Chicago Truck Show
Toyota used to launch new truck models here, and it’s still a draw for premiers like the bi-fuel 2015 Chevy Silverado HD and others mentioned above. Trucks are the Chicago auto show’s best chance for having a future as a media event.