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2017 Chicago Auto Show Hits, Misses & Revelations

Big-shouldered trucks, cool hatchbacks and de-chromed editions

CHICAGO, Illinois – Organizers call this the biggest auto show in the country as measured by the number of people who visit during public days. The Chicago Auto Trade Association claims about 70 percent of those visitors are in the market for a new car or truck.

Mostly trucks, if you include sport/utility vehicles. The new 2018 Ford Expedition is the biggest story because it’s an all-new model, though it first appeared a couple of days earlier at the Dallas Cowboys’ new training facility. Toyota also showed a couple of new TRD Sport trucks and Nissan completed its second-generation Titan line by showing the new Titan and Titan XD King Cab. Herewith, our impressions from the show held at McCormick Place through February 20.

Hit: 2018 Dodge Durango SRT

The Dodge Durango is a decent SUV with enough room and versatility for most folks, but the new SRT is the one we want to own. Under the hood, there’s a 475-horsepower Hemi V-8 with 470 lb-ft of torque. Do you need that much power in a three-row SUV? Hell yeah — plus, it can tow up to 8,600 pounds, way faster than most.

–Ed Tahaney

2018 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback side

Hit: Hyundai Elantra GT/GT Sport

This is the North American-market unveiling of the latest Hyundai i30, a sporty compact that’s popular in Europe, where they appreciate hatchbacks as more than cheap, entry-level cars. Hyundai’s press conference showed both the standard Elantra GT hatchback, with a torsion bar rear suspension, a 162-horsepower, 2.0-liter gas direct-injection four and six-speed manual or automatic, and the GT Sport, with a multilink independent rear suspension and 201-horsepower 1.6-liter GDI turbo four, and choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Hyundai marketing management claims Elantra GT hatchback customers are more active than its sport/utility customers, which is another way of saying the hatch customers are younger. Good to see first-time new car buyers reviving demand for hatchback cars.

— Todd Lassa

Hyundai’s hatch just got a little hotter. Both the Elantra GT and the GT Sport versions look good, real good, and much better than the previous models. The compact hatchback is longer, wider, lower, and lighter too. Pricing won’t be announced until the summer, but if Hyundai can keep it under $20,000, it may also be a big hit with buyers.

–E.T.

Miss: Ford Expedition/Expedition Max

Like the Ford F-Series, the all-new 2018 Expedition is aluminum-bodied, saving “up to” 300 pounds (though it’s a wash if you order the new panoramic sunroof). Its new 10-speed automatic mated to the familiar 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 ought to make it relatively fuel-efficient. The Expedition retains its independent rear suspension for better third-row space and an easy flat load floor. So why did designers copy the side surfacing of the aging Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, with a bit of Range Rover thrown in? If GM can do something fresh with the next Chevy SUVs, which are due within two years of the Expedition’s fall release, it will make the Ford look as old as Chevy’s current models — especially if GM finally adds IRS. To make the competition tougher, Jeep will launch a Ram pickup-based Wagoneer/Grand Wagoneer about the same time as the Chevys. Ford blew the opportunity to do either a.) something radically new with the Expedition’s styling, or b.) tie it in visually, at least, with its very popular F-150.

–T.L.

2017 Nissan Rogue Midnight Edition front end

Miss: The Nissan Stand

Snore. The dated display for “Star Wars: Rogue One” with an inflatable Death Star just seems lame. The marketing Force is wrong here.

–E.T.

Revelation: The Fiat Toro will not become a Ram compact pickup

In his Midwest Automotive Media Association keynote speech, FiatChrysler design chief Ralph Gilles spoke of the passion enthusiasts have for Alfa Romeos and Dodge Challengers. “No offense, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Camry club out there,” he said, which prompted a Toyota PR exec to tweet about its midsize car’s sales success. Gilles also said that he’s already rolled up more than 11,000 miles on an Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio. He tells his wife, “Honey, I’ll buy milk. I’ll buy tampons. I don’t care,” so long as he has an excuse to drive it to the store. And he spoke of how Fiat has had great success with its new Toro pickup truck in Brazil, which prompted one automotive publication to speculate that Sergio Marchionne is considering a version for the North American market. Except that Gilles dismissed the idea in the reporters’ scrum after his speech.

–T.L.

Revelation: The next Nissan Frontier would make a good Mitsubishi, though

Truck chief Fred Diaz wouldn’t comment on how or when Nissan might finally replace its aging Frontier midsize pickup, in light of competition from Toyota, GM and soon, Ford, but said the automaker is considering several options. Would that include a joint venture? Again, no comment. Afterwards, the Mitsubishi press conference in a small corner of the show floor served as reminder that Nissan’s new corporate partner could use a pickup truck, too.

–T.L.

2017 Ford Fiesta Bohai Bay Mint

Miss: 2017 Ford Fiesta in Bohai Bay Mint

There were plenty of new and exciting colors spotted at this year’s show, from the Ram Copper Sport to a Neon Green Chevrolet Camaro. But the worse color choice easily came from the Ford Motor Company — a 2017 Fiesta in Bohai Bay Mint with Charcoal Black interior. The Fiesta is a cute little sedan, but not in this shade of ick. Yeesh, Ford.

–E.T.

Chevrolet Equinox Redline front three quarter

Revelation: You want it darker

The paint scheme trend emerging from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month was two-tone. But at the Chicago show, Nissan unveiled Midnight Edition paint schemes with blacked-out chrome for its Rogue, Murano, Pathfinder, Sentra and Altima, while Chevrolet blacks out much of the chrome on its Redline series for Camaro, Cruze, Colorado, Silverado, Equinox, Traverse, Trax and Malibu. Toyota does much the same for its new TRD Pro Sequoia and Tundra, and RAV4 Aventure. I’m beginning to wonder (and worry) whether industry shifts from chrome to black trim might indicate our economic mood, just like the way women’s skirt length supposedly matches stock market performance.

–T.L.

In memoriam: Jim Mateja

I didn’t know auto critic Jim Mateja very well, but he was the face of this show from the time he began his column for the Chicago Tribune in 1970. He and I had a few friendly conversations over the 20 years I’ve been coming to the Chicago Auto Show. Mateja had an enviable reputation for his firm, honest and fair coverage of the auto industry. He died of cancer in January after collapsing at his computer at home. Mateja was 71.

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