CHICAGO, Illinois – Big news out of the nation’s biggest auto show, counting public days, was actor Jim Belushi bantering with Ford Motor Company’s sales, U.S. marketing and service vice president Mark LaNeve over the 2019 Ford Transit Connect Wagon’s mid-cycle refresh.
In their presentation, Ford appeared to have discovered, or at least rediscovered, Baby Boomers and their buying power, while the charming character actor who recently played a casino boss in Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” complained that the passenger van doesn’t come with a cigarette lighter.
We have our own complaints, of course, though with this show so light on news we find ourselves in the unusual position of having far more hits than misses …
HIT: 2018 Nissan 370Zki
I love how stupid this thing is and I’m jealous that Lassa got to play Rockford with it outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. If you haven’t seen it yet, Nissan made a snowmobile out of its aging sports car by adding skis and some Dominator tracks and it looks pretty rad. Chicago got a good dusting of snow last night—I wonder if Nissan will let me take it for a spin outside of McCormick Place?
SUVs and trucks on ski tracks are nothing new, but this is the first time I can recall seeing skis on a sports car. Well played, Nissan. In the unlikely event this thing makes it to production, I’m moving to Detroit.
– Aaron Gold
HIT: Toyota Tundra, Tacoma and 4Runner TRD Pro models
I can’t say whether these offroad TRD Pros will ever pose a threat to trail rated Jeeps, but they surely look the part, and by the way Toyota Group vice president Jack Hollis talked them up, the Fox internal bypass shocks installed on each must make for some serious offroading. The black safari-style rooftop carrier on the 4Runner TRD Pro stands out. These trucks and the 86 sports car are the enthusiast counterpoints that make appliances like the RAV4, Camry, and Corolla forgivable.
Over several auto shows now, Hollis has referred to Toyota buyers as the brand’s “guests,” as if Toyota was operating a hotel chain instead of selling cars and trucks. They’re not “guests,” unless Toyota offers a car-sharing service, and even then the term is an annoying relic of early ‘00s corporate-speak, as in “Toyota associates sell many Camrys to Toyota’s guests.” Hollis also pointed out the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro’s new “desert-air intake” in his presentation. Serious off-roaders that Hollis wants to attract would call it a “snorkel.”
REVELATION: Nissan’s Souvenir
The tchotchke that Nissan was handing out at the show? Turns out it’s a hand warmer, not a breast implant.
HIT: Volkswagen Arteon
A super subtle sedan that looks upscale just enough to help it stand apart from the rest of the pack. It’s got a sleek look, clean cabin, fastback feel, and comes with a six-year limited warranty. Its 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine offers 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Will SUV-obsessed Americans buy it when it finally goes on sale in the U.S. later this year? We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
In my opinion, this was the star of the show. The Arteon is a handsome car at first glance, and the longer you look at it, the more the details show themselves and the better it looks. My favorite view is from the side: There’s something of the first-gen “Bauhaus” Audi TT in the Arteon’s profile. Read the specs you’ll see that the Arteon’s luxury creds are, well, credible. This is a legitimate luxury car to which people will aspire. Almost makes one wonder what could have happened to the Phaeton had Volkswagen approached it a bit differently.
HIT: Subaru 50th Anniversary Lineup
It’s not as exciting as the Ascent reveal in L.A. and this could have gone seriously wrong with an all-black or midnight edition trim—but the Heritage Blue paint on the eight models works for me—especially on the BRZ and WRXes. Are these badges, special doodads, and blue paint going to add any value to your car? Probably not, but this is a must for diehard Subie fans.
REVELATION: Subaru is not so much into autonomy or ride-sharing
At the Midwest Auto Media Association’s Thursday morning keynote breakfast, Subaru of America president and chief operating officer Thomas Doll predicted that electric vehicles will catch on and quickly replace the internal combustion engine when costs come down, ranges go up, and recharging becomes quicker and more accessible, though he doesn’t think the world is ready for Level IV or V autonomy or a switch to car-sharing services. “There’s a question of the secondary market for ride share cars,” he said, predicting ride sharing will grow only in large, congested cities like Manhattan, and maybe not even Chicago.
MISS: 2018 Lifted Nissan Titan HD Kit
Man, that truck is ugly and as silly looking as all those “Star Wars” inspired vehicle tie-ins. I hope this doesn’t blow my chances at driving the 370Zki—but then again there’s always the GMC Sierra 2500HD All Terrain X to commandeer.
…for creating a gigantic walk-in snow globe. For three minutes every fifteen, a section of the Nissan stand is deluged in snow (actually biodegradable bubbles, so there’s no mess). When it came to auto shows, I thought I’d seen it all, but making it snow indoors is a new one. That said, I’m from Los Angeles, and snow is a novelty. Chicago locals probably won’t be as impressed, especially the ones who went to the auto show specifically to get away from the snow.
MISS: Chicago Blackhawks Custom Camaro Convertible
Sorry Chicago—you couldn’t give this car away. Oh, wait—my bad. Chevrolet is giving it away to some unlucky fan. If you register to win it, you only have yourself to blame. Stick with the Chicago Cubs Toyota 4Runner instead.
MISS: Lexus LC ‘Black Panther’ Concept
Yet another over-bling’d movie car for another superhero action flick. The only add-on it’s missing is a vinyl top. Since automakers now have to pay movie producers to supply such cars, the question is, what good does this thing do for Lexus’ luxury image?
HIT: Hyundai I30N TCR
Bryan Herta with his drivers Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkens introduced Hyundai’s first North American race car, the I30N TCR, which will compete this year in the Pirelli World Challenge’s new Touring Car class. Why a race car based on the not-for-North America Hyundai I30N instead of the new Veloster built on the same platform? Because the 130N Touring Car already has had success in Europe, and anyway, Hyundai says it’s not ruling out switching to a Veloster body some time in the future.
Damn, this thing looks cool. Want, want, want.
MISS: Hyundai Veloster ‘Ant Man and The Wasp’ Concept
This movie car, presumably for yet another comic book super hero adaptation, almost makes the Lexus LC ‘Black Panther’ movie car look tasteful by comparison. Almost.
Note: ‘Ant Man’ is cool. Movie props—not so much. – Ed.
HIT: Fiat 500
Super Bowl ads notwithstanding, common sense seems to be making massive inroads at Fiat Chrysler. In Detroit they showed the Jeep Cherokee with a much-needed facelift, and here at Chicago they announced that the Fiat 500 will drop its naturally aspirated 1.4 in favor of the turbo version. Its 135 hp and a sport-tuned exhaust is bound to give the gracefully-aging Cinquecento a much-needed dose of performance and personality, and maybe even make it a credible competitor for the Mini Hardtop. Let’s keep this trend going, Chrysler—how about making the SRT 392 the base engine in the Charger?
If this is a mid-cycle refresh, the Nuevo Fiat 500 introduced in Europe in 2007 and sold here since the 2011 model year will have a product cycle to rival the original 1957-75 model. That’s the key problem with marketing a retro car based on an automotive icon; how do you design a second retro generation? So long as Fiat Chrysler can keep the prices low and market the 500 as a cheap car but with style and personality, I don’t see any reason why not to extend this model to, say, 2025. Adaption of the 1.4-liter turbo to the base Fiat 500 closes the horsepower gap to just 25 ponies short of the 500 Abarth, though Abarth buyers now get a free, one-day session at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.
HIT: Ford Transit Connect’s new diesel
Ever hear the song “A Better Place To Be” by Harry Chapin? If you make it to the end of the lyrics—which come seven and a half minutes after the beginning, so we’re talking real commitment here—the song fades out to a barely-audible trickle of acoustic guitar, and just when you think it’s over… it’s not. The guitar builds into a rousing reprise that goes on for another half a minute. Well, it seems that diesel is a bit like that. I think we all called diesel dead after the VW scandal, with the Colorado and Cruze TDs as last gasps planned just before the crap hit the compression-ignition fan. And yet here’s Ford, launching a proper Euro-style 1.5 liter turbodiesel for the facelifted Transit Connect. Good on Ford for not getting scared off the diesel bandwagon, as this is the perfect engine for a van like this. With new diesels coming in Ford and Chevy half-ton trucks and a diesel option for Chevy’s new Equinox, it seems like we’re on our way to a rousing reprise. Let’s hope it lasts more than half a minute.
MISS: Chevrolet Traverse RS
When I heard that Chevy was introducing a sport-themed turbo-powered version of the big Traverse crossover, I had high hopes—but they all came crashing down when I saw the specs. The Traverse RS’ turbo four makes 50 fewer horses than the “base” V-6 and only comes with front-wheel-drive. Why not be honest and call it the “Traverse Eco”? Alas, they can’t, because the turbo’s highway fuel economy is 1 MPG lower than the front-drive V-6. But wait, you haven’t heard the punch line: Chevy wants $43,595 for this thing. This isn’t a sporty Traverse; it’s a comedy of errors. Chevy, if you want to see how to do this properly, check out Ford’s Edge ST.
HIT: 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club
Enhancements for the third model year of the ND Miata include optional leather seats for the Club model, and optional suede-and-leather Recaros for both the Club and Grand Touring. This addresses one of my criticisms of the latest MX-5; that you couldn’t combine the GT’s heated seats, crucial for top-down driving in the fall and spring Up North, with the Club’s Bilstein shock/limited slip differential suspension upgrade. Now you can, simply by ordering a Miata Club with leather or Recaro seats.
HIT: Chicago Auto Show
Car fans tend to think of auto shows in terms of new product reveals, but Chicago reminds us that their real purpose is to sell cars. Chicago claims to have the highest attendance of any American auto show, and I’m inclined to believe it. The crowds pour in like the sea, and over the next few weeks a lot of them wind up at one of Chicago’s hundreds of car dealerships looking for a new set of wheels. Pundits, seeing the dearth of new-car reveals and concepts, may say the auto shows are dead—but I bet your local dealer will tell you that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
MISS: The entire automotive industry
As you probably know, automakers use the press previews at the big shows to stage carefully choreographed reveals of new models and concepts. But as budgets tighten and the cost of staging these dog-and-pony shows within the confines of a convention center escalate, more and more of these events are moved off-site and held in the evenings before the press preview—a real pain for us writers, because the reveals often overlap and we can’t be in three places at once. (It also drives up the cost for our employers, because we have to deploy more bodies to the show.) And yet here we are at the Chicago Auto Show, scheduled right between Detroit and New York, and there are precious few new-car reveals. Hey, suits—your solution lies in the Windy City. There are tons of journalists, few industrial spies masquerading as “engineers” taking notes on the size of the dashboard vents and preventing us from shooting the photos that promote your cars, and the food is pretty damn good. You’re missing an opportunity here.
REVELATION: Will wagons make a comeback with non-enthusiasts?
Judging from the number of them on the show floor, it certainly looks like the station wagon is staging a comeback. There’s the Buick Regal TourX, Mercedes-Benz E400 4Matic Wagon, and the Volvo V90 that all look good and give us fans some hope.