If you lift it, they will gawk.
Photo: Scouting For Zen

One day at an auto show is never enough. Sadly, those of us without press badges are rarely able to spend more than one day (or realistically, a fraction of one) wandering the stands of auto shows. So we tend to either prioritize on a few highlights, or sprint around like a cloud of flaming killer bees was chasing us.

My auto show experience started with the Chicago Auto Show. I grew up in the Chicagoland suburbs, and you couldn’t miss CAS. TV news, radio, newspaper: ads everywhere. But outside the city? Eh, not so much.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years about the relevancy of auto shows. More and more automotive tech is being revealed at places like CES, and NAIAS has had to shift to an entirely different part of the year just to draw in more people. And don’t get me wrong, I love Chi-town, but the Motor City has way more impact on the car scene.

So what’s the point of the Chicago Auto Show? Why is it still going, after more than a century? With venues like Geneva, LA, and Tokyo in the mix, what can a bone-chillingly cold place like Chicago offer?

Advertisement

I asked that question to my dad and uncle, who went with me. And as I walked around the show, talking and listening to people, I got my answer.

Let me walk you through it.

Advertisement

Right off the bat, I stumbled onto my next apartment: a Nissan NV200 modified by Recon Campers. This looks like a top-of-the-line Envy model, which can be added onto a base NV200 for just under $30k. Expensive, but considering it comes with a bed, a water heater, a shower, a fridge, and full insulation (among other things), I’m starting to understand why the concept’s so popular in California. Also, unlike the VW T6 California, it’s actually available in the US.

Advertisement

VR displays were everywhere. I didn’t have a chance to sample any of them here, but I did in Detroit, and walked away impressed. It may seem like a gimmick to some, but VR and augmented reality can make for some very effective and informative demos, especially for technologies that can’t be easily showcased indoors (like AWD systems, for instance). This kind of marketing isn’t going away anytime soon, but rest assured, shiny goggles aren’t replacing sheetmetal.

At least, not if Honda’s anything to go by.

Advertisement

Call it ‘Gundam’, ‘anime’, ‘FF racer’, whatever, but I like the Civic’s current styling.

Advertisement

Also, none of the Honda people I talked to knew about the Type R’s over-heating issues. Whether that’s because of an ‘official’ company stance, or because the issue’s been resolved, is anyone’s guess.

However, the reason I don’t have any interior shots of the Civic is because I spent almost 15 minutes talking with some other enthusiasts about the plastic quality and interior design. Seriously, we were peering into the center console and discussing which parts were actually metal. It’s actually a nice place to be, with a really clever center console, but the glovebox is weirdly undampened.

Advertisement

But, I did take photos of another Honda’s interior...what little there was of it.

Advertisement

The new Talon looks like a serious off-road side-by-side: Fox shocks, a paddle-shifted DCT that’s supposedly a side-by-side first, a stripped-down (but still comfy and well-built) interior, and a digital display. Reviews seem to be positive, so if you’re in the market for something outside of Can-Am or Polaris, I’d say it’s worth a look. Especially since, according to one of the Honda reps on-site, Polaris’ models have been catching fire, of late.

Advertisement

“Oh look, another black crossover!” you might be saying to yourself. But the market’s hot for them, and as I’ve got family members with new kids, the new Passport can’t nor should it be ignored. It’s not striking, but it’s shaping up to be a solid hit for Honda and its customers.

But if you want a little more style with your substance, Mazda’s got you, fam.

Advertisement

Admittedly, the new 3's C-pillar does look a little awkward from some angles—but the whole car looks AMAZING from all the others. I know it’s not a shooting-brake, but Mazda should definitely get right on that. The design team really sweated the details, here.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Also, Soul Red is worth the paint up-charge. Every penny of it.

But my heart also belongs to another shade: Sapphire Blue Mica.

Advertisement

30 years ago, at this very auto show, Mazda debuted the Miata, and both the industry and the company have never really been the same since. To celebrate, not only was the (totally sold-out) 30th Anniversary Package ND on display, but examples of the NA, NB, and NC.

Advertisement

Advertisement

I still get a goofy grin on my face, knowing my NB is the same spec as the one that was on display (albeit I’ve had to replace my top).

Advertisement

Also, if I recall correctly, the NA comes courtesy of Bob Hall himself. According to the Mazda rep I spoke with, “he’s got like, 7 of them.”

Advertisement

Who would’ve thought that VW, of all companies, tries to live life colorfully?

More people need to buy vibrant cars. I’ve been behind-the-scenes, sweating and helping the people who tweak these shades and hues. If you buy a hot hatch, and don’t pick a color like this electric green, you’re doing it wrong.

Advertisement

Advertisement

I never thought a Jetta would be striking to look at, but this orange is really helping.

Advertisement

Although, I will say this blue-gray, contrasted in red, works, too. Also, Jason Torchinksy likes the car under it.

But color and trim packages aren’t the only draw to auto shows. Like the 30th Anniversary Miata above, auto shows—much like zoos—are sometimes the best (or only) way enthusiasts like you or me to see some rare sights up close and personal.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Basic, but the BRZ’s driving position is almost a direct match for my NB’s.
Photo: Scouting For Zen

Advertisement

I really, really hope the S209 is a sign of great things to come for the WRX and WRX STI. I get that Subaru has their own internal standards that force the S209's assembly to occur elsewhere; not to mention the specialty parts the S209 comes with. But c’mon, it’s not like Porsche doesn’t steal borrow parts from past range-toppers to spice up the next gen’s options list. And they’re just printing money. Get on it, Subaru.

Though, to be fair, Subaru has at least spent good money on the BRZ’s seats. Those things are grippier than a ‘roided-out octopus.

Advertisement

Behold the boxed and flared glory of a rally Subie!

Advertisement

Speaking of boxes, earlier I wrote about the GMC Sierra’s new optional carbon-fiber bed. After it debuted, it faded from the limelight; but, as I write this, it should be appearing on GM sites and in dealerships.

Advertisement

I’ve also got some new information about the material itself. The GMC rep told me and a few listeners that the composite was actually a blend of four different materials, not just carbon-fiber (glass-fiber is one of them). He also said that this blended composite was strong enough that no direct support was required from the bottom, only at the sides. Although steel & aluminum are still found there, the switch in bed material & lack of bed-liner make for a ~150 lb weight savings.

Still, the new Sierra Denali line will weigh in at 6001 lbs. Oh, and that “1" at the end isn’t a rounding error. Turns out, there’s actually a tax exemption you can claim if you operate a vehicle weighing over 6000 lbs. This is like that one Simpsons episode where Homer tries to become disabled through obesity, only IRL. Which leaves me SMH.

Advertisement

Also, did you know you could mount speakers directly into a pickup’s bed? For when you really need to blast that Florida Georgia Line.

Advertisement

I have no need for a vehicle like the new Telluride, but it’s Exhibit A in the case that Kia is absolutely killing it right now. Seriously, that wood trim looks like it belongs in an mid-century modern furnished apartment on Michigan Ave. But I’d still rather a CX-9.

Advertisement

The Stinger is striking. Not necessarily pretty, but it has a presence about it. The interior wasn’t particularly sensational, but it had few hard plastics and good seats. At this price point, BMW should be worried.

Advertisement

Hear ye, hear ye, the K9000 has FEELABLE WOOD GRAIN. That alone makes it a great luxury car purchase. As well as Exhibit B in the aforementioned case, of which Hyundai is also a part.

Advertisement

The Veloster N is Exhibit C. Reviews have made it clear that, while not as sharp as the Type R, it’s more than a match for the GTI. The FiST and 500 Abarth still hold a special place in my heart, but the N has me intrigued. The seats were comfy, and well-bolstered, though the (manual!) shifter felt like its throws were a little on the long side. I really hope one of these things winds up on Turo...or in my garage. And I still find it weird I’m saying these things about a Hyundai.

Also on the list of things I’d welcome in my garage:

Advertisement

Infiniti, why you have to do us dirty like this? We all know this thing will never be built, could never comply with safety requirements in any country on the planet. Stop whispering empty, pointless, sinfully sweet nothings in my ear!

...Maybe if there was, like, a one-model, neo-retro Grand Prix racing series? I can dream, dammit.

Advertisement

*Insert “It’s been 84 years” gif*

Advertisement

I know the Alfa Romeo script is mostly there for marketing...but it’s working. I should probably mark it NSFW for all the engineering porn.

Advertisement

The Chiron is so insane, I actually don’t find it that desirable. Kind of like, the first time I went bungee-jumping, I was so terrified I actually became calm. But I do like the “C” curve and the carbon-fiber weave visible through the paint (or is it colored carbon-fiber? oooh).

Advertisement

On the other hand, the Aventador SVJ is one million percent WANT. It may be is definitely the inner six-year-old speaking, but it looks like a stealth fighter, my Hot Wheels collection, and a cruise missile had a stupendously awesome baby. And CAS is probably the last time I’ll ever be this close to one.

Advertisement

The Urus, on the other hand...well, it’s very geometrical? The wheels and green brake calipers work well together, at least.

Advertisement

Words are pointless in front of this Aston.

Advertisement

People have been critiquing McLaren’s design language, but I think more supercars need to copy the 720S’ ‘alien spaceship’ look. This thing makes me giddy just looking at it, which is the whole point of super-and-above-cars.

Advertisement

The problem with all these new shiny toys, though, is you can’t really play with ‘em. They’re fenced-off, and more of a fantasy window-shop than anything else.

But there was another supercar at CAS that wasn’t hidden behind security lines. One that, in a way, calls Chicago home.

Advertisement

The original press release of the NS-X prototype.
Photo: Scouting For Zen

Advertisement

Back in 1989, when life was a lot more rad, Acura showed off a special prototype in Chicago: the NS-X. 30 years later, the NSX still brings people together in admiration over its lines—car enthusiast or not. I had a great conversation with the gentleman in the photo above and his girlfriend about what made the original NSX so important. She was a bit shocked that an Acura is what made storied marques like Ferrari and Lamborghini—whose current products were on display a few hundred feet away—into the highly-desirable objets they are today.

Testarossa, Countach, Porsche...yeah, in case you still don’t get it, Honda was aiming for the top with the NSX.
Photo: Scouting For Zen

Advertisement

Conversations like that are what I love about going to auto shows. A chance to just talk with people, like the two dudes in the Civic, about what makes cars special. Why we want them; what we hope for and dream about.

Advertisement

I had a similar exchanging of words over by Lincoln’s stand. After so many years of mediocrity, the brand’s in a bit of a renaissance. The Continental honestly has the best seats I’ve ever sat it, and the new Nautilus is definitely stylish enough to compete with the Cadillac XT4 and its entry-luxe competitors.

Just fix the friggin’ wood trim, please.

Advertisement

I talked with another couple, roughly a decade or two older than me, while sitting in the Navigator. They were smitten with the interior, which was *chef kiss*. Of course, the thing costs $100k—it should feel special. But all three of us were sitting in a six-figure Lincoln, and it didn’t feel ludicrous.

Advertisement

Know what was, though?

Advertisement

Remember Vanderhall, and their Venice? Turns out, little ol’ Vanderhall has made an electric version. We all though Morgan would have the electric 3-Wheeler out by now, but Vanderhall beat ‘em to the punch.

Here’s the interesting part. For all the manufacturers on display in Chicago, both large- and small-scale, there weren’t any suppliers. Acura managed to bring not just an original NSX, but original development literature; Mazda found a picture-perfect 10AE NB; even Vanderhall managed to bring out a brand-new vehicle, but Bosch couldn’t show up? Or ZF, Michelin, or Continental (Continental was at the International Motorcycle Show this year)?

Advertisement

No. Because that’s not the point of CAS. Conversations are. Because the people who wandered the show halls, sitting in the seats, oohing and aahing over the Navigator’s amazing interior, or gawking at the Civic Type R’s engine bay—NAIAS isn’t their show.

My dad and uncle didn’t come because they wanted to research a potential purchase. They wanted to come and see what new stuff was coming out. The state of the automobile, as it were.

Advertisement

That’s why a show like this is important. How often do non-journalists get to just...sit in seats? Feel and judge, out-loud, every inch of an interior in peace? Inspect engine bays, rear seats, trunk space, all without getting harassed by a dealership employee working on commission? Every person who’s approached me for car advice works a full-time job and/or has a family: the only appreciable time they can find to visit a dealer is on the weekends. No way are they going to rush a decision as significant as a car purchase in the last hour of the night that the dealer’s open. Which means going to every dealership to test-drive every car on their watch-list would take weeks. Weeks of drinking bad coffee and hoping the sales-person isn’t too pushy. Weeks of trying to keep disparate driving sensations in mind.

Advertisement

Why not come to an auto show? Sit in (almost) any car you want, no pressure to buy, stay as long as you want. There’s even a bar down the way. That may be the dealership experience for marques like Bentley or Rolls-Royce. But those customers came to the First Look For Charity, away from us unwashed peasants.

Don’t get me wrong: VR interactivity is cool, costs less than a full-scale booth, and allows people to experience certain features more easily; and you could sit in the cars at NAIAS. But you can’t feel leather grain or a plastic’s softness with VR. And NAIAS didn’t have the sheer breadth of cars on display as CAS.

Advertisement

NAIAS has to balance between those within the industry and those outside of it. For every new crossover, there was a display about brake calipers or electric motors. Sure, brake calipers are important. But the average consumer doesn’t really care about the specific pad compound or if the caliper design was just refreshed this year. That’s getting way into the weeds. You couldn’t have a NAIAS layout in Chicago because that’s not what CAS is about.

Yes, Chicago is where the Miata and NSX first debuted. Some might argue that history is enough to justify CAS’s continuation. It isn’t. But it doesn’t have to be.

Advertisement

You want CAS summed up in one photo? Two little kids clamoring all over the new Jeep Gladiator while their parents watch.
Photo: Scouting For Zen

Chicago is about wheels on the ground. It’s about a display for the consumer, answering every and all questions. It’s about experiencing departure angle and horsepower without knowing or caring what the actual numbers are. It’s about running your hands over every version of a dashboard, and making your own decisions. It’s about Touching the Damn Cars, already.

Advertisement

And if that sounds like so much hot air—well, this is The Windy City.