Last month, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit celebrated its 25th anniversary. While a quarter century of dazzling displays may be noteworthy to some, the Motor City has serious catching up to do to surpass the Windy City's impressive credentials.
While Detroit's exploits began during the George H.W. Bush administration, Chicago's debut gets traced back to the time when William McKinley occupied the While House. Way back in 1901, during the automotive industry's pupa stage, Chicago spread its wings and staged its first Auto Show, setting the pace for the rest of the country if not the world.
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Chicago's longevity is traceable to its consumer tilt: it's a show catering to the general public, not a public relations exercise for the auto executives and their well-connected cronies.
More than 1,000 vehicles fill the plush, carpeted floor throughout the nicely heated North and South halls of McCormick Place adjacent to the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan. The show continues for 10 days, wrapping up on President's Day, Monday, Feb. 17.
Last year, automakers sold 15.6 million vehicles in the U.S., up a healthy 7.6 percent from 2012. These numbers represent the best annual effort since 2007. Based on the displays at this year's show, 2014 looks even more promising.
Already this year, much news has been generated throughout the industry. Chrysler Group unveiled its next-generation 2015 200 sedan, a four-door car battling in the highly competitive midsize sedan segment. It's customizable with more than 100 aftermarket selections (wheels, graphics packages, etc.) from Chrysler's Mopar Division that are being unveiled here at the Chicago show.
For the last 32 years, Ford's full-size, light-duty F-150 pickup truck ranked as the best-selling vehicle (car or truck) in the U.S. Not content to sit idle, Ford unveiled a lighter-weight, next-generation 2015 effort substituting aluminum-alloy structures for traditional steal body panels, improving fuel economy in the process. Weight savings is projected near 700 pounds.
While recent highlights cover conventional internal combustion cars, expect to see a wide display of alternative-powered technology, including pure electric, hydrogen and compressed natural gas. The 2014 Honda Civic compact powered by natural gas goes on sale throughout most of the country Feb. 15.
During the Chicago Auto Show media preview earlier this week, Chevrolet introduced a bi-fuel version of its full-size Silverado heavy-duty pickup powered by compressed natural gas (CNG).
The Chicago Auto Show incorporates more indoor test tracks for guests than any other major auto show. They've been a fan favorite since 2005 and are found in the South Hall. Returning this year are Jeep's off-road course, Chrysler's performance stop and Toyota's proving grounds of seesaws, water crossings and 15-foot hill climbs.
Also back is the opportunity to test vehicles on public roads outside McCormick Place. Participating manufacturers have sign ups and waivers at the displays.
"Last year, more than 75,000 people took part in our test tracks or test drives," said John Webb, 2014 Chicago Auto Show co-chairman. "It's a great way to experience the show and learn about the capabilities of different vehicles."
Eye-catching concept cars to keep a watch on include Cadillac's El Miraj, Toyota's FT-1 and the Kia GT4 Stinger. Ford takes a twist on alternative power with its C-MAX Solar Energi concept. Toyota's three-wheeled iROAD concept is suited for short commutes.
Automakers roll out these "dream" vehicles to gauge the public's reaction and test design cues. As these concepts approach closer to the production phase, a "prototype" of the vehicle sometimes gets rolled out in anticipation of the real deal. The 2015 Acura TLX Prototype debuting at the Chicago show is one such example.
General Motors incorporates more than 100,000 square feet of space for its four brands, the largest display it offers at any show in North America and comprising a large percentage of the North Hall.
An additional number of "rest stations" throughout the vast halls have been added for feet in need of relief, including Chevrolet's "Plug. Charge. Chill." oasis. Patrons may kick up tired toes while simultaneously recharging portable electronics from the available power outlets built into comfy couches. Interactive displays and many racing simulators there test showgoer's eye-hand coordination while providing respite for achy feet.
For those raised and nurtured in an earlier era, Ford's South Hall exhibit includes seven Mustang-inspired pinball machines with flashing lights and sound effects inspiring the senses. Nearby is a pristine 1965 skylight blue Mustang convertible, owned by Park Ridge native Gail Wise. Wise bought this Mustang on April 15, 1964, at Johnson Ford in Chicago, two days before the car "officially" went on sale. It's the first known retail sale of a production Mustang.
The iconic Mustang pony car turning 50 years young in 2014 (it doesn't look a day over 10) has undergone a next-Gen makeover for 2015.
Other vehicle's making news or their U.S. debut in Chicago include:
• Chevrolet's City Express, a scaled-down version of the full-size Chevy Express cargo van. The 2015 City Express, powered by a fuel-efficient 131 horsepower, four-cylinder engine, adds versatility to the uniquely popular compact cargo van segment.
• Subaru's all-new, next-generation 2015 Legacy sedan continues as one of the only midsize sedans with all-wheel drive and continuously variable transmission both standard. Four- or six-cylinder powertrains are available.
• Kia's Niro concept with gull-wing, scissor-type side doors and the automaker's first all-electric, zero-emission entry: the Soul Electric Vehicle (EV).
• Lincoln Motor Co's revamped, 2015 model year, full-size seven-passenger Navigator features luxurious interior appointments coupled with fold-flat second- and third-row seats.
• Toyota's racing-inspired TRD Pro Series editions available on the full-size Tundra pickup, compact Tacoma pickup and 4-Runner sport utility.
• Volvo's performance-inspired Polestar editions gracing the 2015 V60 sports wagon and 2015 S60 sedan. Only 120 of these turbocharged, Polestar models will be available for sale in the United States.
• The rugged-looking Dodge Journey's 2014 Crossroad edition adds to the midsize crossover sweepstakes.
Once again, the show opens to the public today, running 10 days and taking advantage of President's Day Feb. 17, the Monday school holiday, dubbed Family Day by the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, sponsors of the show since 1935.
Tickets may be purchased in advance online at www.chicagoautoshow.com or may be picked up inside McCormick Place at designated booths (credit cards accepted).