Chicago Auto Show Offers Technology Review

CHICAGO, ILL. — The Chicago Auto Show prides itself on being the biggest of the four major U.S. auto shows, claiming that by the time the 105th show ends its 10-day run on February 17, more people will have filed into McCormick Place than will attend the November show in Los Angeles, January’s Detroit event, or April’s New York show.
The shows each take on their own personalities. In L.A., the emphasis is on downsizing, fuel efficiency, and alternative forms of fuel; in Detroit, it’s time for the domestic Big Three to beat there chests and proclaim that they’re back to prominence, and that it’s safe to once again boast about more power and size. Chicago is more like New York, where visiting the city is part of the allure. You can’t get swallowed up as easily in Chicago, but it is loaded with fine restaurants and blues nightclubs, which makes after-hours gatherings an easy way to fill in the blanks if there is a shortage of new introductions.
This year, a lot of introductions were made at Los Angeles, and the Detroit show was dominated by General Motors, with the Cadillac ATS winning North American Car of the Year, and Chrysler LLC, with the Ram 1500 winning North American Truck of the Year, and the newly unveiled Chevrolet Corvette taking home “Car of the Show” honors from the hometown observers.
Only a few interesting new introductions at Chicago left room for the Upper Midwest attendees to examine the numerous technical advances currently going on in the industry. A highlight of the show was the public introduction of the new Mercedes Style Coupe, a stunning compact sedan that was unveiled to the media in Detroit but looked glorious on its pedestal at the Chicago show. Some who hadn’t seen it thought it looked like a large sedan, but while it resembles the “four-door coupe” look of the previous CLS Mercedes, this one will compete as a compact, a luxury vehicle that could change the competitive balance. The car was unveiled in a major Super Bowl advertisement, where a customer was willing to make a deal with the devil for such a beautiful car, but backs out when he finds he can buy it for under $30,000 — without selling his soul.
Nissan surprised many by turning its Nismo high-performance arm on not only the 370 Z sports car, but also on a Juke. The Nismo Juke is aimed at bringing down the high cost of high performance, while fitting the subcompact runabout with a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder upgraded to 197 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque, churning through all-wheel drive. In previous efforts, Nismo has built no-compromise hot performers, with the engines, transmissions, suspensions, exterior styling and even the seats and interiors given special treatment. For the Nismo gang, the Juke is a departure.
“The Juke is a polarizing vehicle, with a lot of innovations,” said Michael Bunce, chief product planner for Nissan’s large sedans and mid to compact SUVs. “Nobody is sure whether the Juke is a crossover or a car, but it doesn’t matter. We took a lot from the Nismo heritage. For example, the spoiler on the rear of the Juke Nismo really works to create 37 percent more downforce. We will offer some new features, such as a navigation system, with rear-view camera, and a Rockford-Fosgate audio upgrade. We aren’t saying the prices yet, but it will be comparable to the top-of-the-line SL grade.”
Chevrolet introduced a 2.0-liter diesel version of the compact Cruze, which will be a first for a U.S. company, and it announced intentions to go after Volkswagen’s popular Jetta, Golf and Beetle TDI models, which are currently the only compact vehicles with diesel power available.
Not to be outdone, Volkswagen showed off old-looking but new Beetle models, with the significance of a new engine lost on many observers. Ranier Michel, VW chief engineer, said, “The new Beetle GSR will have a 2.0-liter Turbo that is actually a new generation that will replace the 2.0 Turbo we’ve used for so long. It has 10 more horsepower, and it will go into the regular Golf Turbo, GTI and Jetta GLI.
Dodge Trucks, as they were formerly known, are now to be called “Ram” without the Dodge name, in an attempt to isolate the trucks into a separate brand. In Chicago, Ram unveiled its new ProMaster van — a tall, spacious commercial van that looks a lot like Nissan’s rival, and has a similarity to the Sprinter that Dodge used from Mercedes when Chrysler Corporation used to belong to Mercedes. The ProMaster comes from Fiat, the new owner of Chrysler LLC., and it has a chance to be enormously successful, Dodge officials say, because it already is very successful in Europe.
“It’s the top-selling commercial van in Europe,” said Brad Pugh, Ram’s lead engineer. “It outsells the Sprinter and the Ford Transit in Europe. When I got the chance to drive one with our Pentastar engine in it, it felt like a rocketship. All of our other vans have been pickup based, but this one has its own platform, with all four corners having active suspension. It is extremely comfortable, and it handles really well.”
The Pentastar V6 engine is a 3.6-liter dual-overhead-cam gem with variable valve timing. It replaces seven V6 engines that all were forms of stopgap designs to improve on existing engines. In all Chrysler and Dodge sedans, plus the Dodge Caravan, Jeep Grand Cherokee and now Wrangler, the engine has been very impressive, both for performance and fuel economy. Putting it into the full-size Ram 1500 pickup, with the new 8-speed transmission, was the key to SX version of the Forte, which is an eye-catching hatchback model. Hyundai’s Elantra won 2011 North American Car of the Year, then brought out an impressive companion GT 5-door hatchback on a longer wheelbase. Since the Forte rides on the Elantra chassis, the elongated and stylish Forte SX should make a similar 1-2 punch for Kia.
Mazda was comparatively quiet, having already shown the new Mazda6 sedan and already is shipping them to showrooms with its makeover Skyactiv design, power and transmissions. Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes said the new car will use a larger 2.5-liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder, and also will be coming with a 2.2-liter turbo-diesel. The diesel will become the first Japanese sedan powered by a turbo diesel, and it will be available the second half of 2013.
Barnes said the new CX-5 crossover utility is selling very well as the first all-out Skyactiv, and it, too will get thge 2.2 diesel to join the standard 2.0 gas engine. “The new 2.5 has 29 more horsepower than the 2.0,” Barnes said. “But in our test drives, we’re still seeing 32 miles per gallon with the larger engine and all-wheel drive. Like the CX-5, the Mazda6 will get Mazda’s new pair of transmissions; the company built its own 6-speed units both manual and automatic, with the automatic offering the advantages of a CVT, a direct-sequential, and a conventional automatic, but without any of the of the shortcomings each of those have.

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