Chicago 2017: “Blair Witch,” “Star Wars,” and Then Some…

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All Photos by Randy Stern

I could do a standard-issue look at the 109th edition of the Chicago Auto Show. However, I have done that plenty of times.

In fact, this is my tenth time I visited the show. This marks the 15th anniversary of my first one – credentialed as media. That now makes it nine years as a media person, the seventh in a row.

So, how do I talk about the 2017 Chicago Auto Show that won’t be as predictive and boring?

Let’s just start from the beginning – the night before the Midwest Automotive Media Association breakfast.

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DINNER WITH LEXUS: I came into town later than most of my colleagues. That almost excused me from attending Nissan’s welcome event in the West Loop. Instead, I checked into my hotel – The Blackstone, a Renaissance Hotel – and attempted to do some last minute shopping in The Loop. Let me say that the hotel is fantastic! The last three times I stayed in and around The Loop, I was spoiled by some incredibly fabulous accommodations. This historic property was a mix of the 1920’s and 2017. I had two great nights there – a good indicator of how things would go.

Later that night, I fulfilled my first invite of the show – a dinner with Lexus. V&R readers would probably think “well, duh.” Along with fantastic food at ZED451 and great interactions with fellow media folks and the team at Toyota and Lexus, it was all about the LC and LS. The LC is worth exploring further, as Lexus has a grand touring coupe with a nasty hammer under its hood – the 5.0 liter V8. The numbers are around those of the RC F, but the design is mind blowing in person. What I was concerned about was the interior. It is a very luxurious place to be. The car is well fitted for my body, but there are a few twists that I would have to get used to. The gear lever, for example. The wide infotainment screen is another. Adjustments for sure, but I expect nothing but greatness from the LC 500 at the price Lexus is asking for – around $93,000-plus.

Detroit yielded a different LS than before. I heard the complaints of it being too stodgy and such. The current LS is elegant and a lovely car to drive. This new 2018 model is more so. The design is edgier, but I like that kind of thing. It will offer a twin-turbocharged V6 first, which I hope will be as smooth as the current V8. The side windows gain more panes – including one on the C-pillar. Lastly, the interior is off the scale – sumptuous and advanced. This is something worth waiting for.

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BREAKFAST WITH THE NEW MAMA PRESIDENT: I know you do care who runs the media association I am a proud member of. However, I cannot be prouder of Jill Ciminillo as the first woman to run the Midwest Automotive Media Association. She kicked off this year’s Media Preview with some humor and excitement. This year’s breakfast was also in honor of the late Jim Mateja, the former Chicago Tribune automotive columnist who founded MAMA in 1991. We lost him, as he lost battle with Cancer. Mitsubishi added a special touch by asking media and industry colleagues to sign a poster of Mateja to present to his family.

It is worth noting that it was Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ morning. First, they won MAMA’s Family Car of The Year for the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Then, Ralph Gilles spoke as their annual keynote speaker. I know Gilles as a passionate designer and motorsports enthusiast. But, to hear him talk about mobility, autonomous driving and active safety was a sign of the reality of the industry’s future. It was quite different coming from Gilles. The passion was there, but it somehow felt that FCA – and the rest of the industry – are simply having to do these advances for our future. That’s just my own opinion and takeaway…

ATTEMPTING TO BE TECHNOLOGICALLY INFLUENTIAL: Last year, I began to play with Facebook Live as a way to engage with my friends and to the Victory & Reseda social media followers. So far, the results have been mixed – “Blair Witch” camera movements (I don’t have the steadiest of hands in the world), relying on the iPhone’s microphone to pick up distance voices and my own unscripted commentary (I admit sounding like an idiot at times). But, I wanted to do video content from the show floor…

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I had help. My industry friend Paige Presley from Infiniti did a beautiful job on the visual, but the iPhone’s mic could not pick up my commentary. I worked with another industry friend, Fred Ligouri of Chevrolet, for a piece on the Bolt EV. It was awkward at times…as was my other live videos from Nissan and Volkswagen, where I went solo. I did try a recorded video with Mazda’s Jacob Brown on a demonstration of the MX-5 Miata RF’s retractable roof. It went well, except for my own laughing and dumb commentary.

I did some personal reflections on my Facebook wall. Was I that tired? I did not even go to Thursday’s “Sweet Home Chicago” party and still looked like I went through the ringer.

I was thankful, though. You have to try new things – even at my age.

LET’S TALK ABOUT CARS, TRUCKS AND SUVS…SHALL WE? In my preview piece, I stated that I would be looking at vehicles that debuted at previous auto shows. I was not disappointed! In fact, I was blown away by a few of them.

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My summation of the Kia Stinger GT was good, but it was worth seeing it in person. The design will stand out, but I was simply blown away by the rear seat access and the hatchback. The interior is nice, though some may quibble about quality equity with this and “lower” Kia models. I believe this will be a special car for its customers. In my humble opinion, it all comes down to how it drives. It better drive as good as it looks.

As someone who loves working with Dodge Chargers, one would look no further than the big SUV cousin – the Durango – for what would come next for FCA’s performance brand. The inclusion of the newly introduced 2018 SRT version was something that was expected, and it certainly would be enticing for families looking for 485 horsepower and at least seven seats. I think of the Durango SRT as a Charger R/T Scat Pack with a third row, higher ride height and towing capacity for a lightweight track warrior. Wait, does it have a towing capacity? Who cares?

To replace the Hyundai Equus, they had to start a new brand to compete in the premium market. The Genesis name has equity, based on the car now called the G80. The new G90 shows that Hyundai can build a glamorous car that can nudge past a Lexus in terms of…well, glamour. The quality feel inside reminds me of something I should not be touching at a fine jewelry store. It’s more comfortable than a Mercedes-Benz. And, yes, I want to drive one – the V8, please?

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Toyota had a few vehicles that caught my eye. The 2018 Camry – in the SE and XSE guise – really look good in person. The 2018 Sequoia TRD Sport makes me want to finally drive one. They did a good job on new grille textures for the 2018 Tundra – especially on the new TRD Sport on displ;ay at the reveal. Finally, a brief ride-along in the 2017 Highlander almost won me over. That was until I saw the next vehicle…

Let me say this: If the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas does not sell in numbers competitive to the rest of its class, then I would be disappointed. This is Wolfsburg’s best effort in engaging North American customers for vehicles they would need – instead of want. We want GTIs, GLIs and Golf Rs. Hell, I want a Passat SE 1.8T with the Technology Package. North American consumers now need SUVs. The Atlas hits on those needs with superlatives in third row seating and access, V(R)6 performance with 4Motion traction and a higher grade of interior quality now found on a few other vehicles from VW.

This leads me to the 2018 Tiguan. By choosing to sell the global Allspace – the longer wheelbase of the two – here is more directed to find a wider catchment of customers looking at the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. The third row is great for kids, but I rather have them folded down for exceptional cargo space utilization – with a completely flat floor. Interior quality is way up. Think of the Tiguan is a major competitor in this segment. Heck, think of VW scoring well with their SUV strategy.

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There were so many other vehicles I can comment on. Plenty of good…for example, the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox, 2018 Chevrolet Traverse, 2018 Ford Expedition, 2017 Mazda CX-5, 2018 Nissan Rogue Sport and the 2017 Aston Martin DB11. But, there were plenty of head scratchers. Still, I like what I have seen so far…with hopefully a chance to work with them all.

INTERACTIVITY – ON A 42-DEGREE SLOPE: The Chicago Auto Show is primarily a consumer-focused show. To engage with those consumers over the course of nine days, you have to come up with ways to really wow them through interactive displays. The indoor driving experience – more like a ride-along – has been the hallmark of the Chicago experience. This year’s show featured five indoor experiences – all within a short from each other.

The newest one is from Mercedes-Benz, featuring the prowess of their Gelandewagen. Imagine going up a 42-degree steel incline, crossing onto a teeter-totter and dropping down a 42-degree descent. That is the experience Mercedes-Benz had in mind for their $122,400-plus ex-military luxury SUV, the G550. I was impressed, of course, but a 42-degree climb/drop is pretty damn scary…

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Camp Jeep returned with a wider selection of vehicles and more “tests” of their prowess. They did not have a 42-degree test, but their hill climbs are still spectacular. FCA also offers their speed test, with a short acceleration run using sleect Dodge, Chrysler and Fiat vehicles. To round out their display, Ram Trucks had their own test area, featuring specific payload, tow and hauling tests of their pickup lineup.

Toyota always have something for everyone. Their indoor experience includes a test of the RAV4 and Highlander – including their respective hybrid versions – on a test of more down-to-earth abilities.

As part of the consumer-focused experience at the Chicago Auto Show are the Ride-and-Drive tests where they can actually take the wheel of any vehicle ready for a short drive. Subaru and Mazda opened up their experiences a day early for Social Media Day. I figured I would partake.

First, I got to drive the all-new 2017 Subaru Impreza. Built off of the the new global structure that will form the basis of everything Subaru will introduce in the next several years, the Impreza turned out to be quite a good car. It is responsive, comfortable, agile…quite a huge leap for this compact car. I certainly hope to review one this year…

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The one car I have been waiting to drive is the ND generation of the fabled Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Grand Touring version I got to test did not disappoint. The talk of weight savings and concentrated performance was confirmed. It does feel like the original – the NA generation – but with more interior room, technology and agility. It is absolutely chuckable and quite responsive. This is absolutely brilliant – even on an atypical Chicago winter day.

YOU WHEN YOU HAD A GREAT CHICAGO AUTO SHOW WHEN… In the numbers if times I worked this show, I walked away with a smile on my face. A lot was accomplished and it was done in a manner that was satisfactory with lessons to be learned. I was grateful to the many colleagues in the media, the car community and in the industry I had to chance to see.

My final moment came while waiting for my flight home at O’Hare Airport. I was sitting with Chad Kirchner of FutureMotoring.com, Nicole Wakelin of the Boston Globe and Eileen Falkenberg-Hull of U.S. News and World Report, recapping the show and looking for solutions to the problems we saw. Obviously, we weren’t able to resolve the world’s problems, but I did get a synopsis of what Kirchner and Wakelin did at the Nissan stand the night before.

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As huge “Star Wars fans, Kirchner and Wakelin, connected with two Nissan PR people on doing a sleepover underneath the Death Star at their display. This was to honor the tie-in between the film franchise and the car brand. I could be wrong, but in the 109 years of the Chicago Auto Show, no one has ever slept overnight in the exhibit space – maybe perhaps for security personnel, overnight workers at McCormick Place or any public safety person on duty. The changing face and speed of media these days were rewarded by this act. And, I am happy to call Kirchner and Wakelin friends.

Yet, my journey is one of a different path, as well. The feedback I received from you helped in forming a future plan for the content on this site. This is what makes me hungrier for more experiences in automotive media – even at my age.

Another Chicago Auto Show is in the books. I look forward to my tenth media preview in 2018. Maybe I will get better at what I want to do and how to do it. Every year marks different experiences, challenges and future levels of accomplishments.

See you next time, Chicago!

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