Chicago 2016: Three Key Debuts

2017 Kia Niro - All photos by Michael Gatch/Mike Gatch Photography
2017 Kia Niro – All photos by Michael Gatch/Mike Gatch Photography

Do driverless cars dream of sport utility vehicles?

Last month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit was filled with technologies of the future. Automakers showed us new safety technologies that if given free reign could drive a car unaided by its human occupant. The 2016 Chicago Auto Show is the alarm clock that rips you from that dream. Instead of the promise of the future Chicago is firmly grounded in the present. SUVs and trucks are what Americans crave and the Windy City is full of them.

Car preferences have always reflected the time period they exist in. The streamlined designs of the 1950s were a representation of the newly minted interstate highway system. Today, in a world of crumbling infrastructure SUVs and crossovers make more sense than ever. Americans are rugged individualists whether they live in a cabin in the woods or a three bedroom townhouse in the suburbs. Some want the freedom to go anywhere, do anything and pack enough snacks to keep them and their kids satiated. Some want to crest dunes and crawl rocks. Others just want to have a worry free commute while getting 50 miles per gallon. The Chicago Auto Show has something to fill all these niches.

I know I should save the best for last, but I want to start with the most inspiring car of Chicago, the 2017 Kia Niro. This all new vehicle was developed independently of all Kia models to be a dedicated hybrid crossover. The Kia Niro is powered by an all new 103 horsepower 1.6 liter direct injected engine in combination with a 43 horsepower permanent magnet electric motor. The electric motor is fed by a 42 kW, imagine the brightness of 4200 100 watt light bulbs, battery pack. That battery pack has a capacity of 1.56 kWh, which could keep a 100 watt light bulb illuminated for 15.6 hours. Power is directed to the front wheels only through a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. Kia is claiming that this combination will be good for 50 miles per gallon combined.

Kia is calling this new vehicle a Hybrid Utility Vehicle or HUV for short. This is what the hybrid market has been missing. The Niro isn't the first hybrid crossover, but it is the first one that has taken a holistic approach to designing and engineering one. Hybrids are no longer a novel status symbol that needs quirky design to be accepted in the mainstream. The Niro is very conventionally styled compared the the recently released 2016 Toyota Prius.

Kia wants you to like driving the new Niro and according to them they think CVTs shift in a "mushy" fashion and a tendency to do a lot of "motorboating" that ruins the driving experience. This is why Kia engineers chose a dual clutch transmission for the Niro according to Scott Mckee the head of corporate communications at Kia. The question remains if it will be able to deliver the real world fuel economy. CVTs have their shortcomings, but are very efficient. On the other hand, gears are not important to an electric motor, but they are important to a gasoline engine. In a mainstream CUV it might be a good choice to focus on making the gasoline powered part of the powertrain as pleasing to drive as possible.

The Niro is so conservatively designed that without the tiger nose grill it is almost indistinguishable from the likes of the Buick Encore or the Honda HR-V. For this very reason I think that Kia might just have a sales juggernaut on its hands.

Maybe this inconspicuous compact crossover has the technology that can allow the next generation of car buyers to have their trucks and SUVs and sip some fuel while they’re at it.

2017 Nissan Armada
2017 Nissan Armada

I love hybrids and overall fuel efficiency, but I have a guilty pleasure. That guilty pleasure was given form today and its name was Armada. The car that I want to own is the Niro, but the car that I want to spend a weekend in is the 2017 Nissan Armada. I'm a big guy, my brother is a big guy and my wife is a weightlifter so we love a big,comfortable, V8 powered SUV to log some miles in. I know that this vehicle is just an Infiniti QX56 that has been rebadged as a Nissan, but does that really matter? These vehicles aren't supposed to be modern or innovative. They are just supposed to be big and capable.

The launch of a vehicle like the Armada is where we have to wake up from the dream of concept cars and driverless technology. Consumers will not be upset that the new Armada is the automotive equivalent of trickle down economics. I could list the specifications and the dimensions, but I’m not sure that is actually what this sort of car is even about. Consumers will just be happy to go to a Nissan dealer and grab themselves a good old body-on-frame SUV with four-wheel-drive and indulge in this momentary reprieve from high gas prices. How can we fault them? Americans have always known how to get things done, and they want products to reflect that. That is why despite its shortcomings, the Armada is a great addition to the Nissan line-up

Growing up in the Midwest, trucks have always been daily driver work horses, but there is another side to trucks that begs to find where the road ends and the trail begins. The Toyota Tacoma has been a preferred implement of off-road locomotion. Since the launch of the redesigned Tacoma the option for an off-road spec model with a factory warranty was missing. This is where the 2017 Tacoma TRD Pro comes into play. The TRD Pro adds a one inch lift, kevlar reinforced Goodyear Wrangler tires, Fox 2.5 internal bypass shocks and enough skid pads to protect all those delicate powertrain components. Every aspect of the TRD Pro has been hardened and increased to deal with the added stress and heat that comes with off-road driving.

2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

Trucks built with the trail in mind are perfect for today's market. The TRD Pro offers distinctive styling that says I like to the road less taken. The new trend of blacked out distinctive grills with large bold fonts is really appealing because it resonates with the repressed high school version of me that wants to show off my truck's capabilities.

On paper the TRD Pro has all the right stuff to entice those who want a bigger and better Tacoma. Even if this truck never goes off-road at least owners will be able to conquer the rugged world of potholed roads and unpaved roads with panache.

The list of reveals at the Chicago Auto Show prove that no one wants to downsize. Consumers want SUVs, crossovers and trucks. Sedans and hatchbacks are just temporary stepping stones to owning cars that can do it all. Consumers want to believe they need utility, and that their lives are filled with sport. For some it is and for others the door is always open to try. I think Chicago was a great show that indicates of where the American car market is heading in the next few years. It would be unwise to bet against the crossover.

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