Chicago 2011: Riding Along and Making Notes

Covering an auto show is hard work. You attend press conferences, angle for the best shots possible, mentally prepare your questions and take time to render photos and do the write-ups. This year, I added social media elements to augment the coverage giving interested parties a sort-of live view of the goings on during Press Days. I believe it worked, but not without its faults.

Every time I walked through an auto show, I try to not pound my feet too hard. When I do, my feet react poorly. Not to mention that the cold weather does a job on my right shin.

Enough of my own maladies, this segment from my coverage of the 2011 Chicago Auto Show starts with perhaps the rising star of the automotive world. It was 25 years ago when they sold over 250,000 units of a single model in its first full calendar year. The price was right, but many lessons were learned.

HYUNDAI FOR THE BLOCK: Yes, Hyundai is on a global roll. In the span of twenty-five years, the first Korean automaker to sell its wares on this continent made ardent strides to simply rule our automotive consciousness. They have gone to the level of “they can’t go wrong” with anything they bring out.

As I informed a couple of Hyundai executives yesterday – they won the VOTY for the Sonata twice!

However, Hyundai can confuse me. This was the first time I’ve seen the Veloster up close and personal. I understand where it is coming from: The Genesis Coupe may not be for everyone looking for an expensive toy to flex in. The solution is to have a less expensive and extremely cheerful solution. There is one major drawback: I am confused as to why the third access door on the passenger side of the car that opens on the B-Pillar – and not the C-Pillar! The result are uneven front doors – the longer being on the driver’s side. Epic fail? We’ll see!

There is some good news from the Hyundai stand. When I was preparing for the show, I knew Hyundai had a press conference. It was released that the Veloster rally car was going to take center stage and Rhys Millen will be there to talk about it. I was also hoping they would release either the new Accent and/or Azera for us. However, I was completely surprised. One of my favorite luxury sedans, the Genesis, is getting a very handsome makeover for 2012. It is also getting a larger Tau V8, now at 5.0litres and 429HP, and a sport variant, the R-Spec. Honestly, do you need any more awesomeness for the Genesis sedan – a car that I absolutely love based on a run through a controlled multi-condition track? Well…why not?

By no means is a R-Spec a M5 or E-Class AMG fighter. The numbers are almost in the Charger SRT8’s ballpark, but if you cannot afford the hot Bimmer or Merc – and the insurance and attention from law enforcement they garner – the Genesis Sedan R-Spec may be your ticket. At least I believe it will…

2011 Chevrolet Volt

QUIET ON A DIFFERENT PLANET: I’ll admit that I have not been too kind to the Toyota Prius. As a result, I have been slammed by my readers for not being too kind to the premier hybrid on the market. To be fair, it is one of the few things Toyota is getting right considering what they had gone through whether by its own fault or not. If it weren’t for the Prius, you would not have seen the many variants of gas or diesel electric drivetrains offered in this country alone over the span of ten years.

The second generation Prius was iconic in terms of green transportation. The current generation simply added more concrete to its altar. The latest additions to the Prius family, the wagon-esque V, the plug-in hatchback and an upcoming smaller model, will simply add to the legend and lore to this decade-long automotive revolution. Toyota also plopped its Hybrid Synergy System to various mainstream models from the Camry to the Lexus LS600h showing you can get the heart of a Prius without the iconic shape.

However, GM just made its case against the Prius. The Chevrolet Volt had been grabbing most the headlines of late. Every turn it wanted to trump Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy System by flipping the power delivery from a balanced gas/electric model to a primarily electric design. There is still a gas-run motor underneath the hood, but GM would rather you use the electric side of the equation rather than the gas one.

Without getting too complicated, I took a ride inside a Volt and there are a few things to think about. Yes, it’s as quiet as a Prius – in electric mode. No, it’s not as spacious or roomy as a Prius. And, it’s too damn expensive – for a compact-sized Chevrolet! Yet, it’s only a first impression…and, hopefully, I will be able to get behind the wheel later this year to examine this new icon of green motoring further.

Then again, I can assume right now that the Prius loyalists may be right after all.

2011 Ford Explorer 12011 Range Rover 1

AND, NOW, THE REST OF THE SHOW: We journos also experienced what some of the show goers will experience. Jeep began a few years to exploit the enlarged space at McCormick Place by creating an indoor driving course touting the virtues of the brand. They made an outdoor version, called the “Rocks and Road Tour” as featured in a previous post. Well, I tried Jeep’s new indoor course with a few differences than the outdoor course – as guided by a Jeep driver. It was back into a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon – with the soft top down – with a few more tricks up their sleeve. I finally got to experience the vaunted 18-foot hill testing the hill decent feature – or, “look, ma, I’m not on the brakes going down the steep hill!" Let’s just say, “I Understand Now (Part 3)!”

That’s not all. I mentioned that Chevrolet offered rides in the Volt over a short course. Not to be outdone, Ford was extolling the virtues of their Torrence Avenue-built Explorer by demonstrating its Terrain Control System. First, it’s on a teeter-totter (something I couldn’t master in a Jeep Compass, if you remember), where my guide showed off the system’s ability to master the hill decent before heading the sand pit. In all, the system appeared to work for all scenarios – which is made simple by an intuitive switch on the center console. Here’s the deal: We, in the Upper Midwest, will deal with snowy roads either unplowed or caked down and iced up. How many SUVs and crossovers have you seen stuck in a ditch along the way? In a 2011 Ford Explorer, if you switch the knob to the snow setting, it should be able to get you through the unplowed and caked down stuff. No need to shift a lever or turn a knob to 4-HI and find yourself unable to do several maneuvers. Smart thing, indeed!

Leave it to Toyota to bring out the biggest rider experience in the show. By taking a massive space Toyota created a construction site common in suburbia with molehills and mounds of dirt and stuff everywhere. In this course, I experienced it with guides in a Tundra Double Cab pick-up and a Highlander Hybrid. It was a tale of two Toyotas: The Tundra being solid through the course – perhaps, too solid, might I add – and the Highlander Hybrid surprisingly agile. Through a couple of members of One Voice and their first generation Highlander Hybrid, I already knew what it would do during our Snowpacalypse in December as it meandered on unplowed parts of Interstate 394 and MN-100. The new Highlander Hybrid may not be solid on the side-to-side impact, but extremely capable on each maneuver it was thrown at.

Furthermore, I was able to stop by a few other manufacturers to see what kind of stories I can parse out. My last stop at the show was with Land Rover to get a good look at their new lineup, including the handsome 2012 Range Rover Evoque. This one’s going to be a heartbreaker, folks! Of course, the conversation was around the Wayne Rover…er, Range Rooney…OK, Range Rover (Top Gear fans might know what I’m talking about). Since 1970, this was the standard for anyone going on an African adventure or the run to the cottage in Cheshire. It is a bold machine, equipped with the original Terrain Management System now plunked into the 2011 Ford Explorer – a sign that “Ford was here” prior to Rattan Tata’s purchase of both Jaguar and Land Rover. LR maintains it was their system to begin with thanks to Ford’s system of red tape and such.

All photos by Randy Stern

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