Chicago 2013: Coming Back for More

Welcome to the 2013 Chicago Auto Show
A familiar sight since 2002. All photos by Randy Stern

Contrary to my prior concerns, the North American international Auto Show did not spoil my attendance at McCormick Place this past week.

In my sixth Chicago Auto Show – the fourth on media days – being at Cobo Center a few weeks prior helped prepare me for these past two days. The time was spent in Detroit on a singular mission with limited time to explore the other offerings on the floor. Chicago was set aside for full cavity exploration of what I did not fully experience at NAIAS. That was exactly the intention – and to present the 2012 Vehicle of the Year award to its worth winner.

It is true that the diametric differences between NAIAS and Chicago are glaring. It is indeed day and night. As some of us in the media corps pointed – you can actually talk to people. The comparisons do not stop there.

When a major debut arrives, the instinct is to snap as many photos of it, go inside, feel around and write glowingly of the experience. What I found in Detroit is that it was not easy to do. There were many other people – journalists, social media folks, industry people, etc. – at Cobo Center that it was proved difficult. At Chicago, the larger space between two halls and the lower number of credentialed media helped tremendously in navigating my efforts at McCormick Place.

It is the many reasons why I enjoy coming to Chicago – to have conversations, pitch stories and other laid back tasks not afforded at other auto show media days.

Obviously, you do not want to read about the ins and outs of an auto show. You want to read about the new products. Where shall we begin? Ah…

2014 Ram ProMaster 3500

2014 RAM PROMASTER: While Ford trotted out their globalized Transit van for our market, Chrysler and Fiat decided to finally pull the trigger on the growing ful-sized van market. The Fiat Ducato was given a flat black plastic bumper/grille with the crosshairs and the Ram's head to submit their entry for both fleet and small business owners. The result is the birth of a sub-brand, Ram Commercial, and a product with many different options. The ProMaster buyer will have 13 different specifications to choose from – ranging on wheelbase, body length, roof height and a few cab/chassis configurations. On top of that, Fiat agreed to supply us with their 3.0litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel with a six-speed robotized manual gearbox, while the Pentastar V6 with a six-speed automatic is available for petrol drinkers. There is one catch: It is front-wheel drive. There are some detractors who would argue against going front-drive, but Ram and Fiat did their homework to ensure that the rear axle and suspension are strong enough to balance their payloads. You will find they are comparable to the Nissan NV, the Chevrolet Express/GMC Savanna and the upcoming Transit. If you miss the idea of a Dodge van – the Ram ProMaster will be your best leverage in yielding the cost of ownership.

2014 KIA FORTE 5-DOOR: Back in Los Angeles, the Forte sedan rolled out with a chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs." The hatch just raised the volume on the chorus. It was actually a huge surprise in itself. At first, one would have thought that the Forte hatch would be a rebadged C'eed for the North American market. No. The Forte has a different look than its European cousin. Taking a page out of the Rio design book, the grille is narrowed in height embodying an aggressive front stance. The other huge surprise is what is being offered as engine choices. If you get the EX, you get the Forte's standard 178HP 2.0litre four. Tick the SX box, and a 201HP 1.6litre turbocharged engine is your weapon of choice. Having never sat foot in either the upcoming sedan or this new hatch, the obvious question is whether there is enough room for everyone. If so, Kia may have a strong contender in the compact class sending a few its rivals back to the drawing board. This Forte could also give license to take Kia more seriously as a top choice for consumers. We might not believe this, but the Forte is a sleeper ready to wake up the marketplace.

Though I would add more, but admittedly, Chicago was lacking real strong product. The revised 2014 Toyota Tundra tried to emulate the Ram's revamp strategy. Chevrolet added a 2.0litre turbocharged "clean" diesel to the Cruze's lineup. And, there were a plethora of new variants, special editions and so forth to look at.

For the deep cavity look at several new products, one vehicle continued to stand out brightly above all from Detroit, Los Angeles and Paris – the Infiniti Q50. A deeper examination of the new "premium compact sedan" replacing the G series (nee Nissan Skyline) showed a true luxury alternative to the 3-Series/ATS/A4 crowd. It would also become the strongest choice amongst the so-called alternatives. After hitting my head getting into the Lincoln MKZ (and simply not liking some of the interior details of that car), I found serenity and space in the Q50. Perhaps it was the Hybrid model that did it, but I would reserve judgment until I see a regular Q50.

In some cases, the deep cavity exploration ended up with a road test – a brief one. The Chicago Auto Show will offer several Ride-and-Drives both inside and out of the show floor. You could ride along at Camp Jeep, get a feel for acceleration with other Chrysler products, or have your name in lights as you ride along in a selection of Toyota brand products – all inside McCormick Place.

However, if you feel the need to drive – Cadillac, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Subaru will have you covered. For a 10-20 minute loop, one of these five brands is available with a selection models to sample. Kia and Cadillac offered their Ride-and-Drive experiences during our media days. This presented a great opportunity for me to get my feet wet on some select vehicles. Expect some "Quickie" takes on the 2014 Kia Cadenza, 2013 Kia Optima SX Limited and the 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6 Luxury.

VOTY '12 Award Hand-Off 2

Perhaps my biggest personal moment from Chicago was the Vehicle of the Year award presentation. Given last year's hand-off to Buick's Tony DiSalle, I figured it would be as low key with Chrysler. I was wrong. Everything else was a huge surprise. Not only was I handing the framed certificate to Dodge and Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland, there were cameras on the spot recording this! I had to give one of the onlookers my camera to get the shot. I noticed a video camera amongst the cameras. It was a bit nerve wracking, but I delivered it concisely and with a smile on my face.

The folks at Chrysler were simply terrific and gracious to accept the award. The point about whether this award had any weight and bearing was moot. Again, it proves the notion that awarding an accolade to a company or person is still a big deal – regardless of where the award came from.

If there was one thing I came home with from this Chicago Auto Show is that my work now has resonance. Just being on the floor with some great writers, photographers, social media influencers and recognized for being one of them – two years since returning to media days – drives home the importance of maintaining this site and my presence on the other outlets I write for.

This is why Chicago feels like "home" when I am around my fellow colleagues and contacts. Our connection remains fresh, even if we had not seen each other since NAIAS or the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Fall Rally…or, last year's Chicago show.

I was hoping for more. I believe I received that – not in new product or exploring product never touched before. Rather, the increased value in attending the media days at Chicago Auto Show as I prepare for a year's worth of work.

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