Chicago 2015: On the Road and Through McCormick Place, I Go…

So, what happened at the 2015 Chicago Auto Show, you asked?

Plenty. It was a busy show, full of updated models, concepts and a brand new vehicle. It also yielded an award from the Midwest Automotive Media Association. MAMA's Family Car of The Year was the 2015 Chrysler 200. Brand CEO Al Gardner received the award, did his photo op and left the stage with it. Not sure why, but who needs speeches, really?

The first big news of the show came from Alan Batey's keynote speech. The Executive Vice President and North American President for General Motors dropped the announcement that they will build the Bolt EV – that small, 200-mile range all-electric vehicle shown as a concept in Detroit last month – at the Orion Township plant in Michigan. Bomb, dropped. A good one, too!

As for the debuts, the 2016 Honda Pilot is all new. You could say it looks like a Chevrolet Traverse or a Hyundai Santa Fe three-row model, I say it competes with it, but it is derivative. They put Jewel Eyes on the 2016 Acura RDX – and more. Apparently, Honda loves its nine-speed automatic transmission and active safety suite to share with other products now. They did hint of the next Honda Ridgeline. It might even be a real truck…

Mitsubishi unveiled their GC-PHEV Concept. It looks like a Montero…remember the Montero?

However, the one debut that I actually felt was a huge leap was the 2016 Chevrolet Equinox. When a vehicle goes through a mid-cycle refresh or change into a new vehicle, I always look for the "leap." What that means is whether the changes made are beneficial to increase its success rate. I had a few complaints about the Equinox (and GMC Terrain) that kept me from liking it completely. A quick talk with some of General Motors' product communications team revealed what was changed. These changes addressed my main complaints about this small crossover. This generation of the Equinox has been around a very long time.

It was due for a refresh, but not a moment too soon, Sales are strong for this compact crossover, but it needs to conquest from the leading three models in its segment – the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and the Honda CR-V. Chevrolet did the right thing by refreshing the Equinox now. I say it turned out quite well. More time around it is needed to confirm my initial reaction.

Hyundai also dropped a nice revision on the Elantra GT. The nose has been massaged with a combination of design languages. It provides more aggression and upmarket feel at the same time. The hatch version of the Elantra – sold as the i30 is other markets outside of North America – is the unsung hero of the lineup and truly needs more attention. This should do the trick nicely.

But, you could care less about the Chicago Auto Show. You want to know how did this first V&R road trip of 2015 turned out?

First off, the trip was one for the books. Yet, it began as normal as every drive I took between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The inbound drive was broken up with an overnight stop in Madison. Make that two nights. The reason is that I once called the Wisconsin state capitol home and I still have friends to visit. It was also a good place to get pre-auto show work done.

2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited

The day before departure, my chariot arrived. The 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited came with the Pentastar V6, an eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive and plenty of space for people and things. Since it was winter, I was grateful to have a vehicle with real four-wheel drive. However, I was concerned about the fuel economy. I did enough calculations to see how much I would spend on fuel, plus what kind of range I would get to compute the number of times I need to fuel up. Though it was cheaper than flying, there was indeed a push between driving the Grand Cherokee and riding Greyhound. The Jeep was the better choice – I had control of my bags and it was more comfortable. I also made my own stops instead of tripping over sleeping passengers.

It was a good thing that I left before the crack of dawn – 5:30AM, to be exact. A nasty storm was heading towards the Twin Cities with the threat of icy roads for less than desirable commutes. On the contrary, I had good roads from home all the way into Madison. The air temps were good, bouncing between the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit. A bit of a wind chill whipped up as my time in Madison progressed. Then, the skies dropped a light coating of snow overnight on Wednesday morning. It was nothing worth flipping the knob on the Grand Cherokee to Snow mode.

This road trip provided several chances to talk to my colleagues on the road. Thomas Bey is a fellow member of MAMA based in Madison. He wrote for a few places, but having to work a day job curtailed the writing process. Our discussion included catching up and talking about what we want to do down the line. It helps to see how other colleagues work and live – not for comparison purposes, but to create connectivity on a level of comradeship. For what he does, he is quite good and comes from a place where his voice needs to be heard further.

The morning of the first media day, my biggest miscalculation of the trip happened. One would think "if I left at, say 4:30AM, I would beat any traffic into Chicago." Wrong! I left at 4:30PM and was doing good time-wise…or, so I thought. Once I got past the last toll on Interstate 90, it was all over. I had overhead messages telling me traffic times into The Loop, and it all pointed to the Kennedy Expressway as the quickest route.

There was where it all went wrong. I was stuck in traffic hoping for a break. It was crawling through the northwest part of the city. Then, I saw a sign for the Express Lanes, which start before the merge of the Edens Express/Interstate 94. Sometimes, taking the Express Lanes would be a faster trip. The message signs stated they would – by a mere two minutes. The reason why would be an alternating current between the Local and Express lanes. At one time, the Local lanes were going faster than the Express ones. When we got past North Avenue, the backup began for the Local lanes. It certainly did not help as I had to exit the Express lanes to get onto Congress Parkway.

My next miscalculation came on Congress Parkway. I thought I was going to the MLK Parking garage across from McCormick Place. To do so, I had to do so by turning right onto Michigan Avenue. I blew past Michigan and ended up on Lake Shore Drive. My thought was Lake Shore was faster. It was, but I ended up on the surface lot south of McCormick Place. Though cheaper, it was an outside parking lot. It was cold with a nasty wind chill outside. For that incorrect assumption, I parked the Grand Cherokee, ran with my backpack and my suit jacket about a few city blocks into McCormick Place – just in time for one plate of eggs a mere few minutes before Olsen got to podium to open the auto show.

Hyundai Presser

The one thing I appreciate about the auto show circuit is the people I associate with. Meeting with friends, colleagues and contacts are usually a rare occasion. I do not live in a major market to interact with them regularly. Social media suffices in these occasions. As with my conversation with Bey in Madison, it is the comradeship through conversation and connectivity to help building these professional relationships.

I had a chance to hang out with Gas2's Jo Borras. Our hanging out helped to ease the frazzleness of the morning – over Connie’s Pizza at the Mitsubishi stand. It was also great to see DriverSide's Jimmy Dinsmore (he contributed to V&R in 2014), Zeid Nasser of TheCollegeDriver – among other great friends in the business. Even little chats helped ease the pain over the course of two days, despite some nervous moments on Thursday afternoon. Needless to say, things got much better by Friday morning – though waking up at 1:30AM and not going back to sleep surely helped in what would happen later that day.

My second day was brief. I agreed to hang out with Borras after I left McCormick Place for lunch and more great chats. That took me to 3:00PM and it was time get back towards Minnesota. The plan was to push all the way home – no overnight stops in Wisconsin. I also had to replace the USB cord for my camera that I lost somewhere at McCormick Place on Thursday.

By the time I got back onto Interstate 90, I got a new card reader and filled the Grand Cherokee full of fuel. I calculated that I would stop in Janesville for dinner. Little did I know that the entire town went out for dinner on Friday night! Nothing special for dine for, but it was accomplished and the push was on.

By the time I got to Tomah, I was checking the Priceline app for deals. In the back of mind, I had a suspicion I would not make it home that night. As I drove towards Eau Claire, my body and my eyes confirmed my suspicions. Priceline pointed me to a motel on the west side of Eau Claire. It was about 11:00PM and I checked in – exhausted and defeated. By 11:15PM, I was asleep.

Knowing I had a client that wanted my photos from the show, I began to work through breakfast the next day getting them uploaded in a couple of places. I was back on the road sometime past 10:15AM. By noon, I arrived home. Before I knew it, I was asleep – again. The week away was over. Another Chicago Auto Show in the books. One road trip was done.

How many lessons did I learn on this trip? First, I am not as young as I used to be when I did more epic journeys on the West Coast a mere two decades ago. Secondly, I need to stop saying “next time, I will plan better!” I said that last year – and look what happened? Thirdly, I need to let go of the stress over trying to work better, smarter…whatever…and simply go about my business. I used to enjoy auto show coverage. Why have I not been enjoying it over these past two shows – in Los Angeles and this last Chicago Auto Show?

The third item would require going deeper into the soul that would completely lose your attention. Let's just move on…

Madison February 2015

On the positive side of things, this road trip yielded some observations. It showed how one need to know their limits and how not to gamble on trying to make a distance at times when the body is not willing to go that distance. I found I am better driver in the morning and daylight than later in the evening. I also found that familiarity helped in considering where and when to stop – and, frankly, it is OK to stop to keep yourself at a pace.

Being prepared for weather is also a good thing. The interesting weather change from Friday night to Saturday morning was met with an extra set of gloves and better wind chill protection, compared to the night before. Sadly, I did not encounter any snow, blizzard, sleet or any winter weather event that would challenge this trip at all – all except for the wind and the sub-zero temperatures late Friday and on Saturday.

As for the Grand Cherokee, it did just fine. In all, fuel economy averaged 19.8MPG – right at the average target for this trip. It had a very smooth ride, a seat that kept me engaged over the miles, and the 8.4-inch UConnect Touch system kept me entertained between SiriusXM, Pandora and WGN's traffic reports.

There are two questions I must address. One, are there more road trips coming this year? Yes. None has been planned at this time. Just stay tuned.

Lastly, would I do this drive again for the Chicago Auto Show? No. I think I’m better off flying…staying two nights in town…just like I did a few years ago.

As for another road to Chicago, maybe there might be one down the line. For that, I'll get back to you.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle used for this article provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

All photos by Randy Stern

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