All eyes have been on Chicago this week.
This was supposed to be the premier Tier I auto show for the winter, thanks to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit moving to June. All hopes were on Chicago delivering the impact Detroit vacated at this time of year, as it once did some 15 years or so ago.
I have seen this show fine tuning its spotlight for the past ten years. This year marked my tenth consecutive show working on Media Days. I have seen some good debuts and some ho-hum press conferences. That would depend on how jaded you have become in this business.
This year was to be more of a concentrated work experience for me. Two years ago, I attempted to simply do the show in one day – fly in, head to McCormick Place, do my thing, and fly out that night. Unfortunately, a blizzard thwarted my best laid plans. I had not planned on packing an extra wardrobe, so I played Priceline Roulette. It booked me a night at some hipster hostel on Ohio Street in River North. Meanwhile, my team was being attacked by roaches in their hotel somewhere else in the city.
To add insult to injury, the boarding bag that I got from Target fell apart. Not to mention the "ulcer" on my left big toe that began as a monster blister. In all, that year's Chicago Auto Show majorly sucked for me.
This year, I was determined to get this one-day thing right. I trusted Southwest Airlines to deliver me from Terminal 2 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Chicago's Midway Airport. I also trusted the Chicago Transit Authority to make me avoid the same mistake two years ago by hiring an Uber from the airport only to be stuck on Cicero Avenue for an inordinate amount of time – just to get on Interstate 55 towards McCormick Place!
Once these best laid plans were executed then I can go to work. To hand off another #VOTY – this time, to Kia for their first one. Plus, to attempt to fulfill my work for clients and outlets alike.
I am happy to report that everything worked out according to plan. The flight inbound was flawless and on-time. Even with some light snow hitting Chicago, everything was working in my favor. I was on a CTA Orange Line "L" train within 30 minutes of landing. I was able to easily connect to a CTA bus two blocks away to McCormick Place. Heck, I even made it into the show just in time for everyone to leave the Midwest Automotive Media Association Breakfast.
Then, I hit the ground running. Taking photos, talking to my colleagues and industry contacts. Most of them, I have not seen in a year or so. It was great catching up, but, honestly, we were there to work.
At 10:30 AM, I handed off #VOTY19 to James Bell, the Director of Corporate Communications and Social at Kia Motors America. Bill Hopper from Queer4Cars.com and Neil Dunlop from Kia were there to assist in the images and video of the hand-off. I have to admit I was nervous and comfortable at the same time. I’ve known Bell for years and love his sense of humor and honesty when it comes to his work, his passion, and this industry.
After making the point that on the 13th #VOTY, this was Kia’s first. Bell retorted that this particular #VOTY for the Telluride is the "first of many." You know, that new 2021 Seltos is looking like a future contender.
By lunchtime, I was starting to feel my fast start. With a stiff back and legs, I dragged myself through the afternoon at McCormick Place only to leave by 4:00 PM towards The Loop. I was way ahead of schedule, as I Jumped on the Metra Electric Line to Millennium Station for a walk along the Pedway into Macy’s. Dinner was secured at the Nando’s on South Wabash Street. Got to have my Portuguese-Mozambican Peri-Peri chicken…
Upon boarding the last Southwest flight out from Midway Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul, my one-day at the Chicago Auto Show was complete. I could say that it was worth it…
Or, was it?
About the show, I have to admit that my hopes of some major debuts to occur at the Chicago Auto Show were dashed with the usual debuts of special editions, new trim levels, and mid-cycle refreshes.
However, there were some headlines made.
For one, Chrysler is not going away any time soon, even as the details of the merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA Groupe is still being hashed out. Their revised 2021 Pacifica minivan was proof of the staying power for this historic marque. The revised front clip reminded us that looking back at the 1990s and the third-generation minivan is a good thing. The Pacifica continues to sport an identity that miles away from its minivan competitors.
The 2021 Pacifica heralds the return of all-wheel-drive. It had it on the third-generation minivan, and it worked with that architecture. This will be a very advanced driveline that offers better traction management through a fully-automatic system. Plus, the 2021 Pacifica marks the introduction of UConnect 5 with Alexa connectivity and a faster infotainment processing system.
What caught my attention was the new top trim for the 2021 Pacifica, called the Pinnacle. This will become the most luxurious minivan ever sold – something equal to, say, an Imperial-level model. The Pacifica Pinnacle will offer a set of pillows for its passengers. Sounds like a Mercedes-Maybach S600 to me – and that’s a good thing! It could be the Imperial of minivans.
Also showing its face is the revised 2021 Volkswagen Atlas. The big news is that the 2.0-liter TSI engine will be available on more trim levels, including the more luxurious models. The four-cylinder engine could also be mated to the 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. The 2021 Atlas looks like it is set to go deep into battle with the new kids from Hyundai and Kia.
Still, the bigger news is what you actually see. The revised front clip and the interior match up with the two-row brother, the Atlas Cross Sport. That, too, is a good thing for Volkswagen. The Cross Sport is a handsome devil.
Chevrolet quietly unveiled its revised 2021 Equinox. The new face and taillights are just part of the story There will be a new RS model that will be in line with its larger SUV siblings. Chevrolet will offer more driver assistance features across all trims to keep in line with the current want of more safety kit for its customers.
Lastly, Kia also quietly released its revised 2020 Cadenza sedan. The bold new front and rear end clips will help its cause, as it gives you a look of instant swagger. Kia also upgraded many technology features, including a larger 12.3-inch infotainment screen, wireless fast-charging for your smartphones, and an enhanced level of driver assistance features.
I should mention that the new 2020 Hyundai Sonata will get a Hybrid version, as well. Will have it have Smaht Pahk? It better have. Oh, and the 2020 Nissan Frontier gets a new engine.
Even with these headlines, I felt that something was amiss. It had to do with what the Chicago Auto Show used to be. I remember working my first media preview at the 2004 show and seeing all-new vehicles unveiled there – namely the Mercury Montego and Buick LaCrosse. Now, the excitement of seeing big press conferences with a huge debut of something we have not seen before seemed half-kindled. Even with a captive audience wanting to witness it and report it back to their readers and viewers.
This would open up a huge can of worms of the raging debate on the worth of doing a press conference for a world premiere at an auto show instead of something off site and very expensive to produce.
For example, the Los Angeles debut of the 2021 Cadillac Escalade – starring Spike Lee. This happened two days before the Chicago Auto Show's first media day.
How would I sum up my tenth-consecutive Chicago Auto Show media day? There wasn't much news to glean from the show. However, seeing my colleagues and industry contacts – months and years apart from the last time, or even for the first time – eased the pain of finding news somewhere between two large halls at McCormick Place.
Maybe next year the Chicago Auto Show will get a world premiere – or several. Maybe more automakers will return to the show floor – namely Mercedes-Benz (and not just the vans), BMW, MINI, Volvo, and Mitsubishi. Maybe it will be worth the money I spend on this show to attend next year.
Taking it all in on a single day may have been a risk worth taking. Or, not. Let me consider this further somewhere down the line.
Cover photo by Randy Stern