More than a million people will devour the cornucopia of mechanical delights at this year’s Chicago Auto Show. The exposition, which runs from Feb. 9 to 18, is the largest of its kind in North America and, at 105 editions and counting, it’s also the longest running. The bazaar boasts extreme indoor test tracks, charity drives, vehicle giveaways, celebrity appearances and even its own smartphone app. But for all the hoopla, at the core it’s still all about the cars. And for attendees, it’s the first opportunity to see exotic new features that will soon be standard elements of the driving experience.With the help of Dave Sloan, the show’s general manager and the president of the Chicago Auto Trade Association, we’ve zeroed in on the trends that will define the cars of the next few years. Buckle up — driving has changed for good.
Ground-up Redesigns of Old Favorites
Last year there was the Dodge Viper. This year, leading the charge is the Corvette Stingray, which debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in January. The first ‘Vette to sport the hallowed aquatic label since the 1980s, the speedster has been completely redesigned outside and in, sporting a stiffer aluminum frame, leather-and-carbon-fiber dashboard and svelte interior details among many other features.
“It’s one of those cars that epitomizes the Chicago Auto Show,” Sloan says. “People love seeing them in person. For some, this may be the first place they’ve gotten a glimpse of that Corvette.”
This is just the beginning: Ford is unleashing an all-new Mustang next year for the legendary car’s 50th anniversary.
We’ve seen vehicles like the Land Rover Evoque and the Nissan Pathfinder parallel park themselves if aligned correctly in front of an open space. But Audi’s recently announced Piloted Parking system takes the concept even further, promising to drop you off at the mall, park itself and return to pick you up, all with a swipe of your smartphone. Before we know it, 2040 — the year the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers estimates that 75 percent of cars on the road will be driverless — will be here.
But Sloan urges balance. “It’s important to think about Americans and their love of automobiles. While too much time is spent inching along the Kennedy, there’s still the steering wheel, the gas pedal and the thrill of the open road.”
Here’s a quick case study in how intelligent cars are getting: The Cadillac XTS’s seat vibrates when you veer over the painted lines. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class sounds an alarm when it feels you getting sleepy. The Infiniti JX brakes automatically when someone runs into your path.
“Most of the cars on the road today are 10 years old or older,” Sloan says. “And drivers will be surprised at the kind of active safety options that are now available.”
Digital radio website Pandora was one of the first to make waves as a hardwired app in the Ford Fiesta. Drivers simply pair their smartphones with their cars, and a selection of musical goodness appears based on their preferences for a certain song or artist. Everyone calls it something different: Ford’s Sync, Audi’s Connect and Chrysler’s similarly named Uconnect. But most vehicles offer comparable options, including phone integration and control, voice commands, entertainment and — get this — Wi-Fi hot spots.
More Progress From The Americans
GM and Chrysler quickly emerged from their federally backed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the positive uptick continued last fall when Ford announced 1,200 new jobs at its assembly plant in Flat Rock, Mich. Coincidentally, that campus is also unique for handling the necessary steps to manufacture and deliver Mustangs, which lets the American giant save by not having to ship the muscle car all over the country for modifications.
Elsewhere, there’s a surge in the compact market (see Chevrolet’s Cruze, Sonic and Spark), edging out foreign automakers like Suzuki. “Everyone’s getting back into small cars,” Sloan says. “And they’re not econo-boxes; they’re capable cars with great styling and a lot of content.”
Titans of Trucking
The big rumbling around Chicago this year involves the first glimpse of the new Toyota Tundra — a line that hasn’t gotten a significant overhaul since 2007. Last year, the 2013 Ram cleaned up at the award shows in the absence of much competition. But in the fall, Chevrolet/GMC announced a third-generation Silverado and a second-generation Canyon. With rumors of a 2015 Ford F-150 based on this year’s Atlas Concept, all the heavy hitters will be in one arena.
“This year is the first time the four big players will all be on the show floor, if you count the Atlas,” Sloan says. “It’s fun when automakers, even though they have different cadences, go head-to-head.”
Big performance, small package
With even tighter EPA regulations on fuel efficiency, car manufacturers are downsizing their engines. (See: Volkswagen and Ford going from the V-4 to the petite V-3.) But that doesn’t mean they’re losing oomph. By using smarter materials like aluminum, as seen in the Range Rover and the Stingray, manufacturers are shedding weight like wrestlers.
“They’ve figured out ways with interior packaging, safety and technology to make them lighter but no less safe, all without sacrificing performance,” Sloan says. “That’s great engineering.”
Visit the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place (2301 S. Lake Shore Drive); $12 for adults, $6 for children and seniors. Tickets available at Chicagoautoshow.com.
Story by Seth Putnam