The Chicago show ebbs and flows: Some years its chock full of new introductions, other years it’s a bit of a dead zone. While it was cold and windy outdoors, it was warm and quiet on the expansive showroom floor, with a limited number of new vehicle introductions. Nevertheless, we found some gems in the Windy City. Here they are.
2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE
Camaros are great, but performance Camaros are better, and while the supercharged ZL1 (a version of which has yet to appear on the new-gen Camaro) may have the bragging rights, it’s the 1LE that appeals most to the AutoWeb crew. We like cars that can handle, and that’s the 1LE’s specialty: It features a beefed-up suspension, better brakes, and coolers for the transmission, differential and engine oil, so it can run hard lap after lap after lap after lap after lap. [That’s a lot of laps. —Ed.] For the first time, Chevy will offer the 1LE package on six-cylinder Camaros, and while they don’t get the magnetic shocks from the V8-powered 1LE, Chevy says the six faster around the track than the previous-generation SS. To give you some idea of Chevrolet’s intentions for the 1LE, it cannot be had with an automatic transmission. Call us self-rowing snobs, but we love that.
WHY IT MATTERS: Chevrolet’s first high-performance version of the sixth-gen Camaro focuses on agility, not straight-line performance—a real shift in attitude for The General.
2016 Chevrolet Silverado and Colorado Midnight Edition
Chevy introduced the murdered-out Midnight Edition on the 2015 Silverado 2500, and buyers couldn’t get enough, so now they’ve spread the love to the half-ton Silverado and Colorado. The Midnight Edition is a simple appearance package: Black paint, black wheels, blacked-out body and grille trim. So why do we say it matters? Because it looks BAD ASS with a capital B, A, D, another A, and a couple of Ss. Technically, this isn’t just an appearance package; the Midnight Edition is offered only on four-wheel-drive trucks in Z71 trim, and it includes a locking rear diff and a skid plate for the transfer case… though it’d be a shame to get dirt on that beautiful black paint.
WHY IT MATTERS: Mean-looking trucks are cool, have always been cool, and will always be cool.
2017 Chevrolet Trax
When we compared the Trax against the Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade last year, we expected it to get its little orange liftgate kicked—but the Chevy surprised us by hanging close on the heels of its competitors. Our least-favorite aspects were the anonymous styling and the rental-car-quality interior, both of which have been addressed in the 2017 Trax. The facelifted version gets an attractive front end (clearly influenced by the Malibu) and a revamped interior with a new 7” touch-screen stereo and more active safety equipment from The General’s electronic parts bin. Compact crossovers are an important market segment—or at least they were before gas prices began to sink—and it’s important for Chevrolet to be well represented. The old Trax wasn’t much of an advertisement for Chevy, but this new version shows what the brand’s contemporary cars are all about.
WHY IT MATTERS: The old Trax was a poster child for everying GM haters hate; this new version is much harder to criticize.
2016 Ford/Braun Ability Explorer MXV
Most people who can walk on their own don’t think about handicapped-accessible wheels. Fact is, if you’re in a wheelchair, your choice of vehicles is pretty dire—mostly minivans with outrageously expensive modifications. Mobility manufacturer BraunAbility and Ford have teamed up to offer something much more interesting: An accessible Explorer. The MXV starts as a regular Explorer, and undergoes some heavy-duty surgery by BraunAbility. They narrow the right-side B-pillar (the post between the front and back doors) and change the front-hinged rear door to a plug-type design that moves back like a slider. This creates an opening big enough for a wheelchair, and with the second-row seat removed there’s enough space inside for the driver to either transfer into the driver’s seat or wheel themselves into position. A revamped floor provides room for a side-mounted wheelchair ramp. The Explorer’s third-row seat remains, so the Explorer MXV is a true five-seat accessible family car.
WHY IT MATTERS: Cool vehicles are rarely wheelchair-accessible (and vice-versa). Kudos to Ford and Braun for coming up with an accessible vehicle that people will actually want to buy.
2017 Kia Niro
The Niro is Kia‘s first dedicated hybrid, and while the styling may not live up to the hype—Kia bills the Niro as radical, when in fact it’s rather tame—it’s still a pretty bold move for this (relatively) new South Korean automaker to take on Toyota, especially when you consider how poorly Honda and Ford have done with their own dedicated hybrids. The Niro isn’t futuristic like the Prius; instead it’s a conventional vehicle that bridges the gap between a hatchback and SUV, not unlike the old Suzuki SX4 and Kia’s own now-defunct Rondo. The hybrid drivetrain has been designed for minimal intrusion, and the Niro seats five with a low, flat cargo floor. The big question is MPG: Kia is expecting 50 MPG, but we have yet to see EPA or real-world numbers. Low gas prices could hurt the Niro’s chances—how quickly Americans forget what life was like at $4 per gallon—but if the Niro really delivers 50 MPG, it could be a player.
WHY IT MATTERS: Kia is taking on the Prius, and that takes cojones.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Worker
The Sprinter‘s base price is much higher than other vans, though to say it’s more expensive isn’t entirely true—the Sprinter has a three-quarter-ton chassis and a diesel engine as standard, bits that cost a lot more in other vans. But the fact remains that the Sprinter’s high base price has kept it out of the hands of the small business owners who make up the heart of the van business. Enter the Sprinter Worker, aggressively priced $4,000 less than other Sprinters. The Worker is as basic as a Sprinter can be; it’s offered in a single size (144” wheelbase, low roof) and comes with black steel wheels and a plain steel floor (as opposed to the wood-lined floors in nicer Sprinters). Its price tag is still a few thousand more than a gas-powered Nissan NV2500, but Mercedes is offering creative financing deals and a 20,000-mile service interval to lower the cost of ownership.
WHY IT MATTERS: It’s rare to see a brand trying to seem less prestigious, but if Mercedes can convince blue collar America that the Sprinter is a working class hero, they’ll make a mint.
2017 Nissan Armada
Considering how many years it takes to develop a vehicle, timing is always a crapshoot—and it looks like Nissan just hit the jackpot. The all-new Armada, Nissans’ full-size SUV, comes to market just as gas prices are as low as we can remember, and its 5.6 liter V8 (now up to 390 hp) and 26-gallon fuel tank are ready to swill some cheap unleaded. Though the new Armada is about the same size as the old one, the underpinnings are completely different: Instead of using the bones of the Titan pickup, the new Armada is based on the Patrol, Nissan’s long-time rival to the Toyota Land Cruiser. (Though nearly unheard of in the States, the Patrol is legendary in Europe and Asia.) The effect, perhaps unintended, is that the Armada is no longer the least attractive SUV you can buy; the new version is smooth and handsome, a bulked-up version of what the Pathfinder used to look like.
WHY IT MATTERS: When gas prices are low, Americans buy big. That, and the Patrol has finally come to the United States!
2017 Ram Power Wagon
The Power Wagon nameplate is legendary among Chrysler fans, and the Ram truck division has done a good job of designing a truck that will live up to the legend. Ram says the new Power Wagon is the most off-road capable pickup you can buy, and while it’s uncertain how one would measure that, we wouldn’t bet against the Power Wagon. Based on the Ram 2500, the Power Wagon gets a 2” suspension lift, locking front and rear differentials, and a huge amount of axle articulation. The Power Wagon also comes with a built-in Warn winch; with a 12,000 lb capacity, Chrysler likes to point out that the winch alone can lift any one of the Power Wagon’s rivals. Though the decked-out Rams were the stars of the show, Ram will also offer a version in bare-bones Trademan trim, for those who need the Power Wagon’s industrial-strength capabilities for actual industry. The only bad news is that the Power Wagon can’t be had with the Cummins diesel engine; the size of the straight six makes it incompatible with the Power Wagon’s suspension and winch. Instead, buyers will have to make do with Chrysler’s 410 hp/429 lb-ft 6.4-liter gas V8.
WHY IT MATTERS: American buyers love big trucks, and the Power Wagon is about as big and capable as stock trucks come.
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
The Tacoma is America’s favorite small truck, and it’s great to see it getting the TRD Pro treatment. The TRD Pro line (offered on Tundra and 4Runner as well) offers serious desert-running and rock-crawling ability; we’ve had a chance to put the trucks to the test and they really do work. The Tacoma TRD Pro gets a retuned suspension with a 1” lift up front, FOX internal-bypass shocks, and Kevlar-reinforced tires. The rest of the changes might seem superficial—updated interior trim, fancy wheels, and the like—but they do make the Tacoma look good. Color choices are limited to white, red and cement (yes, that’s actually what it’s called), a flat gray that premiered on the Scion tC. While we prefer the orange used on the original (2015) TRD Pros, it is fun to say “Check out the TRD Pro Tacoma in cement.”
WHY IT MATTERS: The Tacoma is a fantastic truck, and the TRD Pro package gives it serious off-road ability and durability.
Photo Credit ©Various Automakers