Auto shows are intended to spur sales for dealers, and by that measurement the Chicago Auto Show is an annual success story. Held in the frigid heart of the Windy City’s winter, the show attracts nearly a million potential customers to expansive — and warm — McCormick Place to check out the latest cars, trucks and SUVs from the world’s automakers.
Attendees have traditionally gone home excited about the vehicles they have seen. In fact, car sales in “Chicagoland” – the metropolitan area and surrounding suburbs – were up 12.8 percent in the months after last year’s show; in comparison, the national sales gain was just 5.8 percent.
The carmakers themselves also pay close attention to the Chicago Auto Show and display many new offerings on the two press days before the doors open to the public. Here are six vehicles that caught our eye during our visit to the Windy City’s annual car party.
Kia Trail’ster Concept
Originally engineered as a boxy city runabout, the Kia Soul was presented in this new version designed for more adventurous owners. A raised ride height, roof rack, skid plates and rugged winter tires give the Trail’ster Concept the appeal of a subcompact crossover, and a canvas roll-back roof adds open-air ambience. The hybrid powertrain is comprised of a 185-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels and a 35-horse electric motor to power the rear wheels. In addition to the security of all-wheel-drive, Kia says the hybrid system can deliver a 25-30 percent gain in city fuel economy and 5-10 percent more mileage out of a gallon on the highway. Given the recent rise in popularity of the subcompact crossover segment, Kia would be wise to bring the Trail’ster Concept to market.
2016 Honda Pilot
Honda unveiled the third-generation Pilot to combat a strong class of three-row midsize crossovers. The blocky design of the second generation is gone, replaced by the softer lines of contemporary crossovers. Inside, more soft-touch materials and amenities contribute to a premium atmosphere, include an available heated steering wheel and the latest version of Honda’s Display Audio infotainment system. An extra 3.5 inches of length adds more passenger room, and a one-touch second-row seat slides and folds forward to ease third-row access. The powertrain is updated, too. A new direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 offers start/stop and cylinder deactivation technology, and it’s mated to either the carryover six-speed automatic transmission or a new 9-speed automatic. Together, the new engine and 9-speed gearbox will give the Pilot best-in-class fuel economy, so look for it to start flying off showroom floors this summer.
2016 Chevrolet Equinox
A redesigned, considerably improved Equinox was the first post-bankruptcy vehicle that Chevrolet released in 2009, and it helped get General Motors back on the right track. In Chicago, Chevrolet showed the revised 2016 Equinox, but the update is far from a full redesign. Relatively mild exterior changes include new front and rear fascias, a chrome-accented take on Chevy’s dual-port grille, projector-beam headlights on all models, and unique 17- and 18-inch wheel designs. Inside, the Equinox gets a seven-inch touchscreen, a revised center stack with updated graphics, and new fabrics with a premium feel. Chevrolet has also added new safety features – blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert – for the LT and LTZ models. The updated Equinox goes on sale this fall.
Nissan GT-R LM NISMO Race Car
Nissan previewed its newest race car in a Super Bowl ad, then showed it to the public for the first time at the Chicago Auto Show. The GT-R LM NISMO is unlike any other race car in that the turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 sends its 1250 horsepower to the front wheels, and instead of sitting in the middle of the car for ideal balance, the engine is located up front. This weight over the front wheels could actually help put the power to the pavement more efficiently, and the hybrid system is also employed to reclaim braking energy and then use it to assist acceleration. The GTR-LM is built by legendary racer Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, and the project’s technical director is Ben Bowlby, designer of the Nissan-powered DeltaWing race car that competed last year. The GT-R LM will run in the top-level LMP1 class against the likes of the Audi R18 and Porsche 919 at Le Mans this summer.
2016 Toyota Avalon
Toyota redesigned its full-size Avalon for the 2012 model year, and in Chicago the Japanese giant took the wraps off an updated Avalon. The Avalon’s midcycle update gives it minor exterior changes, including a wider lower front grille, LED driving lights that replace fog lights, and LED head- and taillights. Inside, the XLE and XLE Plus models get a seven-inch touchscreen and premium wood-grain trim, while the XLE Premium model adds Qi wireless charging for cell phones and Toyota’s Entune system with navigation and app suite. The top-of-the-line Limited adds automatic high-beam headlights, radar cruise control, and lane departure alert as safety options. Suspension tuning is also revised. XLE and Limited models get a new comfort-oriented tune, while the Touring model is tweaked to be sportier. The 2016 Toyota Avalon hits dealers this fall.
Mitsubishi GC-PHEV Concept
If the GC-PHEV Concept Mitsubishi revealed at the Chicago Auto Show is any indication, Mitsubishi would aims to revive a popular name from its past, the Montero, as a full-size crossover. The GC-PHEV is a plug-in hybrid that teams a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 with an electric motor to make 335 total horsepower. The vehicle pushes that power through an eight-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels via the brand’s Super-All Wheel Control system. Inside, the GC-PHEV has four swiveling seats around a central “Tactical Table” that can act as an information hub. Users can share information from their smartphones by simply laying them on the table. Mitsubishi says the GC-PHEV signals the brand’s future design direction, but let’s hope the angular, hump-backed look is cleaned up before it becomes an element of a production vehicle.