Automotive Surprises and Delights From Chi-Town
It’s billed as America’s largest (1 million-plus square feet) and longest running (since 1901!) auto show, and every year its modest schedule of global launches affords a nice opportunity to throw some limelight on the launch of a new model or variant that would otherwise be drowned out by the flashier intros at the Detroit, L.A., or even New York shows. And yes, it’s even possible for jaded journalists to come to Chicago and be surprised and delighted by some of what we find. Herewith are a few of those surprises and delights.
Most Significant Launches
Kia‘s four-door hatch introduces a new subcompact eco-car platform optimized to accommodate hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains. Hybrids are tough enough to sell in big numbers, so you might as well try marrying this pricier green hardware in a vehicle aimed at the fastest-growing segment of the market. And on the show floor we even managed to get product planning veep Orth Hedrick to say that Kia had not been approached by Hyundai about using the platform, but that now that they’ve seen it they might. Really, guys? They Hyundai and Kia towers in Seoul share a ground floor, and #CAS16 is the first they’re seeing this thing? C’mon
It’s pretty big news that Nissan is moving its North America market-only full-size SUV off the similarly domestic and reasonably low-cost Titan pickup architecture and migrating it to the fancier modified global Patrol platform. It now looks and feels like the de-glitzed Infiniti QX80 it is, but don’t be shocked when you learn, later this year, that the price is going to jump. The company had no choice—it’s expecting big capacity increases on the new Titan, once all the variants are released, and the Canton, Mississippi, plant that makes it, and made the Armada, and also makes Altimas, Muranos, Frontiers, and NV vans. It’s full up, so Armada production moves to Kyushu, Japan.
Biggest Truck News
2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon and 4×4 Off-road
When contemplating the deeper meaning of truck stuff, we defer to our in-house truck group content director Sean Holman, who was also in Chicago. Sean was most impressed by Ram‘s decision to offer a 4×4 Off-road package on all trim levels of the 2500 series that rounds up just the good gritty go-anywhere hardware, with none of the flashy graphics and gewgaws. No pricing was announced yet, but we expect it to be a three-digit number. Sure, this Walter Mitty package was overshadowed by the domineering Power Wagon, which climbed down an impressive staircase at the launch, but note that even here Ram offers all the Power Wagon hardware with none of the visual punch on its Tradesman work truck. Whatever your off-roading budget, Ram’s got the gear.
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro
Toyota reckons you can’t get more serious about off-roading in a midsize truck than this baby, which features a lifted suspension with Fox shocks, an automatic limited-slip diff, knobby Kevlar-reinforced tires, and active traction control. To reveal it, two snow bunnies pulled a winter camo cover off the Cement-colored show vehicle. Very dramatic. Toyota expects to double the number of Tacoma TRD Pros it sold in 2015, but that still puts the number of buyers at just 2,400 – a tiny drop in the 190,000 Tacoma bucket, but these are prime-grade-A customers: young, affluent (alpha) males.
Shelby F-150/F-150 FTX/F-250 Black Ops by Tuscany
These trucks, built in Elkhart, Indiana, are big news primarily just by being physically huge. The newsiest one is the new 700-hp Shelby F-150 first shown at SEMA 2015. Built under license from Shelby American complete with special serial numbers (this is number 90 of 500), it starts with a F-150 Lariat SuperCrew outfitted with the 502A equipment package. Tuscany adds a 4-inch Fox/BDS suspension lift kit, bead-lock wheels and knobby BFGoodrich tires, a unique composite ram-air hood, fender flares, front-bumper wrap, and grille, a hard tonneau cover and carpeted bed, one of five color-and-stripe paint schemes, and various interior embroidery and branding. Performance-wise, there’s a supercharger, intercooler, custom intake plumbing, and Borla exhaust, bringing the 5.0-liter V-8’s output to 700 hp. The gear adds 400 pounds, but it’s rated to tow 10,900 pounds or carry 2,100 pounds. Price is $98,995 USD. Tuscany also does an FTX conversion (6-inch lift, 385 hp/387-lb-ft 5.0L V-8, lots of graphics, upgrades) for $21,567 USD plus your F-150 or -250. Tuscany’s all-black Black Ops variant pays a portion of proceeds to the Wounded Warrior project.
BraunAbility MXV Ford Explorer
Until this wheelchair accessible SUV was developed, virtually every available mobility product was a minivan. But Jesse Billauer was only 17 when a wave paralyzed him in 1996 during a surfing competition. Since then he’s founded www.liferollson.org to help make activities like surfing and skateboarding accessible to the differently abled. Young, outdoorsy types like Jesse do not want to drive a minivan, thank you very much. So Winamac, Indiana-based BraunAbility has engineered a minivan-like sliding passenger side door, and then applied all of the other minivan mobility vehicle mods to a front-drive Explorer—slide-out ramp, lowered floor, etc. That sliding door design is patented, as are the front seats, which are both mounted on caster bases that can be disconnected and rolled down the ramp and left in the garage when wheelchair occupants are driving and riding. Two more patents cover BraunAbility’s method of slimming the B-pillar structure for chair clearance and a mechanism to slide the shift lever over when a chair is installed. All the gear adds a couple hundred pounds, and a finished MXV costs in the neighborhood of $60,000 USD depending on options.
Nissan Winter Warriors
Just for fun, Nissan built three Winter Warrior SUVs, on a Rogue, a Murano, and a Pathfinder. Each includes a set of tracks from American Truck Tracks, which is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They cost $9,300 USD per set, and required a bit of trimming to the bodywork for clearance. Each track unit weighs 220 pounds (100 kg), and they have the effect of greatly shortening the axle ratio (behaving like much smaller wheels), so the speedometer will read way too high. ATT recommends a max speed of about 40 mph (64 km/h). The large tracks don’t allow for much turning of the steering wheel, so the turn circle is nautical huge, and when you drive on pavement it feels like you’re on a very badly wash-boarded gravel. They’re really meant for use on deep snow, and Nissan ran all three of them straight up a ski slope in nearby Lake Geneva. They’re all wrapped in matte red chrome to stand out nicely in the snow. Other fun fact: The tire tread stripe includes the number 23, Michael Jordan’s number and the Kanji representation of the word “Nissan.”
2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE
Chi-town loves its muscle almost as much as it loves its trucks, and plenty of special Camaro editions were scattered about the show’s million-plus square feet. First and foremost is the General’s own 2017 1LE package.
The biggest news for 2017 may be the availability of this important track-focused package on V-6 Camaros for the first time. It basically brings a lot of SS-grade chassis and brake hardware down to the V-6, and it reportedly works so well in the lighter car that it can roughly match the lap times of a base fifth-gen V-8 SS. Meanwhile the V-8 1LE package introduces the FE4 suspension, which gets uniquely tuned springs and anti-roll bars plus ultra-fast-acting Magnetic Ride Control shocks. Put this with all the other hardened chassis and upgraded brake hardware and you have a package that Al Oppenheiser says “sets the new benchmark for the segment, lapping the Big Willow track at Willow Springs three seconds faster than the standard Camaro SS.” Neither alters engine output. Oh, and keep fingers crossed that the Krypton Green makes production, a decision about which is still pending.
Lingenfelter Camaro SS
The Lingenfelter crew debuted its first two offerings for the sixth-generation Camaro SS, the less aggressive of which features a CNC port-and-polish of the cylinder heads with a three-angle valve grind to accept hollow-stem 2.13-inch intake valves and 1.59-inch exhaust valves and Lingenfelter dual valve springs with titanium retainers. There’s also a revised engine controller, high-performance camshaft from Competition Cams, smoother-flowing intake plumbing, and a Corsa exhaust. The total is good for 600 hp and 500 lb-ft.
Lingenfelter Supercharged Camaro SS
Take most of the above gear and bolt on a Magnuson Heartbeat TVS2300 Roots-type supercharger to boost the base Lingenfelter 6.2-liter output by 130 hp and 100 lb-ft to 630 and 600. The good news is that the supercharger nestles down deep enough in the valley of the vee to clear the stock hood. Magnuson is shipping the superchargers already, and Lingenfelter is taking orders for both setups.
NicKey Performance Camaro SS
Nickey Chevrolet was a megadealer that developed a reputation for tuning muscle cars, with the best-known ones involving swapping Z/28 engines into Chevelles and dropping 427 V-8s into Novas, Camaros, and Chevelles. The dealership was sold in 1973 and the surviving Nickey Chicago performance operation expired in 1977. It was revived in 2002 by car collector Stefano Bimbi, who managed to hire Don Swiatek, the one and only hi-performance manager of the original Nickey Chevrolet. NicKey Performance typically offers three stages of tuning, and this one features its Stage II kit, which largely mirrors Lingenfelter’s base Camaro package: extensive headwork, a custom cam, cold-air intake, and engine-controller modifications. The naturally aspirated engine’s output is rated at 625 hp and 585 lb-ft, and the kit retails for $15,000 USD installed. The show car goes farther with custom Forgeline wheels, a vintage Hugger Orange paint job with gold-leaf embellishments, and more.
Chicago Blackhawks Themed Camaro SS
OK, this one doesn’t feature any major performance upgrades, but Blackhawks fans can register to win this NHL Blackhawks-themed 2016 Camaro SS, complete with matte paint, Blackhawks badging, stripes that extoll various Blackhawks accomplishments in small type, etc. Only Illinois residents are eligible to win, by registering at www.ChevyDrivesChicago.com.
Wrapsody in Blues-Brothersland
What does an automotive brand do when it has acres of carpet to fill and not much news to break? Why, it takes some older models and gives them elaborate, often locally themed wrap jobs, of course! Toyota trumped all others with four wrap jobs, two of which honored the Windy City’s two MLB franchises. Subaru has a tradition of wrapping cars as public service vehicles for the Village of Itasca, Illinois, home of the world-record longest Subaru parade. This year the automaker featured both police and fire department Itasca wraps. Hyundai honored the whole NFL, not ‘da Bears’ specifically; Dodge gave its Viper driving simulator car a snakeskin wrap; and Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner wrapped its Sprinter Extreme Concept in a vaguely reptilian green with mud-splatters wrap. But perhaps my favorite was the Orafol wrap on a VW Beetle, celebrating an association ORAFOL Americas has signed with Andretti Autosport, which rallies a Beetle. Why is it a favorite? Because ORAFOL is in the wrap film business.