2015 Chicago Auto Show: Green? What Green?

The biggest surprise of this year’s Chicago Auto Show wasn’t the new Acura SUV or updated Hyundai Veloster. It was- to me, at least- the almost total lack of “green” emphasis coupled with a reborn obsession with serious “go big or go home” hardware from almost every carmaker. In fact, the emphasis on speed, power, and general “bigness” made the few automakers who did put a show premium on green tech- namely, BMW and Porsche- seem a bit “off trend”.

What’s driving this new trend?

 

2015 Chicago Auto Show Theme: Cheap Gas


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That Shell oil-sponsored display was glowing brightly in the main lobby of Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, and greets show-goers even before they see their first all-new, sleek and sexy 2015/16 model. It’s there, probably, to encourage the show’s audience to trade out of that small, sensible car they bought a few weeks ago (when gas was $4/gallon) and into car with more room, more power, and more speed.

To make trading your car in for a new car offering bigger, faster, and more even easier, Chicago-area dealers have blanketed the 2015 Chicago Auto Show with ads like these …

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… and they are repeated. Over and over again. In almost every hallway.

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It’s a weird experience, and one that transformed the whole vibe of the auto show, from the “Hey, maybe you’ll find a car you’ll like,” sales pitch of recent years to a more desperate and fevered sort of “Buy something now!” scream. A scream that’s underscored with the subtle suggestion that, if you don’t buy a new go-fast sports car or lifted pickup, you might not be much of a man.

So, yeah. Expect to see lots of cars aimed at compensators- for better or for worse- in my Gas 2 show summary, below. I didn’t capture all the cars worth talking about. I think, however, that I’ve included the cars and trucks that set the tone for the 2015 Chicago Auto Show. So, read on, take a look at the pics, and let me know how you think I did in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

 

Audi is All About LeMans


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Audi’s Chicago Auto Show display featured the carmaker’s R line of high-performance coupes and sedans prominently in the main hallway. Further back, massive video screens played images of Audi’s all-conquering hybrid LeMans racers … but not as they had in recent years.

In the past, the company played up its LeMans efforts as a means of developing clean diesel technology, hybrid technology, and the electrical hardware in Audi’s e-Tron lineup of electric cars. This year? Not only was there no mention of e-Tron, but I couldn’t even find a diesel Audi in their display.

I did find this little blue V10 beauty, however. Although, if you’re asking, I kind of halfway think that Audi should have brought out a white one. With a charcoal interior. Maybe with white/purple contrast stitching. (Not that I put a lot of thought into it.)

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Speaking of Companies That Are All About LeMans


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Nissan seems really serious about reviving its image as a maker of serious sportscars, leaving the off-roader stuff to Toyota and the beige, boring stuff to Honda (who was at the show, but who failed to bring anything actually new, green, fast, or off-roady to the party). As such, its display was dominated by the new, Ben Bowlby designed Nismo GT-R hybrid LeMans racer, above.

Nissan is gunning for Audi at this year’s LeMans race, and if they’ve managed to build a better mousetrap through Bowlby’s clever interpretation of the rulebook then, well- we’ll see in June, won’t we?

For the commoners, Nissan trotted out an all-new Nismo Sentra (below) to go along with the company’s existing lineup of ultra-sporty Juke, 370Z, and GT-R models. If it reached production (ProTip: it totally will), the Nismo Sentra will have its crosshairs firmly fixed on cars like the Honda Civic Si and Mini Cooper S.

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Chevy is Not About the Volt


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Chevy’s big reveal for the 2015 Chicago Auto Show was a redesigned Chevy Equinox crossover SUV, but walking up to the massive Chevy display, you wouldn’t know it- because you were either greeted by the hyper-aggressive and ultra-racy Corvette, above, or these giant honkin’ trucks and SUVs, below.

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Granted, Chevy’s Corvette delivers supercar performance and gets nearly 30 MPG while Chevy’s big Tahoe and Suburban impressed us with its over-the-road comfort and highway fuel economy when we tested one last summer, but this is a far cry from the Chevrolet that, as recently as the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, was pushing a Chevy Volt driving experience as its big attraction.

As for the all-new 2016 Chevy Volt that debuted just a few short weeks ago at the Detroit Auto Show? It was there. Kind of.

 

2016 Chevy Volt


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Buried in obscurity at the far right of the Chevy stage, behind an almost opaque curtain of lights and Chevrolet logos, sat the (one and only?) 2016 Chevy Volt. As you can see, it was largely ignored by the press on hand, which meant I got to get real close and personal like and start poking around the thing.

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It’s too bad that the Volt doesn’t play a more prominent role in Chevy’s display, because the new model is hugely improved over the current Volt.

For starters, the new 2016 Chevy Volt uses soft rubbers and plastics in its dash, replacing the hard, Target-grade plastics of the previous model and setting the car up as a worthy wearer of a nearly $40,000 price tag- even if the “fifth seat” Chevy referenced at the car’s launch is almost totally useless.

The other Chevy most worthy of note was a special edition of the Chevy Colorado compact pickup that launched last year. Unlike last year, however, 2015, the emphasis wasn’t on the Colorado’s improved practicality, space-efficiency, and diesel-driven fuel economy, but on its off-road performance capability and the resurrection of the ZR2 nameplate.

 

2015 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Goes Off Road


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Toyota Downplays the Hybrid


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Despite Honda’s earlier (and, arguably, more advanced) foray into hybrid cars with the original Insight, ask most people what automaker brought hybrids to the mainstream and they’ll point to Toyota while silently mouthing the word “Prius”.

A few years back, when the carmaker introduced a new Avalon to the Chicago Auto Show crowd, it was a hybrid, too. This year? We got a new Avalon, but the talk was of a softer ride for the more luxurious trim levels and a stiffer, more together suspension tuning for the sporty version. As for a hybrid Avalon, there wasn’t much said.

There was a ton of talk about how to make your Toyota faster and more off-road capable than it already is. As such, where brands like Volvo and Maserati and Fiat showed off hats and jackets, Toyota showed off stuff like this …

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… which, you’ll notice, seems a lot more serious.

Further seriousness comes in the form of Toyota’s giant motorsports display, which featured a classic 2000 GT coupe, one of the dominant Toyota Eagles- which were, in fact, so dominant that they all but killed sportscar racing in the 90s- and some of Toyota’s current race cars, as well.

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As for production cars and new releases, Toyota showed off a sportier sporty Corolla …

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… and a gunmetal metallic version of the company’s upcoming FT-1 sportscar

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… which is being developed in concert with BMW in a bid to take the current sportscar crown off the heads of BMW and Toyota rivals Mercedes’ AMG GT and Nissan’s GT-R, respectively. (More on them, below.)

In person, the Toyota FT-1 a slick-looking car that, on paper (at least), seems to have what it takes to achieve the aims of both of its parent companies.

 

BMW i Electric Cars


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Taking center stage at the BMW display were the stars the all-electric “i” lineup of electric driving machines from the propeller brand. As good- and popular!- as these two cars have been, they seemed to be out of touch, and headed in a different direction than the rest of the industry.

A few steps away, BMW’s M brand of high-performance gas-burners was on display (if somewhat less prominently than the electrics) along with the company’s strange “GT” half-wagons. The electric and hybrid models seen in previous years, however, were either left behind or displayed so innocuously that I didn’t notice them mixed in among the twin-turbocharged 6 cylinders and ultra-go-fast motorcycle displays.

That said, there were no electrics on display at BMW’s Mini sub-brand, either, despite rumors of plug-in Coopers persisting for years. So, yeah- I’m guessing they simply weren’t there.

 

Mercedes is Having a Mid-life Crisis


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If you can ignore the liberal sympathies and the fact that this car only exists because of a Lorde song when you think about the new Maybach, you can only come to one conclusion: the Maybach is what Mercedes-Benz should and could be.

Once upon a time, Mercedes-Benz was an aspirational brand. Mercedes’ flagship S class was the car of choice for dictators, rich guys, and gentleman racers alike who thought the Rolls Royce was a bit- well- soft. Today? Today, Mercedes is- with some exceptions here and there- the go-to brand for housewives who married well, newly-single attorneys with thinning hair, and the type of younger guy who would have bought a Mitsubishi Evo ten years ago.

To that end, I present the Mercedes customers I’ve just described with the cars they each really want. The Mercedes-Benz SL400, the Mercedes-AMG GT V8, and the four-cylinder, all-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG.

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Make no mistake- these are all excellent cars, and excellent examples of German-engineered go-fast performance. These 2015 and 2016 Benzes even have real green cred (yes, even the Maybach) offering phenomenal performance at a level of fuel-economy and emissions cleanliness that was unthinkable just twenty years ago. Not that Mercedes mentioned any of that, of course – that’s not what Chicago 2015 is about. As such, there were no plug-in hybrid, clean-running diesel, or all-electric Mercedes on prominent display.

Mercedes did, however, finally embrace the Smart brand, tucking the entire Smart ForTwo display (which, weirdly, did not feature the all-new for 2015 Smart ForTwo previously shown in Europe) neatly into the Mercedes fold.

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Volvo Knows Its Customers


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Almost all carmakers, at this point, like to think of themselves as lifestyle companies. As such, they produce a number of accessories that enable regular folks like you or me to wear things like my slick new Nismo jacket or let everyone in the boardroom know we drive a Mercedes because our iPad cover has a Mercedes-Benz logo embossed into it. Volvo took this thinking a step further by offering Volvo-branded baby booties, pacifiers, and diaper bags in a fancy-looking glass case parked in front of their classy XC70 station wagon.

This move on Volvo’s part was, to me, doubly brilliant. First, because my wife just bought a new XC70 last summer after the birth of our daughter, and, second, because she immediately tried to buy the Volvo-branded baby booties and pacifiers.

Even with the emphasis on family and safety, though, Volvo was very much on trend at the 2015 Chicago Auto Show. That was evident in the fact that the first car show-goers were greeted with wasn’t the all-new S60 XC sedan or the all-new XC90 seven-passenger plug-in hybrid featuring the new Apple CarPlay system and Volvo’s innovative intelligent safety computer hardware. It was this …

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… a bright red Volvo S60 R-Design sports sedan featuring a hot, high-strung, supercharged AND turbocharged engine ready to get dad excited about buying a Volvo. Even if the family does end up driving home in the all-new XC90 seven-passenger plug-in hybrid featuring the new Apple CarPlay system and Volvo’s innovative intelligent safety computer hardware.

 

2015 Volvo XC90 Plug-in Hybrid SUV


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Mitsubishi May Be Relevant Again


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Mitsubishi’s display at the Chicago Auto Show has been, for years, a pretty stagnant and quiet place to be. Very few new models. No fanfare. No crowds- especially on media day. This year, though? This year, Mitsubishi’s booth was mobbed by people who wanted to see an all-new Montero.

Montero is, like Eclipse and Evo, a storied Mitsubishi nameplate with a rich, off-road heritage that jives nicely with the current automotive fashion. This latest iteration …

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… draws heavily on old Montero styling cues while serving to introduce the American market to the concept of a full-size plug in hybrid Mitsubishi SUV- which we’ll be getting somewhat sooner than later, anyway, in the form of the award-winning Outlander Hybrid.

 

It Just Goes On and On


By now, I think you can see what I mean about the 2015 Chicago Auto Show and, if you’re a fan of fast cars, big engines, and capable off-roaders, almost every carmaker is offering something new for you to see. Whether that’s Hyundai, who showed off a pack of racing and tuner cars …

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… along with a slick new pickup concept …

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… or Jeep, who played up the trail-rated off-roading chops of its new, compact, “high” MPG Renegade model.

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In fact, as I walk through the halls of the 2015 Chicago Auto Show, it occurs to me that the only companies highlighting exclusively “green” cars are Kia, who showed off an all-electric, 4WD off-road version of its hugely successful Kia Soul …

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… alongside an extra sporty version of- you guessed it!- the Kia Soul …

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… and Porsche, who showed off its ultra-luxurious Panamera sedan, its off-road capable Cayenne SUV, and its supremely fast 918 Spyder supercar. All of which, it should be noted, were all hybrids- and which would have seemed very “on trend” say, last year.

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Obviously, this isn’t everything. There was great stuff at Mazda, Honda showed off an all-new version of its seven passenger Pilot SUV, Lexus’ sporty, all-white lineup of show cars was visually stunning, the multicolor Viper, a new sporty off-roader from Fiat, the big diesel Nissan Titan, etc., etc. all looked fantastic.

Still, there is one more car that I just couldn’t resist including- even if there really is very little “green” tech to it beyond its use of an Ecoboost-branded engine. Enjoy!

 

2015 Ford GT


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Original content from Gas 2.

 

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.