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Monday, July 23

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Whether you love them or hate them, cars are an integral part of American culture. I've always been intrigued by the design process of automobiles. How do they determine where the controls are placed? What about safety? And gas mileage?

That's why the Chicago Auto Show is great for budding car geeks like me. I get a chance to sit in hundreds of cars I don't own and might not ever have otherwise known about, all for the price of admission -- $10. The bonus is that I get to see concept car designs in the flesh, check out the cars without any salespeople lingering over me like vultures, and ponder if a mediocre-quality hamburger is really worth $8.

Any review of the Show can't ignore the sheer size of this thing. It is huge. The 2005 show spans McCormick Place's North and South Halls, which comes out to 1.2 million square feet. Nearly 50 exhibitors trot out their latest models for all to see.

To avoid long lines just waiting to get into the bigger North Hall, my friends and I started with the South Hall this year. The South Hall includes a number of foreign nameplates along with the exciting "Marketplace" -- which I'll get to in a moment. We started at International Truck. International had three very, very large SUVs on display. We're talking 14 times the size of any Hummer... OK, maybe three times the size. These are really mini-semi trucks being sold as "ultimate" or "extreme" SUVs. Climbing into one requires a stepladder just to reach the steps on the side of the truck, and then there's the whole issue of where to park the thing. Easily the most ridiculous things I saw at the show, they were worth looking at just to be amazed. Only $135,000 takes one of them home.

02142005_international.jpg
International's "sport utility vehicle."

Volkswagen brought its brand new Jetta to this show, and I was eager to see it. Since I enjoy Apple products, it's practically required for me to like VW's stuff, too. The all-new Jetta replaces a very popular model, and I'm sorry to report that I was underwhelmed by the whole thing. The exterior is decidedly more bland than the slightly angular 2004 model, evoking the tepid Toyota Corolla. Inside the story is a little better, with VW's fine engineering coming through. The backseat was certainly bigger than any Jetta I've ever been in, and it was pretty comfortable all around, but all in all it left me cold. Another note from VW's display: all flowers in the New Beetles' flower holders were dead. Dead!

02142005_beetle.jpg
Dead flowers adorned VW's New Beetle.

Interestingly, DaimlerChrysler brought its smart cars to the show. Smart is "big in Europe," as they say, and is coming to America someday. These ultra tiny cars seat two, have space for groceries, and that's about it. They're really attractive for city folks. The bad news is that the tiny smart cars weren't open for the public to check out. The slightly larger smart forfour was open, but mobbed. It's not as radical as the smaller smarts, falling in the size range of the Chevy Aveo. Speaking of small, Mini brought along its Cooper Convertible. Judging by the crowds, Mini has nothing to worry about for some time.

Before moving to the North Hall we stopped by the Marketplace -- a really unique part of the show, arguably tucked away. It's an interesting area. One can purchase the Super Chamois, some new sunglasses, car care products and a subscription to the Trib while munching on $3 churros. The Volo Auto Museum exhibits in this area too, and it was fantastic. Crowds were smaller here but were definitely gearheads -- the Lincoln Zephyr and custom choptop Dodge Charger were my personal favorites.

Over at the North Hall, Ford and Toyota landed plum spots right near the entrance. Ford found crowds with its new Five Hundred sedan, one of two replacements for the rental car favorite Taurus. The Five Hundred, designed by hot property J Mays, evokes the VW Passat (and countless other German sedans) in its profile. Its interior was very nice for a Ford, and pretty comfortable. Switches felt of a much higher quality than Fords of recent years and the seats were supportive and plush. It felt really good for an American auto starting at $22k.

The all-new Mustang was mobbed, too. I had a chance to get inside one and my overall impression was that it was... big. I was practically sitting on the floor, looking up to the dashboard and the long hood beyond. The Mustang has the looks and arguably has the goods under the hood, but it didn't do very much for me.

02142005_mustang.jpg
Ford's Mustang sports a more aggressive grill.

Saturn has been creating a huge buzz on the Auto Show circuit with its new Sky roadster and Aura sedan. The Sky is a production model and while not my cup of tea, is certainly a bold move for Saturn, whose cars have been dogged with forgettable styling and mild-mannered performance. But the Aura? Easy contender for my favorite car at the show. It's an aggressive four-door with a flat-out luxurious interior. Sure it's just a rebadged Opel -- one of GM's overseas brands -- but it is a looker through-and-through. The Aura was just a concept, so it was closed to the public, but coupled with the Sky it bodes very well for Saturn's future. After seeing the Aura, sitting in the bargain-basement Ion sedan was a disappointment.

02142005_aura.jpg
Saturn's Aura features very stylish headlights.

Chevy has finally killed the Cavalier and replaced it with the Cobalt. While I can't see myself ever buying one, it was superior to any Cavalier I had ever been in. Its interior follows the modern trend of a T-shaped dash with a thicker steering wheel, and touches of faux brushed metal and faux woodgrain. Cubbyholes were abundant. The exterior design is, well, nothing exciting.

There was quite a bit of excitement at the Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep exhibits. For the first time in decades, Auto Show visitors had the opportunity to actually drive cars around a test track. Dodge and Chrysler had Chicago-ish environments, and Jeep had offroading. There were huge lines for the opportunity to drive cars such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger for just seven minutes, but this is a nice opportunity for soon-to-be buyers. In addition to the Charger, Dodge unveiled its new Nitro truck. It secures Dodge's new look as boxy, angular and muscular by taking the Jeep Liberty and squaring it off.

Toyota had people lined up to check out its hot hybrid, Prius. I had been in a previous generation model and liked it -- the new model doesn't fail to delight. While it may never achieve the 60mpg city/50mpg highway Toyota claims, there's so much more to this design than gas mileage. All the creature comforts are in there. Exterior styling is purposeful and post-modern and is certain to get looks while out on the road. Toyota sells every Prius it makes and with good reason: it's a very good little car.

On the big end of things was the Toyota Avalon. Avalon's goal is to out-Buick Buick, but I've got to say, I liked it. I'm also nowhere near the intended demographic for the car. Something about a nice, metallic interior with deep-looking woodgrain and big comfortable seats appeals to me. And this isn't a bland Buick-esque interior either. We're talking Toyota modern, sophisticated and functional. Great car.

The overall feeling of this year's show for me was positive. While there were very few designs that were absolute knockouts, I'm happy to report that almost all nameplates are moving towards higher quality, more attractive cars. There is a big, gaping hole in addressing gas mileage -- at least from the American side of the pond -- and SUVs are as common on the show floor as they are on the road. One thing that's for sure is that no matter what type of car you like, you'll find something to your liking here.

If you're headed to the Auto Show, naturally you'll be checking out your favorite cars. What else should you see? I say the International trucks are a must-see for sheer awe. The new Saturns were a highlight. And Kia, of all manufacturers, had a very interesting pickup truck concept clearly targeting women. I'd also advise you to not miss the Marketplace and its flea market atmosphere.

The Chicago Auto Show continues through February 20th at McCormick Place. Full details on tickets, parking, and public transit are available at the Chicago Auto Show site.

 

About the Author(s)

Paul McAleer's hobbies include photography, guitar, and sitting in the backseats of expensive cars. His site is phonezilla.net.

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