2016 Chicago Auto Show: Hushed tones…mostly

The Chicago Auto Show may be the biggest annual auto show in North America, but this year’s edition seemed to be more for the delight of industry analysts than it was for gearheads or even the average consumer.  Short on flashy introductions and long on subtle vehicle updates and upgrades, Chicago was a good place to catch up on the latest, but one has to look closely to find the cutting-edge news.  I had high hopes that the new Ram Power Wagon and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro would throw down and insist upon a high-noon duel on Jeep’s updated show-floor test track, but that didn’t happen.  Oh, well.

A few things did happen, of course.  Have a look:

DSC_2872 2017 Kia Niro:  Kia unveiled its first dedicated hybrid, the compact crossover Niro.  At a glance it looks like a Sportage, but the Niro is its own vehicle, sporting a 1.6 liter direct-injection four-cylinder coupled to a transmission-mounted electric motor and a lithium ion polymer battery.  Total system power is 146 horses.  Kia will offer a full suite of active driver aids on the Niro (blind spot monitor, intelligent cruise control, lane departure warning, etc.) as well as a driving coach intended to improve the driver’s efficiency.   Fancy?  No.  Enough to give the Prius night sweats?  …Maybe?

DSC_28782017 Ram Power Wagon:  The proper way to introduce Ram’s heavy-duty off-roader would have been to have Terry Crews rush out on stage wearing nothing but his red Old Spice trunks and scream, “POWEERRRRRRRRR!” just before the truck burst through the back wall.  Unfortunately, Ram didn’t do that.  I’ll forgive that faux pas, though, because the bright orange Power Wagon now features graphics inspired by the ’79-’80 Power Wagon as well as a standard 410-horsepower 6.4 liter V8, a high-articulation suspension with an automatic swaybar disconnect, a 12,000-pound Warn winch, 33-inch tires and a 10,030 towing capacity.

DSC_28642017 Kia Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid:  The Optima was all-new just a year ago, and the hybrid version’s making the jump to the new platform later this year.  The Optima Hybrid hits the streets with a new, more efficient 2.0 liter gasoline engine boosted by Kia’s transmission-mounted electric motor.  The stylish Optima Hybrid’s big news is the announcement of an upcoming plug-in hybrid as well, that will enable it to compete nose-to-nose with the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in.

DSC_28962017 Hyundai Santa Fe:  The Santa Fe gets a refresh for 2017, with new front and rear fascias, LED lighting, updated BlueLink connectivity, a multi-view camera, a new eight-inch touchscreen…you know, all the neat stuff that you’ll research when it comes time to shop for one. But nothing particularly sexy.

DSC_28912017 Mercedes Sprinter Worker:  Thanks to Ford and Ram, Mercedes no longer has the mega-van market all to itself.  To address the competition, the Sprinter Worker is a lower-priced version of the Sprinter, featuring a standard diesel engine and seven-speed transmission.  It’s built on the Sprinter’s 66.5” interior height, 144” wheelbase body, and starts at $32,495. Interior volume?  Over 319 cubic feet.  Oh, and it’ll tow 5000 pounds, too.

DSC_2888Mercedes Sprinter Extreme:  The only vehicle to even consider challenging the Ram Power Wagon for roid-rage honors is the Sprinter Extreme.  Based on the massive Sprinter 3500 chassis-cab and reminding us that the Sprinter’s available with all-wheel drive now, this big green beast sports off-road tires, a Scattolini three-way dumping bed and enough lights to remind you of Mercedes’ own Unimog.  The Sprinter Extreme loses points for having fake boulders in the bed and mud-patterned graphics rather than actual mud, though.

DSC_29092016 Mercedes Metris:  Taking first slot in this year’s, “Oh, hey, how did I miss that?” category is the Mercedes Metris, which went on sale in October.  Mercedes’ mid-size van joins the Sprinter in its U.S. lineup, and will offer passenger and cargo versions.  It’s already been snapped up by the conversion-van folks as well.  Priced at $28,500 for the work van and $32,500 for the people-hauler, the Metris is larger than Transit Connect, Nissan NV200 or Ram C/V Tradesman and features a 208-horsepower four-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive.  I am making mention of this mainly because I like vans.

DSC_29112017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro:  It seemed almost like Toyota’s refreshed off-road specialist pickup was keeping a low profile to avoid attracting the attention of the Ram Power Wagon just across the aisle.  Unveiled in a new gray hue called “Cement,” the little Hilux that could now features cool Kevlar-reinforced off-road tires, LED fog lights by Rigid Industries, skid plates, FOX shocks tuned by TRD and one-inch lift springs.  A towing package and off-road “crawl control” are also standard.

DSC_28822017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid:  Fresh off a successful debut in Detroit, the Pacifica is Chrysler’s re-thought minivan, and this was the official debut of the hybrid version.

DSC_29032017 Nissan Armada:  The massive Nissan Armada made a surprisingly quiet debut off-site.  The all-new Armada’s now borrowing styling cues from the classic Nissan Patrol (instead of the lumpy couch that the previous version seemed to have been inspired by).  The new boxy Armada’s powered by a 390-horsepower 5.6 liter V8 and a seven-speed automatic that’ll tow up to 8500 pounds.  A thicker, heavier frame is also part of the upgrade.  The new styling makes this eight-seater the most distinctive of the saurian full-size SUVs.

DSC_28982017 Chevrolet Trax:  Though it’s essentially a downmarket version of the awesome Buick Encore, the Trax has been somewhat disappointing thanks to cheap-feeling interior bits and a forgettable design.  Chevrolet’s addressing this barely a year after its debut with a much-upgraded 2017 model.  The freshened Trax sports an updated face, an improved interior and an available blind spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and a forward collision alert.


Rand McNally OverDryve:  A noteworthy non-automotive introduction in Chicago was Rand McNally’s OverDryve.  The mapmaker has evolved into a technology and infotainment purveyor, and the Overdryve offers a wide range of features available on newer cars in a small affordable package that can be used in any car.  Wish you could add hands-free calling, music apps, a dash camera or backup camera, forward collision warning, trip planning and navigation to your ten year-old car?  The OverDryve unit might just be the way to do that.  It’ll hit stores later this spring with a starting price of $399.

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