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2011 Chicago Auto Show Recap

By Benjy Lipsman in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 15, 2011 7:00PM

Over the weekend, we headed over to McCormick Place to pay a visit to the 2011 Chicago Auto Show. One of our most anticipated events of the year, we spent hours ogling the latest offerings from most of the major auto makers, as well as a few concepts for future vehicles.

As was the case in recent years, the show remains noticeably more low key than in the past. Show displays are nowhere near as elaborate as they once were, with less cars on the floor and the few concepts on display skew toward previews of upcoming production vehicles, rather than pie-in-the-sky design studies. That's not to say that we didn't have a blast dreaming of owning a shiny new Jaguar or enjoying a waft of a BMW's luxurious leather interior.

Enjoy the Ride
Much of the floor this year was taken over by four different test tracks — one each by Jeep, Toyota, Ford and Chevy. In previous years, only Jeep had a test track. Auto show visitors can only ride in the test track vehicles as passengers, so we weren't going to wait in line. But we were almost tempted to in order to check out the new Chevy Volt.

Green Machines
The Volt was one of many hybrid and electric vehicles on display this year. While some vehicles like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf, are already available for sale in some parts of the U.S., others were longer range concepts. Ford showed the hybrid edition of its new Focus, and Lexus debuted their sportier hybrid CT 200h. Meanwhile, Toyota showed how they intend to extend the Prius name across a whole stable of vehicles in the future.

Mean Machines
At the other end of the spectrum, muscle cars are clearly back. The Big Three each showcased their retro-inspired high horsepower sports cars. Chevy introduced the soft top version of its Camaro, as well as the 550 horsepower, V8 powered ZL1 beast. Dodge showcased its Charger in a number of flavors, as well as their 4-door muscle car, the Dodge Challenger SRT8. With its massive grill, low prifile tires and spoiler, the car looked like it could do some damage on the drag strip. But with four doors, one could also drop the carpool off on the way.

Asian Invasion, Part II
We were blown away by how far the Korean car makers have come in recent years. While the Japanese makers like Toyota and Honda continue to show bland driving appliances, and Toyota can't even stand behind the quality banner as they did in the past, the Koreans are winning in terms of reliability and design. The Kia Optima looks even better in person than in photos, and it's platform sibling Hyundai Sonata's swoopy styling has no doubt been one of the reasons for its popularity on the road. The smaller Elantra takes on much of the Sonata's design language in the recently revamped model.

The Koreans have a thing or two to teach the Japanese, who ate the American makers for lunch three decades ago. And the Americans could learn a thing or two about badge engineering. But while Hyundai shows striking boldness in design for upcoming vehicles like the 2012 Veloster coupe, their luxury Genisis and Equus models are incredibly derivative of the other cars with which they are trying to compete.

Local Flavor
Our first car was a Ford Explorer. While we smartly gave up the gas guzzling SUV before gas prices spiked, we were very impressed with the all-new Ford Explorer that's built right here in Chicago. Having switched from a truck-based platform to a car-based one improves fuel economy and ride, yet Ford kept stronger truck-like looks that most crossovers lack. We like! Since our next car purchase will likely shuttle little people at some point in its life, this might get serious consideration the next time we shop for a new car.

For those who still want to check out Auto Show, it continues until Feb. 20, open daily from 10am - 10pm (until 8pm on final day). Tickets cost $11 for adults and $7 for seniors and kids.