McCormick Place is a massive complex, so gigantically out of scale with the human element that it looks like a set piece from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Some portion of it is continually under construction, and the long walk from the parking lots to the exhibition halls always involves skirting dusty areas cordoned off with yellow warning tape, and running narrow gauntlets bottlenecked by temporary plywood partition walls.
Once inside—and I highly recommend buying tickets online in advance to avoid another horrific bottleneck—the Chicago Auto Show is a crazy scene of giant corporate logos, flashing lights, and overpowering colours. It’s a blast, and a good entertainment value for $10. (Get there early, or go on a weekday. It gets crowded.)
In general, I don’t care all that much about the concept cars. They are usually complete pipe dreams and will never see production. For that reason, I prefer to focus at the auto show on the vehicles that I might actually have an opportunity to purchase some day.
Jeep had a dramatic-looking obstacle course that its vehicles were crawling around… steep inclines, water crossings, rock fields, and the like. It was eye-catching, and drew a crowd, but at second glance all the Jeeps were driven by trained employees, and the course was tightly controlled with plastic guardrails… which explains why the woman pushing the floor squeegee around at the bottom of the big hill wasn’t fearing for her life. And of course all the obstacles were designed expressly with the limitations of the Jeeps in mind, so there was never any chance of exceeding approach or departure angles, or drawing water, or getting hung up on a high center. All in all, it might as well have been one of those amusement park rides for four-year-olds where all the cars are tethered to a pull chain.
Toyota brought along a custom FJ Cruiser, this one with a cloth rolltop and a shortened cab for a small open bed at the rear, plus some suspension upgrades. It showed off the FJ’s potential for being souped up for off-road activities, but that stubby bed didn’t look useful for much of anything. (At least the shorter cab reduces the size of the C-pillar, which in the factory model is a big fat blind spot in both rear quarters.) About the only interesting part was the nice front-end bull bar with integral winch, and that was an aftermarket package by ARB that can be added to any stock FJ. The custom job was done up in “Heritage Orange” (more on this later), but this is not an available factory colour. Unfortunately, Toyota is otherwise standing pat on its existing paint, and we’re stuck with the same 5 colours as when the FJ was introduced last year. I guess I’ll have to wait at least one more year before they decide to resurrect the classic Rustic Green of my 1978 FJ40, thereby making it imperative that I will buy a new FJ.
Honda has figured out that its Element, now in its fifth model year, is more popular among the thirty- and forty-something age groups, rather than the hip-hop and surf kids it was originally targeting. For this reason it has toned down its two-tone grey plastic trimwork to a much more conservative and traditional level. The interior remains highly utilitarian with a hose-out plastic floor and rear jump seats that hinge to the sides. A new colour, Root Beer Metallic, looks sharp. I’m liking this vehicle more and more.
To be honest, the most interesting exhibit was… the U.S. Army. They brought an M2 Bradley equipped with the M242 Bushmaster chain gun, and were letting folks crawl around inside. (The ten-year-olds sitting in the rear seats made the thing look spacious.) Some of the armored division soldiers were wearing chrome spurs in tribute to the cavalry, which of course no longer uses horses except for ceremonial parades. That was cool. You could get your name stamped on a dog tag, play on a team for a first-person shooter game (lot of friendly fire going on there), and stand next to a Cobra helicopter flown by their demonstration team. Pretty cool.
Overall, there just wasn’t much new to see this year. The one recurring theme: orange.
Not exactly orange-orange, though. More of a light orange. A hue that Dodge, nearly four decades ago, called “Go Mango.” In lieu of last year’s concept Challenger, which was the usual teaser pipe dream, they brought an original 1970 Challenger R/T convertible with the 440 Six-Pack, one of only 99 ever built, gleaming in Go Mango. It sat on a flatbed, tantalizingly out of reach.
Then there was that Toyota FJ custom job. The exact same colour, which they called “Heritage Orange.” Then came the variants, all about the same shade, but many in a metallic version. There was a Hummer H2. A Nissan 350Z. No matter where you turned, another car was cropping up in this light orange colour.
Did all the automakers get together and agree on this one? Or did the paint manufacturer screw up and make too much, causing a surplus of orange paint they’d have to sell on the cheap?