Chicago Auto Show 2011

17 February 2011
Categories: Transportation

The last time I wrote about the Chicago Auto Show was… 2007. Wow. It’s been four years, and so very little has changed.

Sure, the handful of concept cars is different. And at least a couple of concepts of the past few years—the retro-look Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger—have made it into production. Nevertheless, what little change has occurred is not entirely for the better.

Back in 2007 I wrote, “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.” This was wishful thinking. Honda never knew what a gem they had in this vehicle—spacious, economical, fun to drive, versatile, and a great value. They insisted on marketing it to a demographic that couldn’t care less about practical transport; and meanwhile the people that would have appreciated the Element’s strengths—middle-class folks with families and a solid need for a dependable, do-everything daily driver—had no idea it was a viable option. Sure, the “Car Talk” guys have touted it week after week for years. But Honda did not.

And so, the 2011 model year will be the last one for the Element, and the lone example of the vehicle that Honda brought to the show was stashed in the corner, behind a giant display wall, treated like some unwanted stepchild. It was getting some attention, though—from current Element owners, commiserating about its demise. One guy said he owned two. His friend grinned and said he owned three Elements. Both were forty-somethings with families. They love their Elements, and spoke of them with the devotion of someone who would buy only Honda Elements for the rest of their lives. If only they could.

Airstream got smart, after last year’s crowded traffic jams, and now has gated access to its area. A lovely spokesmodel stands smiling at the Tensabarrier and allows only four groups in at a time to view the four products on display: a pair of classic polished-aluminum trailers and two well-appointed Class B conversions. The elbow room makes touring the Airstreams so much more comfortable, and really fueled our desire to hit the road someday and see America through the windows of a small RV.

Kia was very smart too. Downstairs, near the ticket sales kiosks and outside the show proper, they had a booth set up with a pile of high-quality cloth tote bags. It’s nice to have a tote bag at the show, to carry all the brochures and stuff, and it’s extra nice if it’s a bag you might wind up wanting to use later too. But to get a bag (and a baseball cap), they want you to take a five-minute test drive of the Kia Optima sedan.

No problem, I said, and we hopped aboard. It’s really a terrific car. Comfort, ergonomics, legroom, fit-and-finish, it’s all top-rate, especially for the price. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine gave it a nice kick in the pants as we cruised down Martin Luther King Drive. Sedans don’t fit our lifestyle, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy one, but next time I’m renting a car if I see a Kia Optima on the lot, I won’t hesitate to nab it.

Fiat stopped teasing us this year—after last year, when their only 500 model sat safely out of reach on a turntable—and brought a whole passel of the little coupés to sit in. Including a black one with bright blue racing stripes and a snowboard rack on its tail. These little babies are sporty and adorable; I’d want one if I weren’t so worried about getting flattened by an SUV. Alas, Fiat left the 500 Abarth model, with its mad 170-horse powerplant, back in Italia.

Toyota continues to struggle with the aftermath of recalls and bad press, spending their effort this year with a lot of handwaving about “what’s the plural of Prius?” Meanwhile, their FJ Cruiser is unchanged and remains two-thirds of a decent vehicle, looking classic from the front and fine in its chassis, but with its rear such an ignored design afterthought that any rearward view is all but impossible. The old, real FJ Land Cruisers were like terraria with all their glass; driving one of these is like sitting at the mouth of a cave.

Overall, one thing kept jumping out at me as I sat in numerous vehicles built by umpteen different manufacturers: the latest must-have, the portable music player connection, is not yet ready for prime time.

Amenities like this tend to go through phases: Phase One runs from prototype through early adoption, to the point where nearly every model has an example; Phase Two begins as real-world use and experience provide feedback that enables designers to redesign, upgrade, and improve the original.

Cup holders are a good example. For instance, our trusty ’97 Toyota came out toward the end of cup holder Phase One; it has exactly one cup holder, sized to fit a standard 12-ounce pop can. Passengers (or the driver, if he’s nice) must do without. An oversized cup won’t fit. This cup holder is, to be honest, laughably inconvenient much of the time; in praxis, we tend to wedge our drink containers between the parking brake handle and the sides of our seats.

Nowadays, every car has multiple cup holders—often more than the passenger capacity of the vehicle. (That makes a good punchline, but really, if everybody aboard has a bottle of water and a cup of coffee, you’ll want to have twice as many cup holders as seats.) Some are retractable; most are versatile in the size cup they’ll hold. That Kia Optima I drove—like many others—even has cup holders in its doors, along with a little graphic telling you to use capped bottles and not open cups in those holders, so they won’t spill when the door is used. The cup holder has come of age.

Not so the portable music player connection, which presently is stuck in the midst of its Phase One. Most cars now have an AUX jack; many include a USB port too. In recognition of modern use of cell phones, GPS receivers, iPods, etc., all at the same time, lots of dashboards have multiple 12-volt outlets (once upon a time, and occasionally still, used for cigarette lighters). This is rapidly becoming the norm.

However merely providing this connection is not enough—placement is important too. Most dashboards put the AUX jack on the face of the CD/radio unit; that’s fine for the assembly line’s convenience (aside from a different audio unit, nothing has changed and no extra wiring is needed), but where then do we put the music player? Most lacked a tray for it. Meanwhile, the power outlet is somewhere else entirely.

One manufacturer included an open slot for a player, presumably big enough for an iPod (though it looked tight for an iPhone wearing a protective cover) but left the device out in plain sight—and one thing we know from living in a city is that thieves won’t hesitate to break a window if they spot anything inside the vehicle with even the slightest value. Another manufacturer put the audio jacks inside a center armrest console, good for security and storage; but left the power outlet outside, so that a power cord will prevent the console lid from closing.

The upshot of all this is that today’s cars, with few exceptions, come with the unspoken expectation that we’ll accept a dashboard that looks like a spaghetti farm, with cables strung every which way, while our expensive personal music devices and other gadgets toss about at random with every start, stop, and turn. And that we’ll pack all that mess up every time we park the car.

Earlier, I mentioned the Honda Element. On the passenger side of its dash, in a flat, lipped tray above the glove compartment, is a 12-volt outlet and an AUX jack. It’s exposed to view, making it still a Phase One design, and yet—my music player stays put, and all its cables can be neatly tucked away. And that was in the 2009 model.

By the way, if you’re going to the Chicago Auto Show, I definitely recommend going on a weekday. The weekend crowds are completely insane.

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