Winners and Losers at 2009 Chicago Auto Show
The number of debuts at the Chicago auto show this year was smaller than normal, with only a handful of new models making an appearance. Mike Hanley, Kelsey Mays, David Thomas and Joe Wiesenfelder weigh in on which models wowed and which fell flat.
Chevrolet Stingray Concept
Mike Hanley: Winner
The Stingray stood out as the only new concept car at the show, but it would have been a showstopper either way. It's a fascinating blend of familiar and futuristic design themes; from some angles you can see a next-generation Corvette hiding in the sheet metal, while the rear-quarter view is very space-age. If photos aren't enough for you, you'll be able to see more of the Stingray in the next "Transformers" installment this summer.
Kelsey Mays: Winner
What Michael Bay wants, Michael Bay gets. The back story, according to GM, is that the movie director toured GM’s studios, saw a Stingray mock-up and wanted it for the movie. Good. It’s a fine-looking design, and if it hints at a design for the next Corvette, I won’t argue.
David Thomas: Winner
The Stingray had an unfair advantage over every other car here because it was the only true concept to roll out, and it’s one we hadn’t seen before. Either way, the Stingray was breathtaking. This is one of those cars that will draw people to McCormick Place for the next two weeks. How radical is it? It made the current Corvettes surrounding it look as thrilling as a Kia.
Joe Wiesenfelder: Winner
I won’t qualify my praise, because I think this would win even if there were many pure concepts here. The lines are great from every angle, and the jet-like air-inlet grille manages to look like a fresh approach. It’s the classic concept car: outrageous and impossible to take your eyes off of. It’s unlikely to be produced in its current form, but we can always dream.
2010 Kia Forte
Kia has created a compelling small car in the new Forte, which replaces the automaker's Spectra sedan. Chiseled styling, a nice interior, and plenty of room for adults in front and back are all plusses. It's good to see a newcomer at least have a shot at challenging the leaders in the compact-car segment.
Granted, the Forte will be an affordable, fuel-efficient car with a 10-year drivetrain warranty. However, weighed against the league’s cabin-quality standouts — the Honda Civic, redesigned Mazda3 and, arguably, the Hyundai Elantra — it feels low-rent. Too many hard plastics and cheap surfaces, overly firm seats and no telescoping steering wheel until you step up to higher trims. The backseat and trunk are exceptionally roomy, but at the end of the day I was underwhelmed.
The exterior looks nice and contemporary — it doesn’t blow you away, but neither does a Civic or Toyota Corolla. I was really impressed with the controls on the center stack. They had a nice weight and feel to them, which you wouldn’t expect in a Kia of this size. The company has definitely upped the ante, but I’m just not sure it’ll stand out enough to get noticed.
On its own merits, a winner. In terms of auto-show presence, eh. Market viability? We’ll see. I think this is a winner for the reason I call a couple of the others losers: At this time in history, affordability and efficiency are crucial. The Forte’s obstacle is being a brand-new model at a time when sales are already way down. Its ace in the hole is Kia’s reputation for giving buyers a lot at a low price.
2010 Ford Taurus SHO
The current Taurus is a much different car than the mid-90s model that received the SHO badge, and today's full-size car makes a less-than-ideal starting point for a performance model. The twin-turbo V-6 under the hood may be an incredible performer, but in the end this car dilutes the SHO heritage.
I’d eagerly awaited Ford’s SHOstopper — until I heard its price. Thirty-eight large will buy you a lot of V-8 four-door muscle. I don’t care if it’s Eco-whatever; given its size, I can’t fathom the Taurus SHO matching the acceleration you’ll get in a Dodge Charger SRT8 or Pontiac G8 GXP.
I liked the regular Taurus when the redesign was rolled out last month in Detroit, but this high-performance version doesn’t do much for me. With a sticker nearing $40,000, it will never outdo the brute force of a Charger SRT8 or a G8 GXP for similar dollars.
I don’t think anyone has seen more potential than I for the current Taurus since it came out as the Five Hundred, but an SHO isn’t what we need now. More power and a higher price? Great. The EcoBoost approach that gives us V-8 power with V-6 efficiency is a nice illustration, but what we need now from EcoBoost is the acceleration we’ve come to expect from a four-cylinder with dramatically better mileage. No sign of that yet.
2011 Ford Fiesta
This car is a winner for Ford's U.S. lineup, but I'm not convinced it will be a winner against other small-car competition. The design is attractive, and cabin materials are nice in a Saturn Astra kind of way, but Ford could use this car now — not a year from now.
Hereafter begins my new nickname, Kelsey the Contrarian. The Fiesta holds promise, particularly in terms of interior quality, but if Ford is positioning it against cars like the Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit — a Ford spokesman said it is — this car just seems too small. Entry-level models are all about how much car you can get for the money, and the Fiesta already faces an uphill fight.
Kelsey was not happy with the interior room, but I’m a few inches shorter and found it fit me quite nicely. Sure it was cramped, but so are roadsters — and no one complains about them. The backseat had enough room for passengers in a pinch, too. Most impressive were the interior materials and the fit and finish. For such an inexpensive car, they seemed top-notch and superior to what’s in many Fords, like the new Taurus.
2010 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback
I'd only seen a few images of the Lancer Sportback before this auto show, and the ones I saw turned out to be the best angles. In person, the thing just looks ungainly from many directions. Mitsubishi would have been better off making it a traditional hatchback; instead, it just looks like a truncated version of the sedan.
No doubt the Sportback will be fun to drive, but utilitarian it isn’t. Hatchbacks and wagons are all about cargo room, and as Dave attests, the Sportback offers little.
I wanted to like the Sportback, but after seeing it in person it just looks awkward. There’s also no denying that the cargo space in back is a bit cramped. Compared to a new Mazda3, it seemed tiny even though the dimensions say otherwise.
I just drove the Lancer Ralliart and was glad to hear there would be a hatchback, too, to compete with the Subaru WRX, whose hatchback is dorky-looking. But the Sportback is odd in its own way, seemingly adding a hatch that neither improves the styling nor adds as much cargo space as you’d expect.
2010 Acura TSX
One of my gripes with the TSX was that its four-cylinder doesn't offer enough power to keep pace with its intended competition in the sport sedan category. I agree with Dave that a turbo four-cylinder may have been a better choice for the TSX, as opposed to the 3.5-liter V-6, but this new engine moves the car in the right direction nonetheless.
Here’s hoping the V-6 and revised suspension make the softish TSX more of a driver’s car. I’ll qualify my praise pending final gas mileage and pricing figures — in today’s economy, we probably don’t need another $35K, 25-mpg sport sedan — but the TSX is an otherwise attractive choice, with much sharper styling than the overwrought TL and inchoate RDX. More power and retuned handling fix precisely what was wrong with the ’09.
So let me see if I have this right: The Acura TSX was selling well because it was a relatively small sport sedan with a very fuel-efficient four-cylinder, and now the company is adding a really powerful V-6 that you can get standard in the larger TL? I don’t get it. And if you’re gonna go for something sportier, why not use the turbo four-cylinder from the RDX SUV?
If the suspension changes cure the handling deficit people have complained about, this could be a winner in one regard, but this one loses overall for the same reason the Taurus SHO does. More power and a higher price aren’t what most people are looking for nowadays.
2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The Miata is a fun, dynamic car to drive, but as far as auto-show impact, the Miata's updates didn't register. It makes a little more power, has a face that looks a little happier and gets some interior changes, but only true Miata fans walking the show floor are likely to notice.
The Miata is a terrific driver’s car, and I have no reason to suspect the ’09 changes that. But it’s utterly impractical. With consumer confidence dropping faster than Michael Phelps’ endorsement deals, buyers want cars they absolutely need. Sorry, Mazda.
I’m not sold on Mazda adding a smiley face like the new Mazda3’s to every new car. On the MX-5 Miata it turns the roadster into a real-life cartoon character. Seriously — I stood in front of it and half expected it to start talking to me like one of the characters from the Disney movie “Cars.” I’m not sure how that will help the car’s already-touchy reputation for questionable aesthetics.
JW: Net zero
I must note that Dave is the guy who liked the smiley on the Mazda3, which I find clownish. I’m giving this car a combination of thumbs up and down that nets to zero. I think the bumper changes are a positive, improving on the 2008, but I could live without the smiley grille. All the same, it’s better than the Mazda3’s, which is way overdone. As for the interior, it seems to have improved, too, with one exception: The piano-black trim was replaced by tired, old faux metal. The final word, of course, will come from driving it.