2019 Chicago Auto Show Recap – The Windy City Stirs

Chicago has proven a sleepy show for news for quite some time now.

This year, however, there was a hint of something stirring. While there still wasn’t a wealth of product news, there was more than normal — and most of it didn’t involve minor trim changes (okay, some of it did).

I wandered the halls at massive McCormick Place last week to take in what was a busier show than normal. Starting with Subaru, here’s my “hot takes” about what I saw on the show floor. Just for the hell of it, let’s embrace a grading gimmick.

Takes are in the same order that the press conferences were.

Subaru Legacy

The forgotten midsize sedan is taking things up a notch in order to get noticed. I’ll be honest – I write about cars for a living and I’d forgotten Subaru still makes this thing. Blame the crossover craze and all the attention we lavish on the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, and Toyota Camry. Blame it on Subaru’s rep for building rock-solid crossovers/wagons. Whatever – the Legacy still exists and it’s updated for 2020.

Most of the changes are found under the skin, but I loved the vertical infotainment screen and the addition of an available turbocharged mill. The exterior is still plain but handsome, yet I can forgive the exterior boredom in exchange for a higher promise of sport. I’m also heightened that Subaru has taken a big leap forward from having some of the worst interiors in the biz.

Grade: B+

Volkswagen Jetta GLI

I have a bias here – I love compact sporty cars. So putting the Golf GTI’s bones under the skin of the newest Jetta and offering a manual transmission is a way to get me perked up. I already dig the Jetta as a good commuter car, but the standard model is a tad boring and in need of some pizazz. Enter the GLI. It should provide driving dynamics missing from the base model and, if priced right, will be a great direct competitor to the Honda Civic Si. Right now, the Si offers 80 percent of the performance of the Subaru WRX or Golf GTI at $10K less, so Volkswagen would be smart to offer its “GTI with a trunk” right in the Si’s price range. Make Honda sweat a bit.

Grade: A

Toyota Tacoma/TRD trims

Toyota didn’t do much in Chicago. It gave the Sequoia and RAV4 TRD packages that few will likely ever buy, and afforded the Tacoma a few tech upgrades in the interest of modernization. This is an example of what passed for “news” in Chicago just a few years ago. I’m glad to see modern infotainment and a couple of useful in-car cameras available on the Tacoma, but wake me when the Sequoia is redesigned for real.

Grade: C+

Image: Ford

Ford Super Duty

Chicago has always carried a reputation as a truck show, and the 2020 Super Duty was but one of two major truck unveils, the other being the Ram (more on that in a bit). Chevrolet also brought its 2020 Silverado HD to an auto show for the first time, even though the truck’s official media event took place in Michigan two days prior. I won’t cover the Chevy here – other than to say I don’t get what’s going on with the grille and the interior is already outdated – because it wasn’t officially launched at the show. So let’s focus on the Ford (no pun intended). I’m of mixed mind when it comes to the Ford – design changes are minor, but the engine changes intrigue. I speak, of course, of the new 7.3-liter pushrod gasoline V8 and the 6.7-liter PowerStroke diesel, both of which mate to a 10-speed automatic transmission.

Thing is, Ford hasn’t provided media or consumers with any specs yet. So it’s hard to have an initial take without seeing how the Super Duty compares to the Ram and GM products on paper. Specs mean a lot to truck buyers, and while Ford may simply be waiting for its rivals to play their hands, that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t frustrated by the lack of info. Let’s give Ford an incomplete.

Grade: Incomplete

Ram Chassis Cab

Ram showed off its chassis cab trucks in Chicago. Highly customizable, available with gas or diesel engines, and offered in four frame lengths, these rigs gain interior updates that bring forth goodies like the 12-inch touchscreen from the lighter-duty Ram trucks. Oh, and you can tow up to 35,220 pounds.

Since we don’t have Ford specs to compare against, I won’t play the “on paper” game. That said, I remain a fan of the interior on the lighter-duty trucks and to see it brought to the big boys is a good thing.

Grade: B+

Mazda 30th Anniversary Miata

The 30th anniversary edition of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata was the big news in Chicago, since the Miata made its debut in the city of wind, well, 30 years ago. Three thousand of these units will be built, all in Racing Orange paint, and all are already sold out. You can choose from soft-top or hardtop and automatic or manual transmission. Opt for the stick, and you get Bilstein dampers and mechanical limited-slip differential. Either way, buyers can expect orange brake calipers, heated Recaros, blacked-out mirrors, commemorative badging, and 17-inch wheels, among other goodies that let passers-by know your Miata is extra special.

While the mechanical upgrades aren’t all that significant, especially on the auto, the car looks fantastic up close (the auto show’s poor lighting doesn’t do it justice). Mazda has cooked up a nice tribute to what’s arguably its most famous sports car (sorry, RX fans).

Grade: A+

Range Rover Evoque

The original Evoque was easy to hate on. Sporty enough, to be sure, but awkward-looking at best and ugly at worst. While the styling updates are mild, the second-gen vehicle introduced in Chicago looks a bit better than what came before, and the two new engines promise more power. Not to mention one of them carries a mild-hybrid system. I do dig the updated interior, and the camera that turns the hood transparent is a neat idea, but the Evoque is saddled with the hated ZF nine-speed auto. It loses a partial grade just for that.

The smallest Range Rover has reasonable base pricing, too.

The chopped-roof styling still looks weird, but much less so. Consider the Evoque as a contender for most improved.

Grade: B-

Nissan Rogue Sport/Pathfinder Rock Creek

Nissan’s news was mild (full disclosure: Nissan hosted me for the show). An off-road trim for the Pathfinder that’s light on actual mechanical features to assist you off-road and a mild update to the Rogue Sport/Qashqai. The update really is mild, with the most notable difference being a grille that looks more like that of other Nissans. It’s not surprising the facelift proved so mild, given product-cycle timing, but if you showed up expecting big Nissan news, this wasn’t the show for you.

Grades: D+ for Pathfinder Rock Creek, B for Rogue Sport.

Acura

Acura didn’t make any news, but it did bring a 1991 NSX to its stand to mark the 30th anniversary of that car’s unveiling (yes, I know 1991 wasn’t 30 years ago, but the initial show car bowed in 1989. So that’s 30 years. Stop being so pedantic). Bringing the original NSX around is aces in anyone’s book.

Grade: Extra credit, half a letter grade.

Image: FCA

Alfa Romeo 4C Italia

If you like the 4C, you might want to be one of just 15 buyers to raise your hand for the Italia special edition. Or maybe not. You won’t get much for your extra $5K plus the almost-certain dealer markup – special paint, a different intake, a different rear diffuser, some special graphics and interior trim, and a production number for your console.

And that’s it. Doesn’t seem like the kind of special edition that would see only 15 units built. Hardly worth the five big ones on top of whatever markup dealers will throw down.

Grade: F

That’s all, folks. Chicago kept us busy this year, yet remained light on news compared to the other three big American shows. Let’s see if that changes in 2020 when Detroit moves to the summertime.

The next American auto show on the docket involves thinner, greasier pizza. Until then, I await GLI pricing.

[Images: Acura, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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