Chicago Auto Show lacks excitement

I have fond memories of my first visit to the Chicago Auto Show in 2005. I was in 7th grade, and coming from my hometown St. Louis Auto Show, which is a much more scaled-down affair than the one here at McCormick Place, it was quite a sight to behold. I remember marveling at the luxurious Maybachs and Rolls-Royces, displays of which you will only find at car shows in the bigger markets like Chicago or LA. I remember scoping out the wares of the big American brands too – GM, Ford, Chrysler – and their new models that tried desparately to ignite a fire in the hearts, and wallets, of consumers. Remember the Chevy SSR? The Chrysler Crossfire? The Hummer H3?

Probably not, because even though all of these models were being pushed hard by the Big Three at the show in 2005, they could not hold a candle to Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan, all of whom were producing cars with better design, more efficient fuel economy, and perhaps most importantly, a more attractive price.

As the saying goes, you reap what you sew. Since 2005, GM and Chrysler have gone in and out of bankruptcy, and Ford narrowly escaped a similar fate. The Great Recession has left consumers with less money to spend and more reason to skimp on important purchases like a car. And government at the state and federal level has mandated a shift toward improving fuel economy for all automobiles in the next decade.

Maybe it was just the fact that I grew up, but something about the Auto Show this year made it feel bland, uninspiring. Chalk it up to the disappearance of the romanticism we used to associate with cars, once the centerpiece of the American Dream, now seen as nothing more than sterilized people-carriers.

Walking into the Auto Show in 2013, the first thing I notice is an abundance of cars. Almost every concept car on the show floor was an electric or hybrid model, and most looked pulled straight from “Minority Report” (see the Honda EV-STER). At least most of these concept models will never hit the road, but for what is supposed to be an example of a manufacturer’s vision for the future, the concepts lacked any real ingenuity; they all seem to take several design cues from the Chevy Volt and continue to disappoint with limited mileage.

Other car manufacturers have sensed consumers’ desire for better fuel economy and are making sacrifices to the engine or the building materials. “Turbo” has become a dirty word in car dealerships, due to its association with gas-guzzling sports cars, but in reality, a properly tuned turbocharger can increase engine power and fuel efficiency simultaneously. Ford apparently thinks the average consumer is mentally unable to comprehend this (and maybe they’re right), so they dub their turbocharged engines “EcoBoost.” The automobile purist in me scoffs at this doublespeak, but thanks in part to these new engines and Mike Rowe talking about them on your TV all day, Ford is back at the top of their game – in 2011 they had their best American sales since before the Recession. Meanwhile, Chevy is still trying to sell Camaros for some reason, and Chrysler is pretending they aren’t even American anymore (“Imported from Detroit”? Really?)

I will admit I have never had a fondness for American cars, but I have always been fond of what American cars used to represent: freedom, power and ingenuity. But now, after decades of turning a blind eye to the evolving market, and especially consumers, the Big Three are playing catch-up. American manufacturers need to come to grips with the idea that bigger isn’t always better, and that design and functionality are inextricably intertwined. They need to push harder to innovate in the areas of alternative fuel sources like hydrogen, given the general consensus that sooner or later we will be staring a global energy crisis in the face. And if they really want to dominate the automotive industry like they did in the 20th century, they must do all of these things and still make driving fun.

It is the spirit of motoring that is missing from cars today. I support every environmental initiative wholeheartedly, but can the industry create cars that are green and fun? Toyota Prius, I’m looking at you.