The Automotive Future in the Windy City

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

2011 Ford Transit Connect Electric.

The Chicago Auto Show is underway, right in the middle of what’s known as “auto show season.” And as is the case at just about every auto show, car companies are using the event to show off their latest ideas, many being unveiled for the first time. It’s not as big a deal as the Detroit or even Los Angeles shows, but it’s part of the prime show schedule nonetheless.
Making significant news as it relates to Southern California is an electric version of Ford’s Transit Connect commercial van. For small businesses, the Transit Connect is already a nice efficient package with an amazing amount of space inside. For the 2011 model year, commercial customers in urban areas can choose a fully electric version with a range of about 80 miles, which should be plenty for the service industry where vehicles on go a certain distance from their home bases and return overnight for recharging.
Our area will be a hotbed of electric vehicle activity in the coming years, with lots of infrastructure being prepared to charge the cars in off-peak hours. Tax incentives and an overall green image will allow vehicles like the Transit Connect Electric to flourish here.
Ford is also preparing a taxi version of the Transit Connect, with an option of CNG (compressed natural gas) or LPG (liquid petroleum gas) for fleet customers. Ford must get approval for it from the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, which is the agency that’s a make-or-break for any company offering a taxi package. Ford’s Crown Victoria, a staple of taxi fleets since the demise of the Checker, is going away soon and Ford would like to stay in the lucrative taxicab business.
In other Ford news, another example of their EcoBoost turbocharged engine technology debuted, this time a 4-cylinder that will be used in the Edge crossover as well as the upcoming car-based Explorer. And for muscle car fans, the 2011 version of the Shelby Mustang is premiering. Old school meets new tech with the latest Shelby, as the engine will be all aluminum to save weight.
Speaking of muscle cars, Dodge is showing off a new color for its Challenger model. If the retro-styled coupe is on your shopping list, you can now select “Furious Fuchsia” for a real early ‘70s mod look in a kind of purple-pink hue. Groovy, baby.
And for those of you old enough, can you believe that it’s been forty years since Nissan (known as Datsun then) set the sports car world on fire with the debut of the 240Z? Naturally, they’re paying tribute to the milestone fortieth anniversary with a special edition of the 370Z, the original car’s spiritual successor.
Not all anniversaries are for something as exciting as a sports car, but are significant nonetheless. Chevrolet says that their Suburban large SUV is the longest-running nameplate on the market, at 75 years and counting. To commemorate this heritage, they’re offing a 75th Anniversary Diamond Edition Suburban with, among other things, “Diamond White Tricoat” paint. If you need a three ton truck and want it to look “diamond-y” then look no further.
Many families are eschewing heavy trucks for people moving duty these days, and Honda is readying an updated version of its popular Odyssey minivan. The example unveiled in Chicago is labeled a “concept” by Honda, but they have a recent track record of essentially revealing the production version of a vehicle with a few tweaks and then calling it a concept as a teaser. It’s hard to make a van look like anything but a van, but the side windows have a sleeker, more slit-like look to make it stand out.
Toyota went to the show to reveal their next generation of the Avalon large sedan, and on press days their stand was mobbed with journalists. Was the press enamored with the vaguely restyled car? Hardly. Toyota’s news conference fell during the frenzy over their Camry and Prius recalls, so their executives were inundated with questions about everything related to those issues.
Other notables at the show include an updated heavy-duty Chevrolet Silverado pickup for those who need big-time carrying or towing capacity, a new high-performance Chevy cop car that will only be offered to law enforcement agencies only, and an “ultimate” version of the BMW 7-series called the Alpina that carries a sticker price well into six-figure territory.
We might not think of Chicago as a “car town” the way we do Los Angeles, but it’s home to a major auto show nonetheless. And with the entire industry looking to climb its way out of the recession and sell more cars, it’ll take any opportunity to show off the latest shiny things on four wheels
I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.

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