2019 Auto Show roundup: Detroit and Chicago

Features - Cover Story

While Detroit’s North American International Auto Show slips in relevance, Chicago brings in more brands, more new-product reveals.

LEFT: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is offering a Limited trim package on chassis-cab models with leather seats, premium sound systems, and a massive touchscreen control system. Most chassis-cab models go to municipal or utility fleets, but company officials say some commercial buyers want plush gear. RIGHT: Subaru of America President and CEO Thomas J. Doll shows off the 2020 Legacy sedan at the Chicago Auto Show. While trucks dominated shows in Detroit and Chicago, several carmakers said they still see life in the sedan market.

In 2020, Detroit’s auto show moves to June, abandoning its lead-off role as the industry’s pace-setting exposition. The 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) was evidence why – several major automakers didn’t show, Detroit’s home-town companies had little new to share, and the energy level at Cobo Hall was muted during the event.

Ram’s 3500, 4500, and 5500 chassis-cab models offer more power and towing capacity to commercial buyers than outgoing models.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, which takes place a week before NAIAS, has become the favored place to unveil technologically advanced vehicles, new car technologies, and the connectivity systems that once made Detroit’s show so exciting. Without those launches, the once-mandatory exhibit for industry insiders has become a regional show in a city that can be difficult to visit in January if snow is falling. Organizers are hoping next year’s move to warmer months will reinvigorate the event.

In Chicago, on the other hand, brands that skipped Detroit were present, companies had more new vehicles to show, and the massive amounts of floor space at McCormick Place – Chicago remains the country’s biggest auto show in square footage – gave companies plenty of room to showcase new and exciting options.

General Motors unveils the Cadillac XT6 large crossover on the eve of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2019. Automakers showed off fewer new vehicles at the show, which is moving to summer in 2020.
Photo by John F. Martin for Cadillac


Detroit still had some dramatic moments. Volkswagen announced plans to invest $800 million in its Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant to make electric cars by 2022, adding 1,000 jobs. The company also unveiled a new version of the Passat mid-sized sedan. With Ford, General Motors (GM), and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) dropping most of their cars to focus on trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, VW and other car-heavy brands hope to benefit from new models.

Nissan’s IMs was one of the few concept cars in Detroit, a look at what a semi-autonomous car might look like in 2022. It features 3D-printed heating vents and rotating front seats.

FCA was the only Detroit-area automaker with a major new product launch, debuting the Ram Heavy Duty truck line with the 6.7L Cummins diesel engine. Increasing truck competition has pushed diesel performance higher in recent years, but the Cummins Ram engine’s expected 1,000 lb-ft of torque rating breaks the industry’s four-digit barrier. David Goggin, Cummins marketing communications director, says the new engine design isn't radically different from the one it replaces; the big difference is materials. Cummins swapped a gray-iron engine block for compacted-graphite iron (CGI), a tough-to-cut metal that allows turbochargers to boost pressures in the engine's cylinders. Upgrading to CGI required updated machining centers in Columbus, Indiana, but Goggins says the results were worth it – more power and a 60 lb weight reduction. It also features a tougher iron crankshaft and improved turbochargers.

Ford grabbed some attention by lowering the 2020 Shelby GT500 Mustang from the ceiling. With more than 700hp from a 5.2L aluminum V-8 engine paired to a 2.7L Eaton supercharger, the Mustang variant is as powerful as NASCAR race versions, but it will be street legal when it goes on sale this fall. The exciting reveal, however, highlighted changes in NAIAS’ status in the automotive world. Detroit used to reveal high-volume, mainstream vehicles, not specialty enthusiast models. Timed with CES in Las Vegas, Ford showed the 2020 Explorer SUV a week before Detroit’s show. At NAIAS, the company unveiled the Police Interceptor version of the Explorer, a more-powerful ST version, and a hybrid-electric version.

GM’s Cadillac division unveiled the XT6 large crossover the night before the show’s opening, making it the only new product from that automaker on display. Small- and mid-sized luxury crossovers have been the fastest-growing vehicle segments in the past few years, but there is demand on the big side. Cadillac’s XT4 and XT5 models have brought in new, younger buyers, but the XT6 is targeted at families. It will be made in Spring Hill, Tennessee, alongside the similarly proportioned GMC Acadia.

The most-anticipated reveal in Detroit came from Toyota with the launch of the 2020 Supra coupe, a vehicle that has been unavailable since 1998. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda says the car – co-developed with BMW alongside that automaker’s 2019 Z4 – is special to him as he earned his master-driver status on Germany’s famed Nurburgring racetrack in a previous version.

Ford lowers a Shelby GT500 Mustang from the ceiling of Cobo hall at Detroit’s auto show. The supercharged beast produces more than 700hp, giving owners a street-legal vehicle capable of NASCAR power levels.

When Toyota designers showed the concept vehicle that would become the Supra, he says they were very clever to get it into the Gran Turismo 6 video game so Toyoda could drive it virtually. He fell in love with the design and approved it for production.

In weird concept-cars, Nissan had the IMs, its idea of what a semi-autonomous electric car might look like. Designed to be driver-controlled or autonomous, front seats can face forward or swivel to the sides or rear. Nissan Electric Vehicles Design Chief Giovanny Aroba says features such as 3D-printed lattice structures that replace traditional instrument panel heating vents are playful looks at how technology could influence future vehicles.

“This is a serious look into what sorts of vehicles we expect to be on the market in the very near future,” Aroba says, adding that Nissan expects autonomous or cars with fully autonomous modes to be available by 2022 or soon after.

Hyundai and Kia showed off different versions of a large SUV. The Kia Telluride/Hyundai Palisade offers the companies much-needed large vehicles dealers have been requesting. Kia has maintained its sales as the market has shifted away from cars and smaller vehicles, but Hyundai numbers were off in 2017 and 2018.

Kia’s Telluride and Hyundai’s Palisade give the Korea-based automakers entries into the large SUV market.

Chicago Auto Show

McCormick looks radically different for the auto show than it does for the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS). There’s room to walk around, booths don’t have elaborate walls or side rooms, and the open space shrinks the venue.

In prominence, however, everything in Chicago was a bit bigger for 2019. VW announced $800 million in new spending in Detroit, so Ford announced $1 billion in upgrades to its plants on Chicago’s South Side. Ram showed big commercial trucks in Detroit, so Chevrolet and Ford responded in Chicago (with Ram adding even more variants to its lineup). Porsche, Maserati, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar/Land Rover, and Mazda all skipped Detroit but attended Chicago with Land Rover and Mazda unveiling new or special-edition vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) Ram 3500 pickup features a 6.7L Cummins diesel engine that will produce industry leading torque numbers that are sure to play prominently in future ads.

Ford’s $1 billion investment in its Chicago stamping and assembly plants will support 500 new jobs making the Explorer and the Lincoln Aviator SUV. Larger numbers of special-edition Explorers (Police Interceptor, hybrid, ST) coupled with the Lincoln model creates more complexity for the plant, forcing the spending, says Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s global operations president.

“We believe in American manufacturing and good-paying middle-class jobs,” Hinrichs says.

Ford also displayed its 2020 F-Series Super Duty truck lineup, vehicles that will compete with Ram’s Heavy Duty line. Ford officials did not share horsepower or torque numbers, other than saying the diesel and new 7.3L gasoline engines would be more powerful than previous Super Duty powertrains. Final power stats will come out closer to vehicle launches in late summer or early fall.

Chevrolet’s 2020 Silverado HD line hit the show floors in Chicago. At 910 lb-ft of torque, the truck doesn’t come close to the Ram diesel numbers, but GM officials say the 10-speed transmission on the truck allows it to tow up to 35,500 lb when properly equipped, topping the Ram Heavy Duty’s 35,100 lb.

Cummins’ 6.7L diesel needed a compacted graphite iron (CGI) engine block to handle the boost pressures needed to get to 1,000 lb-ft. of torque. The company upgraded its Columbus, Indiana, plant to handle the new material.

Ram also saved a few surprises for Chicago. The commercial brand showed off chassis-cab versions of its 3500, 4500, and 5500 commercial trucks – vehicles with cabs but no beds that ambulance companies, utility companies, and dump-truck operators upfit with specialty bodies. The redesigned chassis cabs allow easier access to the trucks’ transmissions, letting workers attach power takeoff (PTO) devices that divert engine power to run pumps, cranes, winches, and other accessories.

The oddest Ram addition? Chassis-cab models will be available with a Limited interior package – leather seats, 12" touchscreen controls, advanced sound systems, and zoned climate control. Nearly all chassis-cab trucks go to municipal and utility fleets – buyers typically unwilling or unable to pay a premium for extra comfort on trucks that tend to get dirty. FCA officials say there are racing enthusiasts, horse owners, and boaters who need the power of a chassis cab but also want comfort, so the target audience for the Limited package appears to be Kentucky Derby horse owners rich enough to compete but too poor to fly private jets to Louisville. Then again, most industry watchers thought Ford was crazy to offer King Ranch premium interiors on F-250 and F-350 pickups a decade ago, and those have sold briskly.

An option for the Ram 1500 pickup allows the tailgate to swing out with a 60/40 split, instead of dropping down as with most pickups.

Finally from Ram, the 1500 mainstream truck gets a new liftgate option. It can drop down or swing out like French doors with a 60/40 split. Engineers say the swing-out design allows truck owners to stand next to the rear bumper while loading the vehicle instead of having to reach over the liftgate. FCA’s claims of that being class-exclusive, however, were undercut by being so close to the Honda Ridgeline, a truck with a liftgate that also drops down or swings out. The Ridgeline is a lighter truck, and its tailgate is a single piece instead of a 60/40 split, but the feature is already on the market.

As with Detroit, trucks and SUVs dominated Chicago, but several cars debuted as well. Subaru’s 2020 Legacy isn’t radically different from the model it replaces, but it has fresher styling, and company officials say it will be more fuel efficient, powerful, and refined than the previous model. The car features the company’s EyeSight safety system that uses two cameras mounted inside the cabin on either side of the rearview mirror to generate 180° views to support lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, crash detection, and other safety systems. Placing the cameras inside the vehicle protects them from road salt and debris, and wipers clean in front of the cameras.

Land Rover’s Range Rover Evoque, a smaller take on the off-road vehicle, has luxury features such as door handles that retract when the SUV moves, lowering road noise. Jaguar Land Rover skipped Detroit’s auto show but had a huge display in Chicago, including an indoor obstacle course.

Mazda celebrated the 30th anniversary of its MX-5 Miata coupe with a special-edition orange model. Mechanically, it’s identical to a standard Miata, but the vehicle has a strong global following, and it only took four hours for the company to collect $500 deposits from 3,000 people, selling out the limited-edition vehicle before production begins.

Looking ahead

Despite the lackluster Detroit show, between CES, NAIAS, and the Chicago show, automakers showed vehicles that should hit current tastes for crossovers and SUVs while offering a glimpse into a future of electrically driven, high-tech vehicles.

Automaker representatives say they’re hopeful that the move to summer next year will give Detroit a chance to show the city at its best. Expansions and renovations to Cobo Hall have made it a better showcase for vehicles, and interest in high-tech, autonomous showpieces continues to grow.

Chicago Auto Show

North American International Auto Show (NAIAS)