The auto industry is running on fumes, and this year's car show proves it.
With the controversial ass-saving auto bailout, nonexistent credit markets and unpredictable gas prices, 2008 was as miserable for automakers as the banking industry. This year’s Chicago Auto Show, one of the largest consumer auto shows in the world—opening Friday 13 (through February 22) at McCormick Place—will reflect both contractions in the auto industry and a marketing push to keep consumers buying, says Paul Brian, the show’s communications director. For an event predicated on excess, how have tighter belts impacted this year’s show?
More cars, fewer SUVs
With 45 to 50 exhibitors showcasing approximately 1,000 vehicles, Brian says attendees won’t find a shortage of cars, but they may notice a dearth of trucks and SUVs. One of the most noticeable differences will be the absence of International Truck and Engine Corporation, one of the world’s leading producers of multiton hauling vehicles. “They pulled out when gas prices went through the roof,” Brian explains, but he’s tight-lipped about other auto companies that may be no-shows. Empty booths from industry regulars, however, wouldn’t be a surprise. In January, Detroit’s Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) bowed out of Tokyo’s show, and Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Land Rover, and Suzuki pulled out of the Detroit show. Nissan also skipped Detroit and had intended to do the same in Chicago, but will exhibit here after all because of pressure from dealers.
More fuel-efficient vehicles
Some 60 alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles ranging from hydrogen to biodiesel cars will be exhibited, reflecting the public’s growing interest in more environmentally friendly vehicles. “[Fuel efficiency] has been the natural progression of the auto industry for some time now,” Brian says, “but it was given a nudge when gas hit $4 a gallon.”
Fewer risky concept vehicles
While concept cars will still play a prominent role, Brian says now more than ever, concept vehicles are used for research rather than showing off. “Concept vehicles used to just be goofball designs: How crazy can we get with this? But you can’t do that anymore; dollars are too tight,” he says. “If you make a concept car, you’ve got to be testing something.” This year, seven manufacturers will debut concepts that feature everything from battery-powered engines to “teen settings” that limit the vehicle’s speed and range.
A tighter economy means—score!—more deals for consumers. In an effort to keep families coming back, the Auto Show is offering $5-off admission coupons on Pepsi cans, and you can also find ticket discounts at Shell gas stations, State Farm insurance offices and drivechicago.com. Once you’re at the show, you can snag discounted meal packages every day of the show except Friday 14 and Saturday 15. Which is great, because you, like the auto industry, probably aren’t rolling in cash these days.
More determined protests
For a decade, a group of bicycle activists have united under the banner Chicago Auto Show Shutdown, donning crash-test dummy suits and distributing stuffed polar bears in protest of the eco-unfriendly auto industry and the slavishness of American car culture. This year, with the auto bailout in place, they have an even more convincing argument for their noontime “Auto Show Love-In” on Saturday 14: We as taxpayers are now footing the bill for this environmental destruction.