CHICAGO—Any auto show where a dog gets to rip the covers off the new car instead of a spokesmodel is A-OK with me. The scene was the Ford press conference, and the dog was a handsome fellow named Keegan. The Chicago Auto Show is billed as the world's largest auto show because the public days are thronged; we got to roam the halls before the crowds arrived.
Ford was unveiling the new Police Interceptor vehicle, which catches up to the criminals with a 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine and six-speed automatic. It looked fearsome to me, but even if it didn’t I wouldn’t have said a word because Ford’s Police Advisory Board was sitting next to me.
Cops are now tracking the bad guys in SUVs instead of Crown Victorias. Who knew? At the end of the press conference, Keegan posed for photos like a total pro. You’d have thought the hardened newshounds in attendance had never seen a dog before.
Walking into the show I immediately encountered Hank, a Ford robot. The screen said press me, but he apparently wasn’t hooked up so just stared out enigmatically. My guess is he drives a Ford.
I love to walk around auto shows and see things at random. There was the Fiat 500X, the new extended version, and because there was someone in the front I sat in the back. A tight fit for a six-footer, I must say, though the headroom was good and I was OK if I sat sideways.
Across from the 500X was a wild-eyed guy with a spray bottle and a Nissan Leaf emblazoned “World’s Cleanest Car.” I soon learned it had a special nano-engineered paint that’s supposed to be able to deal with “Chicago’s dirty slush and street grime, bird crap and everyday dirt.” It just repels the stuff. The demonstration involved strawberry syrup, which just bounced off.
The matte paint was a bit rough to touch, but supposedly there’s a glossy version. Nissan’s European technical center is testing the stuff, made by UltraTech International, and it could be on the options list. The result would be a car that doesn’t stop for gas stations—or car washes.
I noticed a distinct red, white and blue theme at this show. A keynote by Jose Munoz, an executive vice president at Nissan, focused on the made-in-U.S.A. aspects of the company, which started out in 1958 when a couple of scared executives drove around in a Datsun 1000 to check out the American market. Munoz said one got his teeth knocked out in a fender bender, but still went back, toothless, and gave the go ahead.
Now the company produces nearly a million cars here in four plants, and sells 1.3 million. Eighty-five percent of the cars Nissan sells in the U.S. market are built here. The company is aiming for 10 percent market share.
Another Japanese company, Toyota, was also wrapping itself in the flag. It showed red, white and blue cars, including special editions of the Corolla and Camry, and a brand-new Avalon.
Toyota also shone with an exhibit that was off to the side: A 1967 2000GT. This sleeper really put Toyota on the map, not least because a fanciful convertible version appeared in a James Bond movie. The 2000GT was a screamer in its day, but now this NSX precursor looks kind of tame: just 150 horsepower, from its 121-cubic-inch engine. "Japan was trying to rip off Ferrari," I heard somebody say. His friend replied, "It was a Lotus Elan underneath." These cars are fetching huge prices at auctions now--only 337 were made, 54 imported here.
Who would resist Mitsubishi's giant and fanciful GC-PHEV concept? The interior was completely out of sight, with Star Trek front seats that swiveled to face a full-length media table. When a cellphone was dropped on it, every passenger gets to share the contents. You'd think they'd have had it working. Here's what it looked like on video:
Finally, Nissan showed off its LeMans contender, the GTR LM NISMO. Nissan is letting its racers add gloss in the showroom, and debuted a 370Z Roadster NISMO concept. It also brought out young Jann Mardenborough, one of its LeMans drivers.
Mardenborough is all of 24, and honed his skills not on the race track but at the wheel of his Sony Playstation. Mardenborough attended Nissan’s GT Academy, evidently on the basis of his PS3 skills. His success should give ammunition to every teenager who’s accused by his parents of wasting his time on video games.