Not long ago, the Chicago Auto Show resembled a truck stop full of guzzlers. Now, with consumers ditching old-school SUVs, this year's show spotlights the modern cars and crossovers that Americans want -- and that the industry is hungry to provide. Touting itself as America's oldest auto show, dating to 1901, Chicago's 21st-century wares are on display at McCormick Center through Feb. 19. A sneak preview brought media from around the world to see the glittering models headed to showrooms this year and beyond. Among new production and concept cars blowing into the Windy City, here are highlights:
The potential sleeper hit of the Chicago show. Acura's entry-luxury sedan is a Honda Civic underneath, but you'd never know it from the ILX's slick interior and shapely bodywork – it's a car that doesn't photograph all that well, but looks good in person or on the street. The front-drive ILX is notable for Acura's first application of Honda's hybrid system. It mates a 110-hp four-cylinder with a 23-hp electric motor for an estimated 35/38 mpg in city and highway. More drivers will choose the 150-hp, 2.0-liter model, with go-fast types aiming at the 201-hp, 2.4-liter engine from the Civic Si. An adaptive suspension and a gamut of luxury gizmos are available when the ILX goes on sale in spring, likely in the $25,000 to $29,000 range.
Hyundai Elantra Coupe and Elantra GT
The Elantra sedan is off to a strong start in the hyper-competitive compact class. Now, the 2012 North American Car of the Year adds a pair of perky offshoots: A sporty coupe and a cargo-friendly hatchback. Hyundai says the five-door Elantra GT is the lightest hatch in its class, helping it top 500 highway miles on a tank, and achieve 28/39 mpg in city and highway. A 148-hp, 1.8-liter engine comes with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. Being a Hyundai, the GT is packed with features, including a new driver-selectable steering system and a driver's knee air bag. The Elantra Coupe offers the same engine and transmissions, but in a sleek, aerodynamic package that hits 40 highway mpg. The Coupe goes on sale this spring, the GT in summer, with both expected to start below $17,000.
Long before GM went bankrupt, the Acadia helped plant the seeds of its showroom comeback: This smooth-handling, smartly designed crossover was the first in its class that could comfortably fit adults in the third row. And after posting its best-ever sales last year – five years after its introduction -- the 2013 Acadia is mildly reworked inside and out. A chiseled, upright grille is flanked by new LED running lights, with wraparound glass at the rear. The GMC keeps its 3.6-liter, 288-hp engine, but adds an updated version of its six-speed automatic. Inside, the Acadia adds GM's Intellilink infotainment system, with a Color Touch radio with capacitive touch controls. An industry-first center front air bag inflates between driver and passenger to position and safeguard them in severe side impacts. There's also French-stitched leather, red ambient lighting and available aluminum trim.
Volkswagen Beetle TDI
Volkswagen is leading diesel's American comeback, with strong-selling versions including the Jetta and Tennessee-built Passat that showed us as much as 50 mpg in highway testing. Now the handsomely redesigned, more-manly Beetle gets the diesel treatment, with VW estimating just 29/39 mpg in city and highway. Yet loyalists know that VW's 2.0-liter, 140-hp turbo diesel can whip its federal mileage estimates in the real world -- in contrast to gas-powered compacts that tout 40 mpg but often fall short. And with 236 pound-feet of torque, driven through a six-speed manual or dual-clutch DSG automatic transmission, this Beetle should be no slug when it comes to passing power. The TDI adds its own 17-inch alloy wheels and chrome details, with a top-shelf version featuring Fender premium audio and touch-screen navigation. The Beetle TDI hits showrooms this summer; figure around $23,000 to start.
Kia Track'ster Concept
The brand that brought you the hip-hop hamsters continues its run of adventurous rides with the Track'ster Concept. Based on the boxy Soul, the all-wheel-drive Kia coupe has a bulldog stance and attitude to spare, with a 250-horsepower turbo four, a hot orange roof and details in carbon fiber and machined aluminum. Behind its two gray-leather racing seats, the Kia adopts a rally-style quick release for its spare tire, and a tray that swallows racing helmets and other track gear. A showroom version is a huge long shot, but as a styling lark from Kia's California design studio – and a possible inspiration for future models – the Track'ster is a winner.
Ram Laramie Limited
This being Chicago, there's got be at least one tailgating, tail-kicking pickup truck. This year's monster entry is the Ram Laramie Limited, a range-topper with everything to satisfy the classiest cowboy, urban or otherwise. Rolling into dealerships later this year, likely in the mid-$40,000s, the Ram is tastefully fitted with chrome accents, body-colored bumpers and 20-inch aluminum wheels. Inside, a cattle drive's worth of stitched leather plays off piano-black trim, Berber floor mats, ambient lighting, unique gauges and all the toys, including navigation and a heated steering wheel. The Laramie Limited will be offered in 1500 and heavy-duty 2500 HD and 3500 HD versions, the latter clearly designed for trail bosses, not hired hands.