2011 Chicago Auto Show Highlights, Photo Gallery and Videos

James M. Flammang on

CHICAGO—Ever since 1901, Chicago has had an official auto show each winter. Through the 1950s, ‘60s and into the ‘80s, Chicago’s event was the highlight of the automotive season, showcasing the most notable new models.

Starting in 1989, Detroit turned its auto show into an international event, and began to take away some of Chicago’s prominence. So did the New York Auto Show, whose history rivals that of the Chicago extravaganza. As the Los Angeles Auto Show grew in stature over the past few years, it became a matter of opinion as to which events were the most important to the industry, to the media, and to the public.

Chicago has consistently led in public attendance, and in overall space, courtesy of the vast McCormick Place, steps away from the city’s lakefront. This year, despite renewal in the industry, every major auto show has shrunk in scope, but none more so than Chicago. Only eight major automakers signed on to host news conferences during the press period that takes place before the show opens to the public. Los Angeles had more than 20; Detroit hosted 19.

At the early-morning breakfast hosted by the Chicago Auto Show and the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Jim Farley, Ford’s vice-president of global marketing, sales, and service gave the keynote address. Starting out as essentially a promotion for the 2011 Ford Explorer, his talk eased into exaltation of the “social media” phenomenon, which Ford embraces heartily. Introduced with the help of Facebook last summer, the Explorer signals the revival of the “road trip,” Farley said.

In the new Go.Do.Adventures program, participants will tell where they’d like to go in an Explorer. Winners get to do exactly what they described, with expenses paid, and their experiences will wind up in short films and a TV special. In addition, 50 consumers will get an expenses-paid test drive of the 2012 Focus in Europe. Focus Rally America, a five-week interactive road rally with six teams, will be presented by hulu. “We allow customers to influence every part of our company,” Farley said, citing an Edelman survey in which 46 percent of respondents said they did not trust big companies to “do the right thing.” more

Video: 2011 Super Bowl XLV Ad – Volkswagen Uses The Force On New Passat

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Volkswagen will debut two commercials during the 2011 Super Bowl game, promoting its upcoming, next-generation 21st Century Beetle and Passat. Both have a sense of humor, befitting the automaker and Super Bowl notoriety.

The Passat commercial features a Star Wars theme, with a youth dressed as Darth Vader. The wee Sith Lord pretends to use the Force on a variety of objects, and in the end, it is Dad who wields the power. A fun ad, it features the classic John Williams’ iconic “The Imperial March” as its soundtrack. more

Video: 2011 Super Bowl XLV Ad – Volkswagen Teases Next-Generation Beetle

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Volkswagen will debut two commercials during Super Bowl XLV showcasing the next-generation Beetle and Passat, along with the German automaker’s sense of humor.

To prepare consumers for the upcoming New Beetle redesign, Volkswagen will tease the car with “Black Beetle” – a bug-filled spot showing a literal Beetle racing through the wilderness. The insect action is an homage to classic car scenes, and just fun in its own right.

The television ad ends by showing the silhouette of the 21st Century Beetle, as it is known. The car will be less circular in shape, and it looks a bit more masculine.

Check out the video below and take a look for yourself. more

260-MPG Volkswagen Formula XL1 Points To Production Super-Green Machine

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Volkswagen unveiled the Formula XL1 at the Qatar Motor Show, revealing a prototype plug-in hybrid that promises 260 mpg. It is the latest evolution of the corporate goal to offer an ultra-efficient 1-liter car.

Seven inches shorter than a Honda CR-Z, the streamlined Formula XL1 combines a light-weight, carbon-fiber structure, with an arrow-like 0.186 coefficient of drag, and plug-in hybrid powertrain centered around a miserly two-cylinder turbodiesel engine. The engine produces 47 horsepower, with the electric motor adding 26 horses. Power is routed through a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission.

The curb weight is a mere 1,753 pounds. While the car does depend on a lithium-ion battery pack to provide the 22-mile electric-only range, weight is saved by having a motorcycle-scale 2.6-gallon fuel tank. more

2011 Detroit Auto Show: 2012 Volkswagen Passat
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Volkswagen is laser-focused in becoming a top-selling brand in North America, and the all-new Passat introduced at the Detroit auto show will play a key role in accomplishing that goal. This Passat is German-engineered, yet American made, with production in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is the largest Passat to date, being designed specifically for American tastes. Volkswagen says pricing will begin near $20,000, making it thousands less than the outgoing model and better positioned to compete against the midsized segment leaders, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

As with the current Passat, the new model will hang its hat on its powertrains. The base 2.5-liter five-cylinder will be paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The premium choice is the 3.6-liter, 280-horsepower V-6, promising 28 mpg on the highway. However, the figures you will likely see advertised will come from the 2.0-liter turbodiesel, which VW claims will deliver 43 mpg on the highway and provide an 800-mile range per tank.

Measuring 191.7 inches, with a 110.4-inch wheelbase, the new Passat provides more rear passenger room, boasting best-in-class rear legroom. Beyond abundant space, standard features count power windows/doors, automatic climate control, temperature gauge, and AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with Bluetooth connectivity. more

Winter Driving Woes
James M. Flammang on

We knew the Interstate was slippery. Perhaps dangerous. A few days earlier, our drive from Chicago to Detroit took twice as long as usual, passing jackknifed semis and countless cars that had slid off the road.

Now, on the return trip, we were halfway back when the fun began–starting with a glance in the rearview mirror. Instead of the usual scattering of normal cars, a brown Buick was hurling rapidly toward us–backwards. A quick tap on the gas pedal of our all-wheel-drive Volkswagen CC allowed us to evade contact with the Buick, which soon found itself off the Interstate's pavement.

Not 10 minutes later, that same mirror revealed a little red subcompact rocketing in our direction, spinning rapidly as it made its way toward us. This time, we quickly steered toward the shoulder to avoid collision with the little car, which, seconds later, was stuck in the snow-filled median.

Not only is a different driving style needed in wintry regions, but the rules and customs aren’t the same as in temperate climates. When winter rolls in, motorists in mild-climate areas don't have to think about snow and ice, slick roads, winding up in a ditch, or snow-day parking regulations.

Windshields and windows need to be scraped after a snowfall, or when hard-packed ice has formed–often, when there's been no precipitation at all. Lane markers become invisible during, and after, a snowstorm. more

10 Best Engines For 2011
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 Efficiency was the theme with the 2011 Ward’s Auto “10 Best Engines” awards selected from 38 vehicles with new or significantly improved engines for the 2011 model year. Turbochargers were common on the list, as were double-overhead cam designs. Technically not powered by an engine, the Nissan Leaf made the cut, along with its green nemesis, the extended-range, multi-award-winning Chevrolet Volt.

Among the miserly powerplants are several choices that a clear nods to performance, such as the Audi S4, BMW 335i, Dodge Avenber, and Ford Mustang GT engines.

“The one thing they have in common is they all are stand-out performers in their own way and sell the value proposition of the vehicles they power,” said Drew Winter, editor-in-chief of Ward’s AutoWorld magazine.

The staff made the selections based on driving the contenders around metro Detroit this October and November, scoring them on their power, technology, observed fuel economy and noise, vibration harshness. No instrumented testing was conducted.

This year’s winners and the applications tested: more

Notes from L.A. Auto Show: Automakers Rethink and Re-Plan Their Futures
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While most automakers brought the customary array of new and redesigned models to the Los Angeles Auto Show, several companies—some of them recently ailing—used the November event to outline bold new moves for the months ahead.

Chrysler, which fell into the doldrums of bankruptcy and despair not long ago, scheduled three news conferences to claim—and demonstrate—that its entire line is undergoing a radical change. In addition to reworking its existing model lineup, Chrysler is preparing to unleash a U.S. version of the Fiat 500 minicar, a product of its corporate connection with the Italian automaker. Fiats have been out of the American import scene since the early 1980s.

Lotus, the legendary sports car maker, hauled five concept cars to the West Coast, to prove that the British firm is alive and well, and ready for a new chapter. Seeking to rekindle interest in its products, Audi is relying on such models as the new A7 Sportback—a body style reminiscent of BMW’s 5 Series GT hatchback.

Hyundai debuted the latest version of its compact Elantra, emphasizing price and improved residual value. What’s different for the South Korean automaker is American president/CEO John Krafcik’s hope to have four models in 2011 that achieve better than 40 miles per gallon. more

Consumers Invited to Vote on Favorite Vehicles
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People do seem to love contests. And winners. What movie fan can ignore the Academy Awards? Theatergoers turn to the Tony Awards. TV shows vie for Emmys, and musicians cultivate Grammys.

Automobiles are no exception when it comes to annual awards. Each January at Detroit's auto show, winners of the North American Car of the Year and Truck of the Year are announced–chosen by a panel of auto journalists. Various publications and organizations issue "car of the year" honors, generally selected by members of that particular group.

Voting is now underway for a contest that's a little different, in that consumers themselves make their voices heard. For the second season, vehicles are being considered for Internet Car of the Year and Internet Truck of the Year.

As founder Keith Griffin puts it, both "Internet Pros and the Average Joes" can pick car and truck of the year. Griffin says his is the only Internet site not dominated by automaker advertising, which lets consumers express their preferences. The site does not accept advertising from automakers with eligible vehicles. more

Preview: 2011 Volkswagen Touareg
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Volkswagen’s leaner, meaner Touareg hits the road loaded with VW’s first hybrid engine and eight-speed—yes, you read right—eight-speed transmission. This second-generation SUV retains its off-road capability with multiple bells and whistles and that impeccable German design.

The 3.0-liter supercharged hybrid engine, one of three powertrain options, pairs a direct-injection V6 gas engine with an electric motor and nickel metal-hydride battery pack. The systems can run independently or together and when combined generate 380 horsepower and 428 lb.-ft. of torque—all those horses and 25 mpg on the highway. more

Quick Take Test Drive: 2010 Volkswagen CC Sport
Ben Lewis on

Volkswagen as a company is on a mission here in the U.S. Rather than being the fun alternative vehicle for those in the know, they want to go mainstream and compete against the major brands in a big way. And while the automaker recently introduced an all-new 2011 Jetta that is larger and more value-priced for the U.S. market, we think there’s a bigger story that’s already on sale—the Volkswagen CC Sport.

Many of VW’s current offerings are thought of as cute, likeable, and sporty. None has been considered drop-dead gorgeous—until now. While the CC is built on the popular Passat chassis, it’s design looks like it should be wearing a high-priced Italian label, or a snootier-badged German one at the very least.

Borrowing a page from the Mercedes CLS sedan, the Volkswagen CC features a sweeping coupe-like roofline on a four-door platform. Tasteful, simple fascias front and rear make the design even more alluring. And speaking of alluring, our Candy White tester featured a VW accessory body kit and handsome anthracite alloy wheels that made the already attractive design extra stunning. We haven’t tested a VW in years that has garnered so much praise. more

Review: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta
James M. Flammang on

Volkswagen Jetta sales begin in October, with two gasoline engines: 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 115 horsepower; or 170-hp, 2.5-liter five-cylinder. Later in 2010, a 140-horsepower TDI (diesel) model will arrive, promising 42 mpg. Then, in the first half of 2011, a GLI edition will debut with a 200-horsepower turbo four-cylinder. A VW Jetta Hybrid offshoot is scheduled for 2012. Read more. more

Nissan Leaf Commercial Takes on Global Warming
James M. Flammang on

TV commercials and print advertisements aren't known for taking chances. When they're spending plenty of dollars to convey a new-product message, few advertisers wish to risk alienating any potential customers.

Automakers typically rely on tried-and-true approaches. Their ads and commercials may be creative, imaginative, and clever; but they're developed to draw in the maximum number of possible buyers.

Demographics matter a lot, so ads take different approaches for specific audiences. Plenty of automobile commercials feature high-speed dashes and careening sport coupes, screeching their tires through "bootleg turns," in an attempt to capture the youth market. Older viewers might respond less favorably. Yet, only safety advocates are likely to react with a negative attitude toward the company. more

New Minivans: Comfortable, Convenient—and Cool
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When Chrysler launched its first minivans way back in 1984, family-oriented drivers rejoiced. Suburbanites, in particular, quickly gravitated toward the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, and Plymouth Voyager. As a practical vehicle for families with children, minivans were hard to beat. They drove like regular passenger cars, had plenty of room inside, were easy to enter, and carried plenty of luggage as well as a full complement of passengers.

Sometime in the 1990s, however, the bloom began to fade from this vehicular rose. Because minivans had become so identified with suburbia and "soccer moms," other car-shoppers began to shun them. So did a growing number of suburban dwellers, wary of driving home a vehicle with a stigma attached to it. Rather than buy another minivan, families typically turned to SUVs, if not back to regular sedans.

In 2005, a dozen minivan brands were sold in the U.S. Today, only seven remain. Chrysler still offers the Town & Country and its Dodge Grand Caravan cousin, both redesigned for 2008. Toyota issued the latest version of its 2011 Toyota Sienna this year. Nissan is readying a redesigned Quest minivan, scheduled to debut early in 2011. Volkswagen joined the fold for the 2009 model year, with its brand-new Routan. Mazda retains its smaller Mazda5, which many dub a mini-minivan.

Ford abandoned its Freestar after the 2007 model year. Chevrolet dropped its Uplander a year later. Hyundai's Entourage lasted only two seasons, though Kia has sold its Sedona since 2002. more

Driver Error Could Stem from Too-Perfect Cars
James M. Flammang on

Whether Toyota’s troubles with the Prius, whereby a stuck gas pedal allegedly caused cars to roar off at high speed, were attributable to driver error or to electromechanical failure might never be known for sure. The same is true for Audi’s 5000, which endured a comparable “unintended acceleration” phenomenon back in the 1980s. Even though Audi was eventually absolved, the adverse publicity inflicted considerable damage.

If driver error is the principal reason for such incidents, why are drivers reacting so ineffectively to a sudden burst of unsought speed? Evidently, they don’t know what to do. One curious possibility springs to mind: Perhaps most of today’s drivers have simply rarely—or never—experienced a sudden, serious problem with a vehicle. Maybe recent-model cars are just too close to perfection.

How many motorists on the road today have suffered a sudden tire blowout—the kind that threatens to yank the steering wheel right out of the operator’s hands? How many have ever had a crucial part break suddenly, or a wheel instantly separate from its axle? What about sudden, total loss of brakes? Or, having the power steering disappear, which then demands far more effort to turn the wheel. more