Supersized trucks and SUVs seem here to stay, unlike the auto show

There was little technological innovation on display, mostly intimidating bulk.

After essentially flat sales in 2019, (most of) the auto industry came to Chicago this week for the first big auto show of the year. In terms of making headlines, the 2020 Chicago show is yet more proof that the days of the big trade show are almost at an end as OEMs increasingly opt for standalone events to premiere new products. Two laps of the McCormick Place convention center was more than sufficient to take it all in, and while there was little new, a clear trend was evident. Efficiency, electrification, or advanced safety systems mostly took a back seat to size, with monster-faced SUVs and trucks everywhere I cared to look. As a harbinger of things to come, I dare say there was even a sense of menace lurking in the shadows.

Arguably the biggest product news of the week—albeit one of little interest to most of this audience—was the launch of Cadillac’s newest Escalade. But that took place in California earlier in the week, and the biggest, brashest, body-on-frame behemoth didn’t show its bluff nose (or anything else) in the Windy City. The closely related Suburban and Denali (and their full-size pickup cousins) were out in force, and I’m not being dramatic when I say some of them felt physically threatening to stand next to even when they were stationary. I’m 5′ 7″ (1.7m) tall, and some of the hoods are now level with my shoulders, which is a recipe for vast, child-swallowing blindspots in front of their drivers. At a time when pedestrian safety is headed in the wrong direction, one has to wonder how we can get this pendulum to swing the other way.

Chicago’s press preview coincided with a string of financial results, and as ever there are winners and losers. Lots of OEMs are changing the way they share their results, ending monthly sales. General Motors saw profits decline by nearly 20 percent in 2019, but it still ended the year $6.7 billion in the black. GM might have made a Super Bowl splash with a teaser for an electric Hummer, but the best its combined booths could boast if you were looking for evidence of its $2.2 billion electrification investment were a couple of Chevy Bolts.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, in the midst of a merger with Europe’s PSA Group, saw a similar 19 percent drop but still recorded a profit of $2.96 billion (€2.7 billion), mostly from North American sales of full-size pickups and Jeeps, particularly the new Gladiator.

Ford’s balance sheet was quite literally that—balanced. It neither made nor lost money in 2019, and it expects the first half of 2020 to be a rough one as it invests in electrification and mobility and grapples with higher warranty claims and a declining credit business.

At Volkswagen, new Chief Operating Officer Johan de Nysschen introduced a face-lifted Atlas SUV. That model, together with the Tiguan crossover, has been a strong seller for VW, which saw its 2019 US sales rise by 2.6 percent on the back of strong SUV growth. The VW crossover most of us wanted to see was the battery electric ID.4, and that had already been postponed to New York in April. (Or perhaps Detroit in July, according to the UK’s Autocar.)

“We will show the car when the time is right,” de Nysschen said during a roundtable discussion. “We need to get the [European market] ID. 3 introduced and launched without creating a distraction with news of the next car. But sometime this year.” He wouldn’t say why the ID.4 schedule keeps slipping, but one has to wonder if the combination of an extremely range-conscious market and savage EPA ratings for both the Audi e-tron and Porsche Taycan have caused some sleepless nights in Germany. VW dealers need a competitive product, and “if the market wants 300 miles [of range], it’s no good offering 150,” he said.

Toyota reports according to the Japanese financial calendar, but of the world’s biggest automakers, it might be in the strongest health. Everyone is patiently waiting for the new RAV4 Prime, which drops the plug-in Prius powertrain into one of the country’s most favorite SUVs. We’ll review it as soon as we can get our hands on one, but it’s probably a foregone conclusion it will sell like hotcakes

Korea has become the new benchmark

The most notable new car at Chicago was the hybrid version of the Hyundai Sonata. The not-hybrid version is a car that’s gathering plenty of plaudits for the way it looks and the way it drives. Actually, you could say that about most of the new Korean vehicles on the market. If we’re rating big SUVs just on size, Detroit is still clearly in the lead. But if we’re rating big SUVs on whether they’re any good or not, then these days the benchmarks to beat are the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade. (I’ll note that the hood heights of these two are comfortably below my armpits, which feels positively benign compared to some of the monsters out there.)

Over on the luxury side, sedans have been all Genesis has had to offer since it was set up as its own brand, a move that coincided with the market moving en masse to more vertical vehicles. When the GV80 goes on sale this summer, it will finally be able to offer the three-row SUV it’s needed to get people interested. You’d probably expect the GV80 to be a rebadged Telluride/Palisade—I know I was, particularly because the fit and finish of Kia and Hyundai have been so good every time I’ve been in either. In fact, the GV80 uses a completely new rear-wheel drive chassis that will also show up in the next generation G80 sedan. I was pleased to see design touches from the GV80 concept make it into production, although the latticework B pillar was not among them.

The other inescapable impression from Chicago was that the days of big media attention on a big auto show are extremely numbered. Again, that should be obvious from the fact that the most notable new car at Chicago was the hybrid version of the Hyundai Sonata. Rather than spend millions on an impressive booth in a convention center just to fight for attention with everyone else, automakers are choosing to hold standalone events—at similar costs—where they get to be the sole attraction. For those with fond memories of the glory days of the auto show—which surely applies to most of the automotive media—that’s a bittersweet reality to accept.


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