2019 Chicago Auto Show Recap - The Windy City Stirs

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Chicago has proven a sleepy show for news for quite some time now.

This year, however, there was a hint of something stirring. While there still wasn’t a wealth of product news, there was more than normal — and most of it didn’t involve minor trim changes (okay, some of it did).

I wandered the halls at massive McCormick Place last week to take in what was a busier show than normal. Starting with Subaru, here’s my “hot takes” about what I saw on the show floor. Just for the hell of it, let’s embrace a grading gimmick.

Takes are in the same order that the press conferences were.

Subaru Legacy

The forgotten midsize sedan is taking things up a notch in order to get noticed. I’ll be honest – I write about cars for a living and I’d forgotten Subaru still makes this thing. Blame the crossover craze and all the attention we lavish on the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, and Toyota Camry. Blame it on Subaru’s rep for building rock-solid crossovers/wagons. Whatever – the Legacy still exists and it’s updated for 2020.

Most of the changes are found under the skin, but I loved the vertical infotainment screen and the addition of an available turbocharged mill. The exterior is still plain but handsome, yet I can forgive the exterior boredom in exchange for a higher promise of sport. I’m also heightened that Subaru has taken a big leap forward from having some of the worst interiors in the biz.

Grade: B+

Volkswagen Jetta GLI

I have a bias here – I love compact sporty cars. So putting the Golf GTI’s bones under the skin of the newest Jetta and offering a manual transmission is a way to get me perked up. I already dig the Jetta as a good commuter car, but the standard model is a tad boring and in need of some pizazz. Enter the GLI. It should provide driving dynamics missing from the base model and, if priced right, will be a great direct competitor to the Honda Civic Si. Right now, the Si offers 80 percent of the performance of the Subaru WRX or Golf GTI at $10K less, so Volkswagen would be smart to offer its “GTI with a trunk” right in the Si’s price range. Make Honda sweat a bit.

Grade: A

Toyota Tacoma/TRD trims

Toyota didn’t do much in Chicago. It gave the Sequoia and RAV4 TRD packages that few will likely ever buy, and afforded the Tacoma a few tech upgrades in the interest of modernization. This is an example of what passed for “news” in Chicago just a few years ago. I’m glad to see modern infotainment and a couple of useful in-car cameras available on the Tacoma, but wake me when the Sequoia is redesigned for real.

Grade: C+

Ford Super Duty

Chicago has always carried a reputation as a truck show, and the 2020 Super Duty was but one of two major truck unveils, the other being the Ram (more on that in a bit). Chevrolet also brought its 2020 Silverado HD to an auto show for the first time, even though the truck’s official media event took place in Michigan two days prior. I won’t cover the Chevy here – other than to say I don’t get what’s going on with the grille and the interior is already outdated – because it wasn’t officially launched at the show. So let’s focus on the Ford (no pun intended). I’m of mixed mind when it comes to the Ford – design changes are minor, but the engine changes intrigue. I speak, of course, of the new 7.3-liter pushrod gasoline V8 and the 6.7-liter PowerStroke diesel, both of which mate to a 10-speed automatic transmission.

Thing is, Ford hasn’t provided media or consumers with any specs yet. So it’s hard to have an initial take without seeing how the Super Duty compares to the Ram and GM products on paper. Specs mean a lot to truck buyers, and while Ford may simply be waiting for its rivals to play their hands, that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t frustrated by the lack of info. Let’s give Ford an incomplete.

Grade: Incomplete

Ram Chassis Cab

Ram showed off its chassis cab trucks in Chicago. Highly customizable, available with gas or diesel engines, and offered in four frame lengths, these rigs gain interior updates that bring forth goodies like the 12-inch touchscreen from the lighter-duty Ram trucks. Oh, and you can tow up to 35,220 pounds.

Since we don’t have Ford specs to compare against, I won’t play the “on paper” game. That said, I remain a fan of the interior on the lighter-duty trucks and to see it brought to the big boys is a good thing.

Grade: B+

Mazda 30th Anniversary Miata

The 30th anniversary edition of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata was the big news in Chicago, since the Miata made its debut in the city of wind, well, 30 years ago. Three thousand of these units will be built, all in Racing Orange paint, and all are already sold out. You can choose from soft-top or hardtop and automatic or manual transmission. Opt for the stick, and you get Bilstein dampers and mechanical limited-slip differential. Either way, buyers can expect orange brake calipers, heated Recaros, blacked-out mirrors, commemorative badging, and 17-inch wheels, among other goodies that let passers-by know your Miata is extra special.

While the mechanical upgrades aren’t all that significant, especially on the auto, the car looks fantastic up close (the auto show’s poor lighting doesn’t do it justice). Mazda has cooked up a nice tribute to what’s arguably its most famous sports car (sorry, RX fans).

Grade: A+

Range Rover Evoque

The original Evoque was easy to hate on. Sporty enough, to be sure, but awkward-looking at best and ugly at worst. While the styling updates are mild, the second-gen vehicle introduced in Chicago looks a bit better than what came before, and the two new engines promise more power. Not to mention one of them carries a mild-hybrid system. I do dig the updated interior, and the camera that turns the hood transparent is a neat idea, but the Evoque is saddled with the hated ZF nine-speed auto. It loses a partial grade just for that.

The smallest Range Rover has reasonable base pricing, too.

The chopped-roof styling still looks weird, but much less so. Consider the Evoque as a contender for most improved.

Grade: B-

Nissan Rogue Sport/Pathfinder Rock Creek

Nissan’s news was mild (full disclosure: Nissan hosted me for the show). An off-road trim for the Pathfinder that’s light on actual mechanical features to assist you off-road and a mild update to the Rogue Sport/Qashqai. The update really is mild, with the most notable difference being a grille that looks more like that of other Nissans. It’s not surprising the facelift proved so mild, given product-cycle timing, but if you showed up expecting big Nissan news, this wasn’t the show for you.

Grades: D+ for Pathfinder Rock Creek, B for Rogue Sport.


Acura didn’t make any news, but it did bring a 1991 NSX to its stand to mark the 30th anniversary of that car’s unveiling (yes, I know 1991 wasn’t 30 years ago, but the initial show car bowed in 1989. So that’s 30 years. Stop being so pedantic). Bringing the original NSX around is aces in anyone’s book.

Grade: Extra credit, half a letter grade.

Alfa Romeo 4C Italia

If you like the 4C, you might want to be one of just 15 buyers to raise your hand for the Italia special edition. Or maybe not. You won’t get much for your extra $5K plus the almost-certain dealer markup – special paint, a different intake, a different rear diffuser, some special graphics and interior trim, and a production number for your console.

And that’s it. Doesn’t seem like the kind of special edition that would see only 15 units built. Hardly worth the five big ones on top of whatever markup dealers will throw down.

Grade: F

That’s all, folks. Chicago kept us busy this year, yet remained light on news compared to the other three big American shows. Let’s see if that changes in 2020 when Detroit moves to the summertime.

The next American auto show on the docket involves thinner, greasier pizza. Until then, I await GLI pricing.

[Images: Acura, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • FreedMike FreedMike on Feb 12, 2019

    "Right now, the Si offers 80 percent of the performance of the Subaru WRX or Golf GTI at $10K less, so Volkswagen would be smart to offer its “GTI with a trunk” right in the Si’s price range." I'll quibble with this. The Si is indeed ten grand cheaper than a top-spec WRX or GTI, but it's only a few grand cheaper than the base versions. GTIs are also available for +/- $24,000 in my area, which is right in the Si's range, and too many Honda dealers still have that "it's 1985 and we can charge whatever the f**k we want" attitude. But, yeah, VW would be wise to keep the price on the GLI in check. The current version is a loaded-up affair that pushes thirty grand. If they could make a more basic version with cloth seats, no sunroof, etc, and keep it around $25,000, they'd sell more of them, though I wonder how many of those conquest sales would be from GTI buyers.

    • See 4 previous
    • FreedMike FreedMike on Feb 12, 2019

      @Fordson Whether a Si is a "better deal" or not depends on the individual buyer's priorities. If you're into super-direct steering, and a more "involved" feel, the Si's a good bet, but the GTI's considerably quicker, and it's far more practical. To each his own, I guess. But comparing any loaded-up GTI to a Golf R makes zero sense - they might both have leather, pano roofs, fancy gauges, and on and on, but the Golf R will eat ANY GTI for breakfast. It's on a much higher performance plane.

  • Kendahl Kendahl on Feb 12, 2019

    The photo of the '91 NSX reminds me how much better it looks than the current model. Ditto for the Ford GT. The first generation is a throwback to the 1960s GT40. The second generation is generic modern. Maybe, I'm just old.

    • Iamwho2k Iamwho2k on Feb 12, 2019

      Maybe it's age or maybe the newer cars are too much the product of wind tunnel testing. I'm partial to older Ferraris like the 456GT vs. today's 812. Smoother, simpler, more classic lines that aren't so busy or angry.

  • Canam23 I believe the Chinese are entirely capable of building good cars, BYD has shown that they are very forward thinking and their battery technology is very good, BUT, I won't buy one because I don't believe in close to slave labor conditions, their animosity to the west, the lack of safety conditions for their workers and also the tremendous amount of pollution their factories produce. It's not an equal playing field and when I buy a car I want it made with as little pollution as possible in decent working conditions and paying a livable wage. I find it curious that people are taking swipes at the UAW in this thread because you can clearly see what horrific labor conditions exist in China, no union to protect them. I also don't own an iphone, I prefer my phones made where there aren't nets around to catch possible suicide jumpers. I am currently living in France, Citroen makes their top model in China, but you see very few. BYD has yet to make an impression here and the French government has recently imposed huge tariffs on Chinese autos. Currently the ones I see the most are the new MG's, mostly electric cars that remind me of early Korean cars, but they are progressing. In fact, the French buy very little Chinese goods, they are very protective of their industries.
  • Jerry Haan I have these same lights, and the light output, color, and coverage is amazing!Be aware, these lights interfere with AM and FM radio reception with the stereoreceiver I have in my garage. When the lights are on, I all the AM stations havelots of static, and there are only a couple of FM stations that are clear. When Iturn the lights off, all the radio stations work fine. I have tried magnetic cores on the power cords of the lights, that did not makeany change. The next thing I am going to try is mounting an antenna in my atticto get them away from the lights. I contacted the company for support, they never responded.
  • Lou_BC Are Hot Wheels cars made in China?
  • DS No for 2 reasons. 1-Every new car pipelines data back to the manufacturer; I don't like it with domestic, Japanese and Euro companies and won't put up with it going to Chinese companies that are part financed by their government. 2-People have already mentioned Vinfast, but there's also the case of Hyundai. Their cars were absolutely miserable for years before they learned enough about the US market
  • Theflyersfan Well, if you're on a Samsung phone, (noticing all of the shipping boxes are half Vietnamese), you're using a Vietnam-built phone. Apple? Most of ours in the warehouse say China, but they are trying to spread out to other countries because putting all eggs in the Chinese basket right now is not wise. I'm asking Apple users here (the point of above) - if you're OK using an expensive iPhone, where is your Made in China line in the sand? Can't stress this enough - not being confrontational. I am curious, that's all. Is it because Apple is California-based that manufacturing location doesn't matter, vs a company in a Beijing skyscraper? We have all weekend to hopefully have a civil discussion about how much is too much when it comes to supporting companies being HQ-ed in adversarial countries. I, for one, can't pull the trigger on a Chinese car. All kinds of reasons - political, human rights, war mongering and land grabbing - my morality is ruling my decisions with them.