2021 Chicago Auto Show Recap: Surreal Times On the Near South Side

VW Golf R. Tim Healey/TTAC

The 2020 Chicago Auto Show was the last one before the world shut down due to COVID-19. The 2021 Chicago Auto Show was the first one to be held as the world reopens.

And boy, was it surreal. Not that I’m complaining — in-person auto shows beat the hell out of Zoom.

The show’s media day was surreal not so much because we’re all coming out of our homes after sheltering in place — I’ve been re-acclimating myself with the larger world since full vaccination took hold in early May, and I’m now mostly comfortable with eschewing masks and social distancing (except at the grocery store. I can’t seem to shake the habit of masking up while shopping as of yet). No, it was because the show, which normally requires a year of planning, came together in a month and a half.

And it moved partially outdoors.

Ford Maverick. Tim Healey/TTAC

Full disclosure: I’ve done paid and unpaid work, pre-TTAC, for the group that puts on the show. I’ve also guested on their radio show to talk cars during my time at TTAC.

With public days starting today and running only through the weekend, as opposed to the usual run which stretches over about nine days, there was a sense of urgency as construction crews hurried to erect the show stands.

In fact, media weren’t supposed to wander the show floor unescorted, in order to avoid any safety issues, though most of us managed to walk around unencumbered.

To be clear, even in a normal year there’s always some last-minute assembly going on during media days. Not to mention tear-downs of the stands used during press conferences as the show transitions from media days to public days. Simply put, if you attend an auto show on press days and then come again on the first public day, you’ll see that the floor looks different when the consumers arrive.

2022 Jeep Compass. Tim Healey/TTAC

So, the show was still under construction, and we media types had to work in a small little corner between the lobby and show floor instead of in the usual media room. Outside of the air conditioning seeming not to work, big whoop. What about the cars?

Well, there wasn’t much in the way of new-car launches. This has been a bit of an issue for Chicago in all the years I’ve been doing this job — while the show is oft-said to draw the most consumers, it has been eclipsed in terms of press-day unveilings by the shows in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. Which short notice this year and a pandemic that is receding but very much not over, I didn’t expect much OEM participation in terms of new-car launches.

I was right. Only Jeep, with the 2022 Compass, and Volkswagen, with the Golf R and GTI, made anything close to “news.” Jeep also talked up an off-road package for Wranglers and a new feature for hard-top Wranglers.

Ford Lightning. Tim Healey/TTAC

The rest of the day was given to walkarounds, mostly of vehicles we’ve seen presented by Zoom but not up close. The show marked the first time I saw the Ford Maverick (which really isn’t all that compact), Ford Lightning, Kia EV6, Nissan Proto Z, and others with my own eyes. I suspect it was the same for most journalists, save a few Detroiters perhaps.

I skipped some of these things to do TTAC work and attended others to produce content for our corporate masters. It all felt very laid back compared to the usual madness that accompanies media days.

For those who don’t know, a typical media day jams a lot of press conferences onto the schedule, usually with only a few minutes of transit time in between. Because sound carries, they often alternate sides of the exhibition hall, so OEMs don’t have one presser bleeding into another. Meaning it can be a mad dash from one to the next — or up to the out-of-the-way media center to process pics or type up a blog post.

Nissan Proto Z. Tim Healey/TTAC

Chicago wasn’t like that. It felt like an easing into the return of normalcy. One journo I know called it “baby steps.”

That seems apt, both from a media perspective and a consumer perspective. The world is reopening, but we’re not yet at full go. COVID persists. Some people aren’t vaccinated, whether it’s because they don’t want to or they want to but haven’t had access to vaccines. We still have to wear masks when we fly, and on public transit in this city. The Olympics just nixed spectators. The pandemic isn’t over, but we’re trying to regain much of the social and economic life we lost over the past year.

I don’t know how “normal” the New York Auto Show, set for next month, will be. But I do know that Chicago’s “baby steps” towards normalcy are likely setting the stage.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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