It doesn't feel like February without the swagger, tire-kicking and glitz of the Chicago Auto Show. The COVID-19 pandemic has swallowed the annual event, although organizers hope for a reset later this year.
But that won't stop our annual preview of hot cars and auto trends.
One major gear shift "is the new spate of electric vehicles coming out in 2021," Consumer Guide Automotive Publisher Tom Appel said. "They're very mainstream, mid-price, approachable vehicles. Unlike other electric vehicles before them, there are fewer compromises."
Although electric vehicles comprise less than 10% of new cars sold in the U.S., "I think we are, right now, sitting on the precipice of electric acceptance," said Appel, a Palatine resident. "There are more electric vehicles than customers (currently). That's not going to last very long."
Electric vehicles debuting in showrooms that might tip the balance include crossovers such as Ford's Mustang Mach-E, the Volkswagen ID.4 and Nissan's Ariya, experts said. All are in the $30,000 to $40,000 zone, assuming federal tax credits apply, with 250- to 300-mile ranges.
Regarding compact crossovers, "if you're going to introduce a new technology, that's the segment you want to be in now," Appel said. "Up to now, all the electric vehicles have been subcompact cars," he said.
Matt DeLorenzo, Kelley Blue Book's senior managing editor, gives Ford credit for taking the risk of transforming the iconic Mustang into an EV. "I think it's going to pay off," said DeLorenzo, who test drove the latest model.
"It's fast. It really is a performance vehicle," he said. "That's the thing about electrics -- the torque comes on instantly so the acceleration performance on those vehicles is really good."
But buyers should realize they need to set up an infrastructure for their electric vehicle initially, said Kelsey Mays, assistant managing editor for Cars.com. Plugging an EV into a standard outlet is excruciatingly slow so "if you actually want to drive the car functionally all around with the full use of its 250 miles of range -- you really need Level 2 charging (a 240 volt outlet) and usually hardwiring changes," typically with help from a qualified electrician.
And "once somebody goes through the process of getting the setup, he or she is probably buying electrics for the foreseeable future," said Mays, who lives in LaGrange. "Five years from now, when you go to buy your next vehicle, there are going to be a lot of other electric vehicles that have even better range and technology. I think going back to a gas vehicle for many people would be difficult."
Another influence in 2021, possibly because of pandemic-influenced cabin fever, is a need to escape. "This desire for Jeep-like or off-road-type SUVs is really amazing," DeLorenzo said.
Among the vehicles meeting that need is Ford's beloved Bronco, which returns this spring to much excitement after 25 years on ice. "It's like a contemporary crossover, (but) it just looks rugged," DeLorenzo said.
For consumers on a tight budget, he recommends the 2021 Hyundai Elantra, starting around $20,000. "The interior is one area that wowed us," added DeLorenzo, who with other automotive journalists voted for Elantra as the North American Car of the Year.
And the humble minivan is not to be scoffed at if it's the redesigned Toyota Sienna, DeLorenzo said. "If you get inside the cockpit, it feels more like (Toyota's) Highlander SUV." The hybrid gets 36 mpg, offers all-wheel drive and for space-challenged families, the second row slides up to 25 inches.
Don Hillebrand, auto expert at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, views 2021 through a historical lens.
"We're literally in the middle of a Wild West of vehicle introductions that the world hasn't seen since 1910," said Hillebrand, an engineer and director of Argonne's Energy System Division.
Along with Ford, other U.S. auto manufacturers in 1910 included the Packard Motor Car Co., Chalmers Motor Co., Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Co., and Russell Motor Co., Hillebrand said.
Now, along with Tesla innovating ways to buy cars online, EV startups like Michigan-based Bollinger Motor, China-based Byton, and Rivian Automotive in downstate Normal are disrupting conventional sales, he noted.
"It's exciting," Hillebrand said. "You're going to start seeing some really crazy things because you have so many different groups of people looking at conceptual cars."