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updated: 7/15/2021 8:49 AM

Plenty to see and test drive at Chicago Auto Show as dealers grapple with lean inventories

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  • The new Ford Bronco takes a spin on the outdoor track set against Chicago's water towers at the special edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.

    The new Ford Bronco takes a spin on the outdoor track set against Chicago's water towers at the special edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • People file into the Special Edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. This is an abbreviated show this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    People file into the Special Edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. This is an abbreviated show this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • The electric Ford Mustang Mach-E on display at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.

    The electric Ford Mustang Mach-E on display at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Thursday will mark the debut of a Chicago Auto Show like no other. Organizers will offer the traditional glitzy indoor display of new models plus an outdoor Street Fest with test tracks, off-road drives and entertainment.

The event, typically held in February, was postponed because of COVID-19 but the abbreviated, special edition running through Monday at McCormick Place "is going to resonate," auto show Co-Chairman Kevin Keefe said.

The Jeep Wrangler climbs mountains at the indoor track at the special edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
The Jeep Wrangler climbs mountains at the indoor track at the special edition Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"We're the first economic show back at McCormick Place," and in February 2020 "we were the last one, which is kind of wild."

The timing works, Keefe added, because the pandemic also put a spoke in the wheel of auto sales as a dearth of semiconductor chips derailed manufacturing, temporarily turning some dealerships into car ghost towns.

"Inventories on dealers' lots are very lean. It's in the 10s and 20s of new cars on dealer lots, and normally that's 200, 300, 400," said Keefe, owner of Brilliance Honda in Crystal Lake and Brilliance Subaru in Elgin.

A photographer gets a closer look at the Dodge TRX at the Chicago Auto Show.
A photographer gets a closer look at the Dodge TRX at the Chicago Auto Show. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The auto show lets prospective buyers see and test drive an array of vehicles in one place, he said.

The disconnect began early in the pandemic when automakers slashed orders from suppliers, Consumer Guide Automotive Publisher Tom Appel explained. "They assumed correctly that sales would decline."

But vehicle sales didn't drop as much as manufacturers estimated, Appel noted. In the meantime, homebound consumers started buying laptops, speakers and other goods that filled the chip market gap.

"And when automakers went back to order more microchips, they weren't there. Another big problem is that it takes forever to ramp up production of microchips," added Appel, a Palatine resident.

The Ford Maverick is displayed outside at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
The Ford Maverick is displayed outside at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The supply lag was worsened by the pent-up demand for new vehicles, Keefe said. "It's a little bit stressful on the consumer and on our side. No one's used to this," he said.

He expects the shortage to equalize by late summer to early fall.

In the meantime, it's all the more reason to kick some tires at the show, inside McCormick Place's West Building and outside along Indiana Avenue, organizers said.

"Because it's summer, the Street Fest concept really evolved," Keefe said.

Neighborhood streets "are closed down for test drives in the day and blocked off at night when the food trucks, and the bands and the local brews come in."

Appel is "very excited to see the 2022 Ford Maverick up close." The new pickup is "a genuinely compact truck ... and it starts under $20,000." Plus "it has a relatively small footprint," for truck lovers with limited parking space.

His other must-sees?

The Toyota C-HR is checked out by members of the Olympic team at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
The Toyota C-HR is checked out by members of the Olympic team at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"There's a Jeep Compass coming that's significantly updated for 2022," Appel said. "It's a compact crossover, which is still the largest segment in the U.S. when you exclude pickups."

Sports car enthusiasts shouldn't miss the Toyota GR 86, "a small rear-drive vehicle that's built in collaboration with Subaru. It's got a bigger engine, a new look."

Of interest to the three-row crowd is Nissan's 2022 Pathfinder.

"Nissan had let its Pathfinder age a little bit, so this is big news," Appel said. The mid-size crossover "has a whole new look, it's a bit roomier and packed with safety features."

The Toyota lineup is ready to go at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday.
The Toyota lineup is ready to go at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Another highlight is Ford's latest full-size Bronco, which is expected to generate some rivalry with Jeep's Wrangler 4xe, a plug-in electric hybrid.

Family-friendly activities include the Subaru Loves Pets adoption program from 9:05 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day.

For info, go to chicagoautoshow.com or call (630) 495-2282.