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Auto Show:  2011 Chicago Auto Show

Vehicle Testing the Warm and Dry Way - Chicago Auto Show

February 2011 author photo


February 14, 2011

Covering 1.3 million square feet of exhibition space, Chicago hosts the biggest auto show in the United States. That much room allows companies some extra creative freedom to stretch out and offer show-goers more of a hands-on (and feet-in) experience. The 2011 Chicago auto extravaganza sports no less than four indoor test tracks.

After being something of a plinth queen, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is finally available for test drives, admittedly at a slower pace than one might like. But it is around a winding little lap surrounded by real shrubbery, just to emphasize the car’s green brief. On the way are charging stations that can help potential buyers familiarize themselves with this less-than-usual form of propulsion.

It doesn’t account for much of Ford’s presence in the Windy City, but the area dedicated to the 2011 Explorer’s off-road talents shows some clever use of space, a bit like the seven-seater SUV itself. All-wheel-drive versions come with a Terrain Management system that can tackle surfaces like snow, sand and mud just by the turn of a dial. There is no mud or snow here, but there is sand – and a giant metal see-saw.

What happens is that the Explorer drives up the see-saw (the metal surface is not that grippy, which shows off the vehicle’s traction control). Once it gets past the pivot point, the whole thing points down, highlighting another off-road tool: Hill Descent Control. Back on the show floor, the SUV negotiates a sand-covered corner and then drives over asymmetrically placed pieces of lumber before letting off its human cargo and taking on another set of passengers.

There’s a similar theme, but on a grander scale, at the Jeep test track. This one has a ramp that climbs steeply to 20 feet, so there might be some heart-in-mouth moments when passengers realize they could almost touch the ceiling lights. Their composure will also be challenged at the part where a Jeep is set at a 45-degree angle and looks close to falling on its side. But this is a marque built to handle such obstacles in the wild, along with the bed of upright wooden posts, each one a different height, demonstrating the vehicle’s axle articulation.

The Toyota test track is about as big as Jeep’s, around 50,000 square feet. People walking past it might see the guys there in work boots and hard hats and assume they’re still building it. But it’s meant to be like that. This is a simulation of a construction site, where Toyota vehicles like the Highlander crossover and the big Tundra pickup can strut their stuff over actual mud slopes and through arches of scaffolding. The specialist drivers expect to handle around 900 passengers a day.

Considering the Chicago show is held in the depths of winter, with nearby Lake Michigan frozen over, indoor test tracks are a great idea. It all happens at McCormick Place, 2301 South Martin Luther King Drive, from February 11 to February 19.

author photoCOLIN RYAN has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Vehicle Testing the Warm and Dry Way - Chicago Auto Show - Autotrader