Chicago Auto Show opens Saturday minus one of the Big Three

The annual Chicago Auto Show opens Saturday at McCormick Place, and for the first time in nearly a century, one of the Big Three automakers won’t be there.

Stellantis tightened its belt in the wake of the lengthy United Auto Workers strike last fall and decided to skip the auto show entirely, pulling the Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat and Ram vehicles off the floor and ending the popular car show’s twenty-year run. Test track for Camp Jeep.

In the wake of Stellantis’ exit, the auto show has combined the exhibits of two halls into one, but filled the space with an extensive range of brands, many interactive exhibits and a robust line-up of electric vehicles, including show newcomers Tesla and Lucid.

Chicagoans will get their first chance to kick the giant tires of the long-delayed Tesla Cybertruck, a futuristic-looking electric car that started rolling off the production line last fall. They can also get acquainted for the first time with the digitally redesigned 2025 Ford Explorer, which is made in Chicago.

Visitors view a Ford Explorer ST during Chicago Auto Show preview day, Feb. 8, 2024, at McCormick Place. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Homegrown Rivian, which makes EV trucks and SUVs in the Normal State, will remain a no-show at this year’s auto show.

Electric vehicles will take center stage again this year, with a dedicated EV test track and a host of new offerings. But there could still be a few bumps ahead for EV makers, who are dealing with declining demand and their own potential labor disputes.

Edmunds projects that 15.7 million new cars will be sold in 2024, up from 15.5 million last year. According to the auto retailer website, EV market share is expected to reach 8% of total new vehicle sales by 2024, up from 6.9% last year.

EVs surpassed 1 million sales in the US for the first time last year.

But there are signs, despite federal, state and manufacturer incentives, that electric vehicle adoption has slowed as consumers grapple with inadequate charging infrastructure, range fears and other logistical hurdles to making the leap.

VW America CEO Pablo Di Si, an Argentinian who attended Loyola University in Chicago in the 1990s, returned to the city for the auto show and praised the brand’s ambitious strategy to deploy a range of 25 electric vehicles by 2030 offer.

The EV models on display included the ID.4, which is produced at VW’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and sold 75,000 units in North America last year. A quirkier entry is the VW.Buzz, a retro-electrified version of the VW bus that was a favorite of wandering hippies in the 1960s.

The VW.Buzz is expected to hit the road later this year.

Di Si expects that initial demand for the VW.Buzz will exceed supply. And he said if they could have built more ID.4s last year, they would have sold them. In the longer term, EV market share will continue to grow as manufacturers increase the number of offerings, but how quickly that will increase remains to be seen, Di Si said.

“In recent years, the growth of electric cars has been quite dramatic,” says Di Si. “This year the growth continues, but not as intensively as in recent years. Time will tell.”

While EV adoption remains variable, VW and other non-union manufacturers could also face labor issues in the coming year.

In the wake of the six-week strike against the Big Three automakers, UAW President Shawn Fain said the union plans to target non-union factories, including EV makers, to get them to join. Organization efforts are underway at Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Tesla, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda, Rivian, Lucid and Volvo factories in the US.

Visitors view a Tesla Cybertruck on display during the Chicago Auto Show preview day, Feb. 8, 2024, at McCormick Place.  The show is scheduled for February 10 to 19.  (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Visitors view a Tesla Cybertruck on display during the Chicago Auto Show preview day, Feb. 8, 2024, at McCormick Place. The show is scheduled for February 10 to 19. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Di Si was asked to lead the North American operations in 2022 and moved to Chattanooga, the location of the German automaker’s only U.S. factory. More than 4,000 non-union autoworkers there build the all-electric ID.4, as well as the combustion-engine Atlas SUV.

On Tuesday, the UAW announced that a majority of workers at the plant had signed cards to join the union, making it the first of the recently targeted non-union plants to support the organizing effort.

“It is clear that we respect the right to freedom,” Di Si said. “We also place an emphasis on providing employees with accurate information so they can make their own informed decisions.”

With the 25% increase in base wages and the reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments, UAW assembly workers will earn more than $40 per hour by the end of the new four-year labor agreement in 2028.

Assembly workers at the VW plant start at $23.40 an hour, rising to $32 an hour over four years, Di Si said.

The UAW is also trying to unite Rivian, which launched production in September 2021 and now has about 7,000 workers building electric pickup trucks, SUVs and vans for Amazon and AT&T in a previously vacant 3.3 million-square-foot auto factory in the is Normal. .

Last year Rivian produced 57,232 vehicles.

In 2022, the starting salary for assembly workers at Rivian’s Normal plant was $20 per hour. The starting rate has since increased to $22 per hour, spokeswoman Kelli Felker said.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Assembly Plant, where more than 4,600 UAW members participated in a month-long strike before a labor deal was reached with Ford, is playing something of a starring role at this year’s auto show.

Ford is unveiling the 2025 Explorer SUV, which will be built exclusively at its factory on the city’s southeast side. The popular SUV is undergoing a significant overhaul aimed at simplifying construction, improving production quality and improving the digital driving experience.

“It’s a pretty big change,” said Jim Baumbick, Ford vice president of product development and quality. “It’s a major refresh.”

The biggest changes are happening inside, where the SUV is designed to connect with digital-native millennials who are starting to take their families on road trips. The new Explorer has a large 13-inch touchscreen on the dashboard and enough USB ports (8 across three rows) to keep an entire children’s soccer team connected during the drive.

It’s also the first Explorer to offer optional hands-free driving with BlueCruise, which lets you take the wheel on designated highways – traffic and weather permitting.

The new model is expected to be delivered in the second quarter, with customers able to place orders from February. There will be some production stops at the nearly century-old Chicago Assembly Plant to recharge and transition to the new construction, Baumbick said.

After three years of pandemic disruption, with postponements, downsizing and a special outdoor summer edition, the Chicago Auto Show returned last year with a full-scale exhibit spanning two halls at McCormick Place.

Stellantis’ absence left the rest of the exhibitors on a slightly larger floor space in the South Hall, without one prominent attraction for attendees.

The Camp Jeep Test Track, a challenging indoor, off-road course with a 26-foot “mountain climb” that visitors could ride in the brand’s rugged 4×4 vehicles, was an integral part of the Chicago Auto Show for nearly 20 years .

The 2024 show will still feature three indoor test tracks, including Ford Bronco, Hyundai Ioniq and the Chicago Drives Electric track, which will feature eight EV brands. For the daring, there’s Honda’s folding Motocompacto electric scooter, which has its own mini test track, full of carefully cleaned helmets to use.

In addition, visitors can participate in outdoor test drives with Ford, Kia and Subaru.

A wrapped Toyota Camry pace car for the 2024 NASCAR Chicago Street Race will be unveiled on Chicago Auto Show preview day, Feb. 8, 2024, at McCormick Place.  (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
A wrapped Toyota Camry pace car for the 2024 NASCAR Chicago Street Race will be unveiled on Chicago Auto Show preview day, Feb. 8, 2024, at McCormick Place. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Also on display is the Toyota Camry pace car for the return of the NASCAR Chicago Street Race this summer at Grant Park. The vehicle is adorned with custom packaging to promote Georgia O’Keeffe’s upcoming exhibition at the Art Institute.

While the auto show offers plenty of high-tech glitz and glamour, one thing in short supply may be at the top of most car buyers’ lists: affordability.

“About half of people plan to spend less than $30,000,” said Rebecca Lindland, senior director of industry data and insights at Chicago-based Cars Commerce, formerly known as “The challenge is that only about 12% of new cars cost less than $30,000.”

Lindland said the car show nevertheless remains a “great opportunity to sit in the seat with a lot of cars in one place.”

Launched in 1901, the Chicago Auto Show was interrupted during World War II as car production was curtailed, but not a year has passed since it resumed in 1950. The 116th Auto Show runs Saturday through Feb. 19 at McCormick Place. Tickets cost $17 for adults.

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