February 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chicago auto show never fails to surprise

If you are baby boomer like me, you might have owned a VW Beetle as one of your first cars. Those ’70s era Bugs may have been dependable and cheap, but they were anything but fast. At the current Chicago auto show, VW addresses the slow Beetle issue with a mighty 560-plus-horsepower, all-wheel-drive version.

This super-Bug is actually a race car, designed to compete in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, which visits various U.S. cities this year, including Detroit on Aug. 3. If you happen to appreciate rally-style racing, in my opinion one of the most exciting forms of motor sports, then make a point of catching the GRC Beetle racer in action.

A little tamer than the Beetle GRC but actually available to consumers is the regular Beetle, including the convertible version, equipped with a newly released turbocharged engine. The 1.8-liter motor is as powerful but more fuel-efficient than the larger, outgoing engine.

The Beetle GRC is one of the headliners in Chicago. It’s a show that for years has played second fiddle to Detroit’s in terms of new vehicle world debuts and media attention, but still manages to produce some surprises. In terms of public attendance, Chicago remains the top ranked show in the nation.

Among Asian automakers, the affordable Korean brand Kia does have a world first at Chicago: the Soul EV. It’s the company’s first all-electric car. As the centerpiece of Kia’s clean mobility program, the Soul EV will be sold worldwide and go on sale in the U.S. later this year — initially in California and Oregon, with other states to follow. With a real world range of 80-100 miles and a fast charging time of under an hour, the Soul EV could be an attractive option among the handful of EVs on the market.

Nissan is generating buzz with two newcomers in the Windy City. For fans of the small band of midsize pickups still on the market, the good news is that Nissan plans to add a powerful but frugal diesel engine to its Frontier pickup. (This comes on top of GM’s recent announcement of new midsize trucks from Chevy and GMC, including diesel versions). The Japanese automaker is working on a new generation Frontier truck and wants to gauge consumer reaction to the idea of including a diesel engine by showing off a diesel-powered version of the current truck. The diesel project truck has 200 horsepower and is 35 percent more fuel efficient than today’s V-6 gasoline model.

Another worthy Nissan model, the affordable and fun-to-drive Versa Note hatchback, receives a welcome upgrade in Chicago, with the introduction of a sportier looking SR model. The 2015 version comes with new front and rear end designs and interior improvements to cement its place as one of the best subcompacts on the market.

Revising its entry in the important midsize sedan market is Subaru, with the sleeker-shaped 2015 Legacy. Better fuel economy, lighter weight and improved interior features mark the new Legacy, which remains the only sedan in its class to offer all-wheel drive as standard.

Motown automakers have a relatively low profile in Chicago in terms of new products, although Lincoln takes the opportunity to showcase its refreshed full-size SUV, the Navigator, and continues to promote its forthcoming MKC compact luxury crossover.

Andrew Frick, Lincoln marketing manager, stresses how much the MKC differs from its shared Ford platform. “It has a wider track and a lower roof line,” says Frick. “It is 90 percent unique.”

Lincoln is taking criticism for not investing in its own distinct model platforms, as do some other premium market players, but Frick maintains that a focus on highly personalized customer attention and other consumer marketing tactics will help revive the brand. As for the Navigator it outpoints the competition, notably the Cadillac Escalade, in several areas, including cargo space, claims Lincoln.

On top of the wave of attractive newcomers displayed at the recent Detroit auto show, the small but significant new crop in Chicago means U.S. auto consumers can look forward to a year rich with choice and variety.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com