American exceptionalism, or, why the Chicago Auto Show could indicate a resurgence of U.S. cars

The Diarist

02/16/2011 10:00 PM


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A Chevy Volt tools around a track at the Chicago Auto Show.
Photos by REBECCA LOMAX/Staff

Intrepid editor Ben Meyerson tries to restrain himself from making engine-revving noises in a Porsche.

Itís consumerism. Blatant, unapologetic consumerism.

Thatís what brought me to the Chicago Auto Show on opening day to the public last Saturday, the same thing thatís brought me there for years.

I donít need a car. I have a perfectly adequate 1998 Camry that gets me around the city just fine. But thereís just something about the prospect of these new cars, these shiny things that are fast in theory ó but I wonít get a chance to drive ó that gets me excited.

Iím not the only one, apparently. Chicagoís car show is one of the biggest in the nation, and organizers said this year attendance was up 15 percent over last yearís on the first weekend.

Some attendees, Iím sure, really were interested in checking out new cars for practical reasons, figuring out how much leg room the new minivans have, or how many people can cram into a sedan.

But letís be frank: Most people come to the show so they can sit inside cars that they will never, ever be able to afford. Porsche Boxsters. Shelby Cobras. Cadillac CTS-V coupes.

These are the big draws at the auto show, the ones people wait in line for hours on end (OK, maybe just minutes) for a chance to scoot their greasy butts into the taut leather seats.

What surprised me as I wandered the halls aimlessly from one shiny object to the next was just where those lines were concentrated. Overwhelmingly, the longest lines and the biggest crowds were at the American cars.

My wait time to sit in a Porsche convertible? About two minutes. My wait time to sit in a souped-up Chevy Camaro? About 15 minutes. Guess which car people had their friends take more pictures of them sitting in?

Maybe itís just because the Camaro is newer and fresher, but Iím not so sure. The boldest designs on display all day were from American car companies, and they drew people in clusters.

Something about these cars just reaches out and grabs you, saying ďI want you to come to me. Sit in me. Dream of driving me.Ē

As an American male, itís irresistible.

Sitting down in a Shelby Cobra GT 350 ó a super souped-up version of a Ford Mustang convertible ó I just wanted to sit there and make engine revving noises for half an hour. Instead, I settled for turning up the radio and pointing at one of the gazillion meters to ask the attendant, ďWhatís the boost pressure?Ē

He kindly explained to me that it measured the amount of boost the engine had left. I asked a couple of follow up questions, but Iím pretty sure I still have no idea what that means. Something related to cycling fresh air through the engine, but I have a feeling this would only really help me if I was going at least 90 miles per hour.

But the massive lines werenít just for the sports cars. The longest line I waited in all day ó at least half an hour ó was for the Chevy Volt. But hereís the thing: you couldnít sit in it on the floor. You had to drive in it.

Chevy had constructed a faux-suburban track in the middle of the conference hall, smooth concrete flanked by picture-perfect shrubs and trees. On a screen in the middle of it the course, an obnoxiously utopian video, replete with sweeping strings, looped over and over again.

I wanted to smash it. Or at least the speakers. These are the things you experience when you watch the same 60-second loop for 30 minutes.

In the name of journalism, and out of sheer curiosity, though, I waited in the line. I assumed at first that for a line that long, I would get to drive the thing.

But of course, I was wrong. There was no way Chevy would let the unwashed masses drive the damn thing. Instead, I would be a passenger, driven around the loop by a ďproduct specialist.Ē

It took all of a minute to go around the track three times. The product specialist who chauffeured me around the track, Tina (no last names she said, Chevy policy), graciously took me an extra lap because I had told her I was a reporter, so normal plebeians only get to go around twice, I suppose.

The Voltís ride was entirely unremarkable. Iíve rented Priuses before, and the only notable difference with the Volt was the lack of a tiny whirring engine kicking in every 30 seconds or so.

But itís remarkable that the longest line of the day was for those waiting to ride in an American car. People are legitimately curious about what the American car industry is doing these days, and if the masses of people are any indication, things are starting to come back home.

As Chevy pioneers the electric car market, the buzz has been building. And itís worked. GM may have emerged from bankruptcy legitimately changed. By chopping off its niche brands and focusing its efforts on core products, itís becoming a much stronger and more viable company. Endorsing new technologies and riding to the forefront of the electric car trend, itís making a new name for itself.

At the auto show, it was clear that GM is once again breeding interest from Americans. Itíll be fascinating to see if it takes hold.


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