We obsessively covered the 2021 Chicago Auto Show, and it was weird

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It's been a year and a half since the last big auto show opened: Chicago 2020. Roughly a month later, the world virtually shut down. But now, as vaccines are widely available, and infection rates are subsequently dropping, auto shows are coming back, right where it all ended: Chicago. So what was it like coming back to a big gathering of shiny new cars? Well, this one was bizarre, for all kinds of reasons. News Editor Joel Stocksdale and Road Test Editor Zac Palmer share what it was like on the floor.

Joel Stocksdale: We knew going into this show things were not going to be the way they used to be. Though, not for the reasons you might think. For instance, masks weren't required, there were large tables for editors to set up shop as usual, and people mingled relatively freely. But the initial letter mentioned something odd. It was apparently going to be warm, and the dress code was relaxed to casual. Turns out, that's basically because the air conditioning wasn't running in the main show hall. I'm sure they didn't want out-of-shape car journalists (I'm including myself in that statement) passing out on displays. And while it wasn't hot, it was Florida levels of humid. So bear that in mind if you see us on videos.

And while it was mentioned in the information letter, we weren't quite ready for the "construction" going on in the meantime. Literally as we're standing around listening to press conferences, forklifts are whizzing by, power tools are humming as displays are going up, and cars are still being wheeled into halls. The first conference of the day was with Jeep, and there was only one vehicle accessible. After the conference, about five more were added. It was actually pretty neat to see how things come together; how the carpets are plastic wrapped as cars are brought in and removed later to keep things clean; how fast things come together. But the noise was a challenge for listening to representatives and for recording video. We can't imagine the construction folks appreciated a bunch of bumbling writers wandering around either. Oh, and adding to the noise were the periodic car alarm activations. I counted three or four through the day, which led to some poor staff member digging out the box or bag of 20 key fobs to try and find the right one.

That brings me to another weird thing. Most auto shows let journalists wander around willy nilly to take photos, talk with representatives, get familiar with cars, film videos. That was not really supposed to happen this time. All the press were roughly shepherded in a group from booth to booth. We suspect this was to help keep people from being in the way of construction, and probably to reduce the chance of some kind of injury lawsuit. Zac and I were actually accosted at one point for having moved ahead slightly to look at some Nissans. But as the day wore on, it was clear that the staff wouldn't or couldn't really enforce things.

And of course, there was the fact that this was a small and short show. A number of automakers were not present including Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Genesis, Dodge, Chrysler, Cadillac, and probably a couple others I'm forgetting as I write this. It was also a single press day starting at 9:30 a.m. and pretty much ending at 2:00 p.m. Some of the press conferences were basically a single representative talking from a sheet of notes about a model, without all the wild lights, smoke and screens we've become accustomed to in reveals. Part of that was just the fact that not many automakers had anything completely new to reveal.

On the other hand, it was exciting to get up close to models that were revealed over the pandemic we haven't had a chance to see. The Kia EV6, Nissan Ariya, Nissan Z Proto, Nissan Frontier, BMW iX, Ford Maverick and Ford F-150 Lightning were all present. You'll get to see more about them as we add more videos.

Despite the strangeness, it was good to be back at a show, to see friends and to finally get up close and personal with the latest and greatest automobiles once again. And we're hoping that the next few shows, New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, will be a little closer to what we remember. Hopefully they'll at least have the air conditioning on.

Zac Palmer: Boy is it good to be back. The swamp-like environment and constant construction sure tried to dampen spirits, but I’m still glad to be in Chicago again.

Joel hit on the feeling of the floor well — I only had one semi-close encounter with a crane operator, so I’ll give you some quick reactions to what we came here for: The Cars.

The Nissan booth might’ve been the coolest of the show. I wouldn’t normally say such a thing, but Chicago played host to three new Nissans we’d only ever seen on the internet: the Z Proto, Ariya and Frontier. The Z Proto is my star of the show. It’s across the way from Toyota’s Supra on the show floor, and despite the Supra still looking fabulous, seeing the Z Proto in person is a moving experience. I promise the grille looks better in person.

Nissan’s Ariya impressed me in different ways. The interior is such a lovely surprise with its touch haptic controls integrated into the wood trim and attractive use of textured lighting.

Plus, the Frontier looks even better in person — I’m excited to be driving that pickup soon.

The other big presence at the show was the Kia EV6. It’s funky and different in all the right ways. Similar to the Ariya, I was amazed at how futuristic and interesting the interior design was. Non-luxury carmakers are starting to get creative with lighting in ways that even luxury carmakers aren’t, and the EV6 is a shining example of this.

I saw lots of the Toyotas that Joel saw not too long ago in Texas. The GR 86 didn’t leave any lasting design impressions — it looks fine, will drive splendidly. Toyota’s radioactive Tacoma TRD Pro color is a big win. And the lifted Sienna Woodland is a funny sight to see. It needs some chunkier tires and plastic cladding to seal the deal, though.

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We’d be remiss not to mention the 2022 Jeep Compass amongst all this, too. It was the only big “reveal” of the day. But that said, we saw the Euro model previous to today, already. Regardless, the interior of this little Jeep is the big update, and it looks great in person.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely curious about what was fed to all us journalists, too. Pizza. Pizza is the answer. I had a Chicago-style breakfast pizza (glorified quiche) for breakfast, more Chicago-style pizza for lunch, and who knows. I might just have pizza for dinner, too. When in Chicago ...

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