Carmen Ceja admits she is not an off roader.
“I guess I’m not an adventurer,” she said, but she loved her ride in a Ford Bronco at the indoor test track built into Ford display at the annual Chicago Auto Show that simulates part of an off-road trek.
“It was so awesome,” said Ceja. “It was exciting go up that hill and it definitely handled nicely,” she added after taking a ride with professional driver up the steep hill in the Bronco, the 2022 North American Utility of the Year.
Take me to the pilot
Her ride was on one of six tracks laid out in McCormick Place — a new record says show organizers — by different automakers or organizations, all designed to show off the best features of a specific vehicle. But if you want to highlight the capabilities of your new product offering, you need someone to pilot that vehicle.
That’s Mike Klusendorf’s job.
For the next couple weeks, he’ll take visitors to the Chicago Auto Show for a short drive in one of Toyota’s new 2022 Tundra pickup trucks on a specially designed track, that Jennifer Greenfelder, a senior analyst with Toyota Motor Corporate Communications, says gives riders a good notion of what the new Tundra is capable of.
Toyota’s track, to start, is about 300 yards long in a straight line but then begins to twist and curl through a compact space on the show floor, interrupted by concrete blocks designed to show off the Tundra’s suspension. The truck then crosses a small metal bridge covered in small blocks to make the ride a little rougher. The bridge has a small rise to get to the top part, but that incline is not anywhere near as tall as the metal bridge with 45-degree approach angle Jeep has built into its new Camp Jeep display.
Klusendorf, a professional driver with AMCI, doesn’t rocket around the course, but it does contain a couple of solid thumps to test the suspension, which could easily pass muster as one of Michigan’s famous winter potholes.
“We do want them to see how the truck would act in a real situation,” he noted.
Test tracks present a selling opportunity
The test drive also gives Klusendorf a chance to give the visitor a bit of sales pitch about the Tundra and point out some of the new technology built into the cab.
The time the visitor spends in the vehicle during a test drive even on the short track at an auto show is potentially invaluable, noted Jiyan Cadiz, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., which laid out two test tracks for at this year’s Chicago Auto Show — one built expressly to show off Ford’s electric vehicles and another to show demonstrate the off-road Ford Bronco.
“A lot of people have never had a chance to climb a 20-degree hill,” he added.
Competitive much? No … well maybe
The goal is not to outdo Toyota, said Mike Levine, director of Ford’s North American product communications, but noted, “It’s a big draw.”
But competition is always part of any equation in the auto industry today. That said, Jeep proudly rolled a new test track it billed as the biggest and best.
“We’ve been this here for 18 years. Competition is great and it keeps us doing more and more,” noted Jim Morrison, president of Jeep Brand, who is tasked with holding off the charge from Bronco.
“We always try to do something different because we have a lot of (potential) customers who can’t wait to experience Jeep four-wheel-drive capability. And we love showing it off in ways the competition can’t,” Morrison said. “That’s why we made this hill so big: 25 feet, a 45-degree angle. There’s not a whole lot of vehicles other than jeeps that can handle that hill.”
Jeep making an impression
Jeep’s interactive test track is bigger and steeper and features a mountain that is 28 feet tall — 10 feet taller than previous years — with 45-degree approach and departure angles. As is the case with the other tracks, experienced drivers will navigate attendees through the various courses, which highlight the off-road features of Jeep vehicles, in the 28,000-square-foot exhibit.
Visitors to the Chicago show were impressed.
“It is very cool,” said John Macelli, after a ride up Jeep’s mountain in a Jeep Gladiator. “It was impressive.”
“For a minute, I thought we’d fall back but it didn’t,” said Mike Palasino, who was sitting in the Gladiator’s rear seat.
Kelly Enright from Stellantis regional public relations office in Chicago, said during the past 18 years the Camp Jeep test track has been enormously popular with visitors. More than 532,00 people have taken a test ride in that time, she added.
More than 30,000 visitors are expected to take test rides during this year’s show, added Enright. The new display includes a ground clearance stair climber, maneuverability moguls, extreme break-over, 30-degree banked wedge and an all-new 28-degree Hill Ascent/Descent.
Stellantis also has test track for the Ram 1500.
Charged up for No. 6
While Toyota, Ford and Stellantis’ Ram and Jeep brands have five separate test tracks on the floor.
The sixth track belongs to “Powering Chicago,” joint effort between local electrical contractors and the International Brotherhood Electrical Workers Local 134, which is dedicated to expanding the charging network across the Chicago metropolitan area.
“Deciding whether or not to invest in an EV can be a difficult choice for many Americans, who may not be familiar with the operation and use of EV technology. Powering Chicago aims to change that by educating visitors on the components,” the group said in a press release.
Powering Chicago is offering rides in the BMW i4 M50 and Kia EV6.
Dave Sloan, managing director of the Chicago Auto Show, said the test tracks have given the Chicago Auto Show a special character. Last year, one manufacturer offered test drives at a local mall, but they were not anywhere near as popular those offered by the Chicago Auto Trade Association at slimmed down auto show held in the summer of 2021.