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Story and photos by Jack Baruth

The Chicago Auto Show makes no apologies for being a consumer-oriented event. At Tuesday morning’s media breakfast, the point was made again and again: we’re here to raise customer interest, to get people into their dealers, to move the metal. This is not an “international” auto show in the traditional sense of the word. The world media doesn’t show up, there are very few “major” revelations, and the bulk of the press events happen in just a single day.

Yet there was an underlying optimism to Chicago’s show that was entirely missing from the North American International Auto Show just a month ago. It’s entirely possible that there will be fewer than ten million new cars sold in the United States this year, but that’s still a heck of a lot of cars, and there are a lot of people who are still eager to put a new vehicle in their driveway this year. For those nine-million-plus people, and for the rest of our readers here at Speed:Sport:Life, we took the time to travel to the show and pick our usual Rockers, Suckers, and Snoozers. Our photography crew couldn’t make it, which accounts for the “Loch Ness Monster” nature of these shots, but rest assured they’ll be back on the job in the future. In the meantime, enjoy the highlights from America’s longest continually-operating motor show.

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Rocker: Taurus SHO. We named the normally aspirated Taurus as our “Car of the Detroit Show” last month, and adding a 365-horsepower twin-turbo six, two-tone Alcantara-esque interior fittings, and aggressive suspension tuning to the package doesn’t do anything to diminish our enthusiasm for Ford’s breakout big sedan. The pricing — $37,995 — is no giveaway, but it’s still significantly below Chrysler’s SRT-8 sedans and it’s far, far less than the Euro-sedans with which it competes in size, power, and feature count. Most importantly, with this car and the revised 2010 Mustang, Ford is reaffirming its commitment to the performance enthusiast, even in the midst of a recession/depression/whatever.

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Sucker: Acura TSX V6. The first-generation Acura TSX was a fascinating idea, as it was fundamentally a Euro-market Accord aimed at consumers who thought the North American Accord and its Acura TL sibling were too fat and lazy. With that limited market in mind, the TSX was a reasonable success and made a lot of fairly enthusiastic friends in this country. The current TSX, which debuted in the second half of 2008, was considerably fatter and lazier than its predecessor, perhaps too much so for its modest 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. What’s the solution? Why not put in the V6 from the TL? And that’s what Acura did. So now Acura offers three V6-engined sedans — the TSX, TL, and RL — of approximately the same size, power, and feature set. What’s the point?

It’s difficult not to conclude that Acura has completely lost its way in the past decade, and this overweight, overpowered TSX doesn’t help matters. The company which made it reputation among American enthusiasts with a top-notch four-cylinder car and a class-leading big sedan now provides neither. It’s time for Honda/Acura enthusiasts to demand better, more focused products, and time for Acura to provide them. An aggressive Integra successor would be a good place to start. In the meantime, if you want a wacky-beaked V6 honda sedan, here’s another one.

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Snoozer: General Motors. Hey! There’s a new Transformers movie! And we’re in it! Let’s look at the cars that will be in the movie: the new Camaro (which has now managed to appear in two Transformers movies without making it to the dealership floor), the “Beat” and “Trax” concepts, a new Corvette StingRay concept, and a Chevy Volt that is named “Jolt” in the movie but is actually, and rather, ahem, shockingly, an old Malibu under the skin. And they’re all rolling on fake-brake-disc wheels! Okay then! See you at the movies!

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Rockers: Nissan dealers. When Nissan announced that they were just gonna skip the Detroit and Chicago shows, their dealers didn’t take it lying down, and in the case of the Chicago Nissan Dealers, they were able to successfully bully/blackmail/threaten Nissan into bringing some cars to show. This was a big win for the dealers, who have solid product to show their local buyers this year. We’re most impressed with the $13,880 Cube, which should do a nice job of picking up the market share utterly abandoned by Scion’s super-sized second-gen xB.

Sucker: Hyundai and Kia press conferences. John Krafcik’s speech at the MAMA Media Breakfast was an odd one, combining blithe praise for the Chinese government with a double helping of hubris regarding Hyundai’s ability to pull ahead of its Japanese and American competitors in the current state of the economy. Compared to the Kia Forte reveal, which was so painful and awkward that we won’t torture you with any direct quotes, however, it was a veritable masterpiece of clarity. Let’s just say that there’s no effective way to compare a cheap new Korean sedan with “the blues”, and it’s not a good idea to try. Shame, really, because the new Forte looks like a very solid replacement for the Spectra, and there’s a pretty neat 174-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual available. We’re looking forward to getting one on the road, preferably sans any more direct interaction with Hyundai or Kia management.

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Snoozer: Mitsubishi Ralliart Sportback. Okay. This isn’t the cheap Lancer, and it isn’t the fast Evolution, but it’s a hatchback. So all of you people who thought that Subaru went completely nuts with their new hatchback-only STi, well, there’s another dumpy hatchback available for you to consider. We’re pretty sure that the first Lancer Sportback was a wagon — it doesn’t exactly burn in our memories — but this one’s a hatch. No word if Mitsubishi will void your warranty if you take this one to an autocross, but we don’t recommend that you press your luck on the issue.

Moments after the underwhelming Acura press event — okay, a V6 in the TSX, we get it — we were on the road, hustling at max-warp to escape Chicago before the traffic brought the city to its usual afternoon standstill. As we crawled from one unnecessary toll booth to the next, we still had to smile. It was a decent show, punctuated by a fantastic SHO, and if you find that particular turn of phrase unsatisfying… hey, at least you didn’t have to threaten to sue us to get us to show up. Perhaps that should be our new slogan: “Speed:Sport:Life — We Love You More Than Nissan Does.”

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Jack Baruth

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