RICK KRANZ

At Chicago Auto Show, you can ride, drive, not just look

Jeep and Ram each have a track at the Chicago show, and Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat share a third. Photo credit: Chrysler

The Chicago Auto Show offers a crowd pleaser that attracts tens of thousands of people each year.

And this activity gives automakers an opportunity to establish a relationship with a potential customer.

I'm talking about the car, SUV and pickup rides offered to show-goers inside Chicago's McCormick Place. The show opens to the public on Friday, Feb. 10.

While many auto shows are space constrained, the size of Chicago's show dwarfs most. Automakers have loads of floor space to exhibit as many cars and trucks as they wish. Even so, the auto show does not use every square foot of McCormick Place. So for automakers, there is available space to do something inside that's not found at an typical auto show.

One of the activities that distinguishes Chicago's show year after year is the indoor test track, four in all this year. Jeep and Ram each have a track, and Chrysler, Dodge and Fiat share a third.

Toyota has its own indoor track. This year Toyota is offering show-goers an opportunity to experience the capabilities and advantages of the third-generation Prius, new Prius v as well as the Camry and Highlander hybrid models.

Chrysler's and Toyota's tracks are located on the main floor, as part of each automaker's exhibit.

Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Subaru will have tracks outside where show-goers can drive a vehicle on a special course.

The tracks offer automakers an opportunity to showcase technology, capability, whatever, plus start a relationship with a potential buyer.

Chrysler's indoor tracks have attracted my attention over the past six or seven years. The indoor tracks are fairly elaborate, complete with rocks and evergreens, and nicely landscaped.

The Ram and Jeep tracks focus on vehicle capability. Four-wheel-drive Ram pickups roll through deep sand, followed by maneuvers over steel bars. The Jeeps tackle tough terrain and a steep, man-made hill that towers over the exhibit area.

"It is a great opportunity for the consumer to experience the capability of all of the products, whether you are into infotainment, ride and handling, the well appointed interiors, the exterior styling. It is really a way to experience all of those features in a no pressure environment," said Michael Curmi, who heads Chrysler's experiential marketing,

Over the years the test tracks have become a destination. Curmi estimates tens of thousands of people each year ride in one of Chrysler Group's vehicles during the show.

"People who come out of the experience generally have big smiles, very positive things to say. We get very solid, positive feedback about how much they enjoy the vehicle, really just how much they appreciate the opportunity to" ride in a vehicle, he said in a telephone interview.

Of course, there's an opportunity for Chrysler to take names and e-mail addresses. Every adult must register before stepping into a vehicle. After the show closes, Chrysler tracks each registrant to determine if a purchase was made.

If not, "We can continue to have a conversation with them through our quarterly newsletters and special offers," he said.

The Chrysler test track experience is a little bit sales pitch, a little bit thrill ride. I'm sure many dads, moms and kids will be talking for weeks about their mini adventure in a Compass, Grand Cherokee or Ram pickup.

And that's exactly what Chrysler wants.

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