The Chicago Auto Show, the nation's largest and longest running, has always been sneakily commercial. The truck and van debuts feed sales for the large dealer groups that influence the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, which hosts the event.
As the fleet industry knows, Chicagoland is home to several of the more notable commercial dealers — The Napleton Fleet Group, Piemonte National Fleet, and Hawk Fleet Group — and fleet management companies such as Wheels, Inc., Donlen, and Emkay. Of course, Ed Bobit founded Automotive Fleet in a Chicago suburb in 1961.
This year, the past was prelude.
The 2018 show brought us Ford's refreshed 2019 Transit Connect compact van. In 2017, fleet vehicles that debuted included the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica BraunAbility paratransit van, 2018 Ford Expedition, and 2017 Nissan Altima. Mercedes-Benz showed its Metris MasterSolutions Toolbox concept cargo van.
Debuts in 2016 included the 2017 Ford Explorer BraunAbility MXV and 2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Worker van. For the 2015 edition, Ford showed a refreshed 2016 Police Interceptor Utility, which is assembled in a South Side plant.
The 2019 show, from Feb. 9 to 18, topped them all with a flurry of new trucks, including the 2019 Ram 3500/4500/5500 Chassis Cab, 2020 Ford F-Series Super Duty pickups, 2019 Ram 1500 with multifunction tailgate, and refreshed 2020 Toyota Tacoma. Chevrolet brought its 2020 Silverado 2500HD and 3500HD that were unveiled ahead of the show.
These vehicles are among the most widely used by commercial fleets for construction, towing, ambulance response, pest control, and other jobs.
Other models that have found fleet purchasers in the past were relaunched in Chicago this year, including the 2020 Nissan Rogue Sport and 2020 Subaru Legacy midsize sedan. Ford also announced it would invest $1 billion in its Chicago assembly and stamping plants for Explorer production.
The new, more heavily-contented trucks should push prices higher in a business environment that has generally been favorable for commercial fleet purchasers, especially following President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35%.
"With the influx of ever-more trucks on the market and increasingly higher prices, there must be a point at which sales and prices hit a ceiling," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. "Indeed, last year, truck sales got a boost from tax reform. Commercial sales rose as businesses found it beneficial tax-wise to replace or add to their fleets."
2019 Truck Wars: The Second Chapter
Ram's Chicago debuts included the 2019 3500, 4500, and 5500 Chassis Cab trucks and Ram 1500 with an innovative tailgate with two doors that swing open in a 60-40 configuration with an underbody retractable step.
Ram boosted the capability, technology, and comfort features of its chassis cab trucks, which can now tow 35,220 pounds when properly equipped, thanks to a reworked Cummins 6.7-liter inline-six-cylinder diesel engine. The trucks also add adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and automatic braking with trailer braking. New in-cabin features include a 12-inch touchscreen that displays a cargo view.
"Our commercial vehicle customers are always setting out to do a job every day," said Jim Morrison, head of the Ram brand. "We like to do a service for them, giving them extra capability, and surrounding them in luxury whether it's quiet, easy-riding cabs or air suspension that lowers and does the heavy lifting, which is something that can shorten their day."
Ram unveiled its 2500 and 3500 Heavy Duty pickups in January at the Detroit auto show, including offering a new high-output 6.7-liter Cummins turbo diesel that enables 35,100 pounds of tow weight with the proper equipment.
In Chicago, Ford gave the public its first look at the 2020 Super Duty pickups, which will offer a new 7.3-liter V-8 gasoline engine and 10-speed automatic transmission built by the company. Ford has yet to announce details about its 2020 Super Duty chassis cabs.
In addition to boosting capability numbers, which will be released later this year, the 2020 F-250, F-350, and F-450 pickups have added safety systems and other technology, such as its Pro Trailer Backup Assist and Trailer Reverse Guidance system. The trucks will offer, for the first time, a lane-keeping alert, blind spot monitor with trailer coverage, and pre-collision assist with automatic emergency braking.
Many of these safety features are being offered on three-quarter- and 1-ton trucks for the first time.
"To a large degree, the market is demanding it; the customers are continually getting savvier, particularly on the fleet side," said Kevin Koester, Ford's medium-duty truck and F-Series Super Duty fleet brand manager. "They know their trucks. They know exactly what they want."
Chevrolet brought its 2020 Silverado HD pickups, which it had unveiled at its Flint, Mich., factory ahead of the show. The trucks add updated engines, including a 6.6-liter V-8 Duramax diesel that enables 35,500 pounds of towing when properly equipped.
The 2020 Silverado 2500HD and 3500HD have added GM's Advanced Trailering System eight-camera system that provides 15 views, including "transparent trailer" – a three-camera stitched-together view behind the trailer. The trucks can be ordered as traditional pickups or chassis cabs.
"Five to 10 years ago, towing numbers were limited by the amount of power available to get you up the mountain," said Monte Doran, Chevrolet communications manager. "Diesels now have so much power that really you're only held back by bringing that same amount of weight down the other side of the mountain."
Chevrolet began shipping its new Silverado chassis cab trucks, including the 4500HD, 5500HD, and 6500HD, in December.
Smaller Trucks and SUVs: A Commercial Business Opportunity
Smaller trucks also brought updates, as manufacturers continue their push to gain a competitive advantage. Toyota added technology upgrades to its base Tacoma for 2020, and Nissan executives told Automotive Fleet they're prepping a next-generation Frontier that will be built in Canton, Miss.
The Chicago Auto Show presents opportunities to boost commercial sales of SUVs as well as trucks. For Nissan, a refreshed 2020 Rogue Sport presents such an opportunity to compete on company selector lists, said Scott Shirley, chief marketing manager and marketing operations.
The Rogue Sport adds as standard equipment Nissan's Safety Shield 360 bundle that includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, radar-based blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, and high beam assist.
"That puts Rogue Sport in the conversation in terms of providing the driver assistance to minimize any unforeseen instances," Shirley said. "You can't really be surrounded by more assistance. Certainly with commercial fleet, that's an area where we want to continue to grow."