October 2, 2022

On July 15, 2021, visitors to the Chicago Auto Show get into a Ford Mustang Mach-E for a test drive in the electric crossover in front of the McCormick Place Convention Center.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

CHICAGO – Jim Nierman screams with excitement as he steps out of an electric Mustang Mach-E crossover after a test drive at the Chicago Auto Show.

“Oh my god! … I’ve driven a lot of electric cars and that’s nice,” said the high school garage teacher. “It was like a rocket ship.”

Nierman, 54, is one of tens of thousands of people expected at the five-day event, the country’s first major auto show since the coronavirus pandemic began in spring 2020.

It’s not your typical Chicago auto show. It’s about half the size and lasts like a traditional show, but automakers like Ford Motor, Volkswagen, and others try to make the most of it. This also includes the presentation of new electric vehicles.

In addition to exhibiting vehicles at the McCormick Place Convention Center, automakers will be offering test drives and rides in new electric vehicles. Automotive executives believe that such experiential marketing is one of the most important first steps in increasing the adoption of electric vehicles.

“Many consumers did not have this option because of Covid,” said Suzy Deering, Ford’s chief marketing officer, of the experience with the Mach-E. “Mach-E blew people away.”

Ford was among the automakers hardest hit by vehicle launches, including the Mach-E, during the pandemic. A persistent shortage of semiconductor chips has also emptied many dealer fleets, making it difficult for consumers to experience new vehicles.

Deering said getting consumers into the Mach-E and allowing them to see new electric vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning Pickup, which is slated to go on sale next year, is critical to understanding that electric vehicles are real and are not scientific projects.

“There are misconceptions about electric vehicles and, to be honest, there are no perceptions, right? People just don’t understand, ”Deering said. “It’s a really important piece for us.”

“Bum in the seats”

Auto shows are important for automakers to showcase their latest vehicles, and most importantly, to get “bums in the seats” – an old saying for the best way to sell cars.

“Auto shows are important to consumers because they can buy one vehicle for another without the pressure to sell,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive. “It’s also important to get those bums in the seats because, by and large, today’s vehicles are all pretty good. So it depends on how you perceive the brand, but also on how the vehicle suits you.”

The Volkswagen test drive on July 15, 2021 at the Chicago Auto Show in front of the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Kimberly Gardiner, CMO of Volkswagen of America, said it was “super important” to enable consumers to get into new electric vehicles and “imagine driving them”.

VW is offering drives in four of its newest vehicles, including the Elektro-ID.4, which went on sale this year. From March to June, VW hosted around 250 driving events across the country for the new electric vehicle.

“We are in this great moment when more consumers want to understand and learn what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle,” said Deering.

According to VW, almost 16,000 people of all ages took part in the nationwide programs.

The ID.4 and Mach-E are among a handful of plug-in vehicles, including all-electric and hybrid vehicles, that offer rides or rides at the Chicago Auto Shows. Others are the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, Kia Niro EV and Chevrolet Bolt EV and EUV.

Bronco vs. Wrangler

Electric vehicles aside, Ford will go head-to-head with Jeep when it comes to off-road courses at the Chicago Auto Show.

At the Chicago Auto Show, Ford debuts a 30,000-square-foot off-road obstacle course known as the “Built Wild Bronco” mountain experience.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Ford unveiled a new Built Wild outdoor obstacle course for its Bronco SUV at the event, which the company expects to use at future shows. For 17 years Jeep has been offering carpooling at such events with its “Camp Jeep”.

“It’s one of the coolest things here,” said 15-year-old Henry Lata after driving the track in a Jeep Gladiator Mojave. “I love cars.”

Both courses feature significant metal mounds and obstacles that demonstrate the capabilities of the vehicles.

“We can show what our vehicles can do,” said Jim Morrison, head of the North American Jeep business. “We’ve seen competitors come and go, but one of the things we love is that when they open the door, people run to the camp jeep.”

Henry Lata, 15, (left) and Sarah Lata, 45, (center) drive a Jeep Gladiator Mojave pickup with a professional driver through an indoor obstacle course called “Camp Jeep” at the Chicago Auto Show.

Michael Wayland / CNBC