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Mike Ettleson helps preview the Chicago Auto Show
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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The 105th edition of the Chicago Auto Show will take place Feb. 8-18 at McCormick Place.

The "First Look for Charity" black-tie event will happen Feb. 8. The following day, the show will be open for general audiences—and will mark the first time since 1998 that the show will open to the public on a Saturday.

Auto show chair Mike Ettleson (principal of Ettleson Cadillac-Buick-GMC in Hodgkins, Ill., and Ettleson Hyundai in Countryside) talked with Windy City Times about trends, sales and the show.

Windy City Times: I wanted to talk a little about sales. Would you agree that numbers have turned around for the better?

Mike Ettleson: I would agree with that as far as numbers go. We saw total sales last year of about 14.5 million units in the United States, and we're predicting 15.5 million this year. We've definitely seen an upturn, although my brand (Cadillac-Buick-GMC) has seen a little increase in sales. [However,] my Hyundai store was hurt by the tsunami in 2011, and now they've bounced back. I do think that sales are on the upswing. There's definitely more activity, even in January—because of the mild weather.

WCT: OK—let's talk about the show. When you and I spoke last year about trending vehicles, we talked about gas-electric hybrids and technology. Are we going to see more of the same this year?

Ettleson: Yeah, I think we will, although the electric-gas combination has pretty much stayed the same; I don't think there's a whole lot of new technology there. But what I think you'll see is new technology with internal-combustion engines; it's gotten better, smaller and more efficient. There's also an increased use in turbochargers; they make smaller engines more efficient and more powerful when they need to be.

There's also a small luxury utility [vehicle] called the Buick Encore; it has a 1.6- or 1.8-liter engine, and turbocharged is the only way it comes. So it gets pretty good mileage and it's powerful.

The other thing I think we're going to see is more technology that is going to help the driver avoid accidents because there's so much more to do: People are looking at their iPhones or iPods, and there are more accidents. So there are things are help with collision avoidance and there are some vehicles with blind-zone alerts.

WCT: I want to get your thoughts on how far you think we are from cars that automatically drive people from place to place.

Ettleson: Well, there are a couple schools of thought on that. I think that there is, right now, a driverless car by Google. But are we really going to get there [for everyone]? Some people say 2020 or 2025—I'm not sure that's the case. I don't know if people are not going to want to drive, but they want more help. I don't know if we'll see masses of driverless cars, but we might. It might happen 50 years down the road, but it definitely would work for someone who's blind or [disabled].

WCT: How does the Detroit show differ from Chicago's, generally speaking?

Ettleson: Detroit's show is in what's known as Cobo Hall; it's a very marginal space to display cars while McCormick [Place] is such a wonderful [venue] to do so. With Cobo Hall, you have to go upstairs, downstairs, between buildings, and it's not nearly as large. But a lot of press do go to Detroit, and there are some strange and weirdo cars there that we won't even see here; Chicago is much more of a consumer-driven show. Detroit is for manufacturers, suppliers; I don't think the general public goes there that much.

WCT: The Chicago Auto Show is doing more with social [networks]. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Ettleson: Well, I can tell you that if you have an iPhone or iPad, there is an app. You can follow things on Facebook and Twitter, and if we're having a discussion about something, you can follow it more closely.

WCT: Let's talk about First Look for Charity. Who's going to be performing this year? What's it going to be about?

Ettleson: First Look for Charity is the Chicago Automobile Trade Association's preview night, and you have to wear a tuxedo. For $250 a ticket, you get to be one of the first to see the Chicago Auto Show. We provide drinks and appetizers for [attendees]; we do it through funds and through volunteer restaurants, such as Lettuce Entertain You.

In addition, there are 18 different charities; you can select one or all of them. All but $25 of your $250 donation goes to the charities. The association keeps $25 to provide for the entertainment. This year, at the end of the show, a group called American English (which is a Beatles cover band) will perform. There will also be the New York cast, I believe, of Million Dollar Quartet performing for an hour at the beginning of the show.

In addition to all that, there will be drawings for two vehicles. One is a 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, which was graciously donated by Hyundai Motor America and Chicagoland Hyundai dealers. There will also be a 2013 Buick Encore, donated by the Buick division of General Motors and the Chicagoland and northwest Indiana Buick-GMC dealers.

WCT: When it comes to the charities, how are they chosen?

Ettleson: The trade association is made up of 15 independent dealer-directors. Once a charity is added on, it's [there] for nine years. When the nine-year stint is over, the next board member in line is allowed to pick a charity of his or her choosing. Also, all charities don't always stay on; there have been charities that have voluntarily dropped off in the past because they feel like it's too hard to sell tickets. Each charity is expected to sell about 325 tickets to the show to be part of the pool—when someone says, "I want my money to go to all of the charities." If you don't that for, like, two years in a row, you're kinda [told], "You're really not doing your job. You need to give someone else a chance."

WCT: And this event is expected to raise about $2 million this year?

Ettleson: Yes; we're expecting approximately 10,000 people at $225 a ticket. By moving it from a traditional Thursday night to Friday (with the show opening on Saturday), we're thinking it'll be easier for people to spend a weekend downtown.

WCT: My last question is a hypothetical. With all of the very interesting vehicles at the show, which would you like to own if you could have any of them?

Ettleson: Oh, that's a good question. I don't know all that's going to be there, of course. I'm really into antiques and I'm an old-fashioned car buff. One of my favorite cars over the years is a '65 Corvair, which was an introduction by Chevrolet into a small car but it was really unique because it was a rear-engine car. It was my mother's first new car. I used to have one but I never found time to drive it so I got rid of it.

The Volo Auto Museum brings some stuff but one car I'd like to have is the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. That's been getting a lot of press. I'm going to have to see what's at the show; every year, there's a surprise.

See for more information.

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