CHICAGO—This was my first time at the Chicago Auto Show, which is over 100 years old and the country’s biggest in terms of attracting the public. It’s not the largest in terms of new model introductions, though this year there were plenty of them, many of them intriguingly green.

During the Concepts and Technology Garage event preceding the press days, I was able to drive a Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell car again. It’s very quiet, like the electric car it essentially is, retains the full utility of the regular Tucson SUV. Rob Lescaille of Hyundai told me that three dealers in southern California are leasing them for $499 a month, a deal that also includes free hydrogen at nine stations around Los Angeles.

Hyundai's Tucson fuel-cell car at the Concept and Technology Garage

Hyundai's Tucson fuel-cell car at the Concept and Technology Garage. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Michael Sprague, a Kia vice president, touted the company’s all-new or redesigned lineup, which has helped make it the eighth largest selling brand in the U.S. The Sorento is new, as is the K900, the Rio and the Sedona. The electric Soul EV is doing well, but the big attraction in Chicago was the Trail’ster, a rather cool hybrid concept based on the Soul.

The front wheels are powered by a 1.6-liter turbo four, but the back ones connect to a 35-horsepower electric motor on the back, giving 220 total horsepower. With this increasingly popular all-wheel drive system, the car can improve fuel economy 25 to 30 percent, designer Tom Kearns told me. It’s also got regenerative braking and start-stop technology.

The cool folding sunroof on the Trail'ster sits underneath a ski rack.

The cool folding sunroof on the Trail'ster sits underneath a ski rack. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

What people are really going to notice on the Trail’ster is its ski rack, which sits on top of a full-length folding canvas sunroof. There’s a distinct off-road vibe, with big skid plates and higher ground clearance. Asked about production, Kearns said, “Kia has done it in the past.” The car drove out on stage, but the actual drivetrain probably hasn’t been fully developed yet.

From Kia, I walked over to Mitsubishi, whose embattled position in the U.S. market led an executive to proclaim, rather poetically, “As the snow melts and the flowers bloom, so will Mitsubishi.” A big introduction is promised for the New York Auto Show in April. In the meantime, the company’s big news is the GC-PHEV, a huge concept SUV bristling with new ideas. Here it is on video:

It’s a plug-in hybrid SUV, standing in for the Outlander PHEV that will hit the U.S. market (after becoming a big hit in Europe and Japan) sometime in the next 16 months. The GC-PHEV is pure concept, sporting a supercharged V-6 and electric motor combination producing 335 horsepower. It’s also all-wheel drive, shifting through an eight-speed automatic.

The massive GC-PHEV is a no-holds-barred and wild plug-in hybrid concept.

The massive GC-PHEV is a no-holds-barred and wild plug-in hybrid concept. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

No word on how far the GC-PHEV can go on electric alone, but it’s theoretical anyway. I loved the interior, which featured a full-length “Tactical Table.” Drop a cellphone onto it, and passengers “can create, collect, exchange and share information with others using the Concept GC-PHEV’s onboard communication system.”

The front seats swivel so you can use the table. Swivel seats ensure a huge car, and that may never make it into production, but the idea of it is pretty neat.

The Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid is coming soon to the American market. (

The Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid is coming soon to the American market. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Finally, I got to spend a few minutes sitting in the new Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid, which Volvo’s Jim Nichols said is coming to the American market (as a competitor to Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV) after the regular XC90 arrives in May.

I should be getting a drive in the XC90, the world’s first seven-seat plug-in hybrid, very soon. I hadn’t realized it had such a high-tech infotainment system. Facing the driver in the center stack is a (shades of Tesla) tablet-like screen that, in fact, operates much like a conventional tablet, with a home button and swipe and pinch functions. The speakers come from Bowers & Wilkins. This is the kind of thing you notice on show cars you aren’t yet allowed to drive. 

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.