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2010 Chicago Auto Show puts the "car" in "carnival"

Should you happen to find yourself at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show sometime between now and Feb. 21, the date the curtain comes down and the whole sparkling, spinning, hormone-soaked spectacle comes to an end, among the things you might discover is this: There are those of us for whom the thought of buying a $100,000 car is unreasonable, and there are those of us for whom the thought of buying a $100,000 car is unreasonable until we actually see a $100,000 car, at which point buying one goes from unreasonable to simply unrealistic.

The 2010 CAS provides abundant opportunities to make this discovery. However, one of the wonderful things about such events is that sticker shock, if it exists at all, is mild and short-lived; there are simply too many things to behold, to touch, to watch and wonder at, to allow the brain to be snagged by a price tag simply because of the number of digits they managed to squeeze onto it. After all, for most of us things like the CAS aren’t really shopping trips, at least not in the conventional sense, and as interesting as it might be to see the newest Camry or Avalon glimmering under the show lights, it’s things like the Brooks & Dunn-inspired “Midnight Rider Tundra Tailgater” (whose bed features a 42” television and a pull-out tailgate “cooking area” with a draft beer tap) a few steps over that make the show worth the price of admission.

Curiosities like that one, twirling atop rotating platforms within sight and earshot of excited presentations and flashing video screens, coalesce with all the contests and talent shows and overpriced junk food to create an effect something like the atmosphere of a midway, and perhaps that’s the best way to describe the whole event: as an automotive carnival. It’s that atmosphere, that frenetic, attention-twisting quality, that allows Ford to lead a presentation on its EcoBoost engine technology — using a pair of rather obviously named robots called Eco and Boost — nearly within spitting distance of its 2011 Shelby GT500, a V8, 550 horsepower rocket, the mere sight of which will lower your voice at least an octave and yet which somehow manages to deliver “a surprising 23 mpg* on the highway.”

Of course, certain brand names are incompatible with a sense of mania, and should you wander over toward the area of the show floor occupied by companies like Jaguar, Infiniti and Mercedes, you’ll notice it’s decidedly more subdued. But don’t be fooled: The synaptic calm resulting from the absence of audio/video stimulation in these areas is just as easily interrupted by other sorts of excitement, like those six-figure vehicles. To see what we mean, gaze upon, for instance, the Jaguar 2010 XKR Convertible, a $102,000 knockout with a 510 horsepower engine and paddle shifters; it’s lovely as Helen of Troy and all the proof you should need that an event devoted to machines can indeed make you emotional. (No, you can’t touch it.)

For every work of aesthetic power you’ll find at the show, like the XKR, you’ll also find a curiosity, like Ford’s robots or like a certain Dodge RAM pickup that itself doesn’t look all that odd except that it’s suspended upside-down, parallel to the floor. Somewhere in between artwork and oddity lies the Lexus LFA, a $375,000 “supercar” that looks as though it were chiseled from a block of graphite. The initials stand for “Lexus Fuji Apex” (“Fuji” after the racetrack in Japan), and the thing looks as though it could peel the black right off the pavement — its V10 engine is more powerful than that of either the Shelby or the Jaguar (though at 552 horsepower, not a lot more powerful). And conveniently enough, Lexus happens to have brought a couple “LFA Configurators,” touch-screen monitors that allow you to build your own personal Lexus Fuji Apex, along with it to the show, where you’ll find them only a few feet from the car itself.

Like any good carnival, the CAS features more marvels and concessions and other facets than can be fully enumerated in a reasonable amount of space — including displays of Model T’s and of racecars, booths for the secretary of state and the sheriff’s office, a large area devoted to military vehicles and recruiting, and tables for all manner of products and services, including those that have nothing to do with automobiles (the Chicagoland Skydiving Center, for instance). It also features a fair assortment of dining options, though visitors should be prepared for menu prices approximately like those at a Cubs game or movie theater, which is to say prices that are exorbitant. We advise eating a big breakfast or, alternatively, bringing some food along; see here for the show’s policies about bringing in refreshments.

The Chicago Auto Show runs through Feb. 21 at McCormick Place, 23rd Street at Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week, save for the final day, when it will close at 8 p.m. Tickets generally run $11 for adults and $7 for seniors and kids 7–12, with admission for kids under 7 free; check here for special discount days.

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