Chicago Recap: Big news from the Windy City

Let's take another look at some of the bigger new car introductions from yesterday's Chicago Auto Show.

Like the industry that surrounds it, the Chicago Auto Show is back - in a big way.

While it wasn't so nice outside - the overnight windchill last night was -25, for crying out loud - the show floor was positively sizzling yesterday at the gigantic McCormick Place convention center in Chicago.

In the recent past, the Chicago show has highlighted minor mid-cycle refreshes and trim package upgrades. In other words, not much excitement.

This year couldn't have been more different.

The muscle machine is back
Last month's Detroit show was all about staying green, but Chicago suddenly became the high performance show on the circuit. Perhaps it's due to the show's massively popular public days, or maybe it's just timing. While much of the country is snowed in, automakers tantalize us with high-horsepower machines.

The biggest debut of the day was the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Officially, it's still about a year off, but Chevrolet finally publicly confirmed its 550-horsepower supercharged coupe, which will square off directly against the Ford Shelby GT500.

Fortunately, the bowtie brand decided against calling it a Camaro Z28, a nameplate it will continue to reserve for a new model. Instead, the ZL1 moniker returns and brings with it what Chevy promises is a track-ready chassis mated to a thundering V8.

Dodge showed off a new special edition Challenger, but its biggest news was the return of the Charger SRT8. With an almost Audi-like front beak and a new 6.4-liter Hemi V8, the Charger SRT8 seems to make any rival old news, regardless of price.

The American muscle theme continued with the introduction of a ragtop Shelby GT350 available in three patriotic colors.

Eight cylinders were also the story at Hyundai, where a 429-pony R-Spec version of the Hyundai Genesis might boost consumer interest in that competent, traditional and tepid cut-price luxury sedan.

Four-cylinder grunt
Eight cylinders are great, but VW and Saab proved that turbo fours are hardly passe. VW's much-anticipated Jetta GLI arrived, bringing with it a 2.0-liter turbo, an independent rear suspension, sporty seats and, low and behold, a more premium dashboard. It's still not quite the Jetta GLI of old, but it does offer a sharp style and more interior room.

Saab took the wraps off of its Hirsch-modified lineup, signaling the official arrival of the Swiss tuner in the U.S. At this point, Saab could really use any trick to get buyers into showrooms - and we're hardly complaining if performance is the Swedish brand's chosen lure.

Not all four-bangers in Chicago were about performance, however. Buick has had a tough time convincing buyers that its European-developed Regal makes sense in its lineup, so it has high hopes for a new eAssist hybrid variant, which uses its electric motor to benefit its highway fuel economy. A 37 mpg-predicted figure makes an eAssist Regal thriftier than most economy cars, let alone most midsize sedans.

The Chrysler onslaught continues
Frankly, we thought Chrysler's new product rollout was over for a while, but the Pentastar brand proved us wrong in Chicago.

The biggest news was probably the 800 lb-ft. of torque offered by the Cummins 6.7-liter inline-six in its Ram Heavy Duty trucks, which can tow 100 lbs. more than their closest rival. Hey, bragging rights are bragging rights. In addition, a new work-oriented Ram Tradesman offers V8 power for the same money as rivals' V6s.

Then there was the "man van," a tame-looking Dodge Grand Caravan with an R/T badge. We never liked it when Chevrolet slapped its SS badge on nearly everything - like Malibus and Impalas - so we're having a hard time warming up to this one, especially since it doesn't include much of a performance upgrade.

They changed what?
We like to think we're darn close to auto industry experts, but sometimes a new model is so subtle that we hardly notice it.

Thankfully, Toyota was kind enough to slap a sticker that read "The new 2011 Matrix" on its updated model and Acura thoughtfully held a press conference to ensure that we knew its 2012 TL got a new transmission and a slightly revised beak.

But Volkswagen tucked its revised Routan in a back corner - why, we're not sure. The changes that Chrysler made to its versions of this van for 2011 are downright phenomenal, so this VW van might finally feel as "premium" as its marketing tries to tell us it is.

Leftlane's bottom line
We still think that the Chicago show should be rescheduled to, say, May, but there's no question that this show has regained its status as an important stop on the U.S. circuit.

Chrysler, GM and Volkswagen made the biggest splashes, but Hyundai and Shelby unveiled important new models.

What's your favorite unveiling from Chicago? What did you hope to see that you didn't? Will you be attending the show?