Chicago show spotlights off-road rivalry

CHICAGO — The Chicago Auto Show kick-starts a new phase in the turf war between the revived Ford Bronco and the venerable Jeep Wrangler.

For the first time at an auto show, both SUVs will have their own off-road courses for attendees to compare them side by side. The Bronco’s adventurous “Built Wild” outdoor obstacle course makes its world debut in Chicago on Thursday, while “Camp Jeep” is set up for the Wrangler and other models inside the convention hall.

The Camp Jeep layout has been a popular draw at shows for years, bringing an amusement parklike flair to the events, and Ford hopes to steal market share from Jeep in part by generating similar excitement with its Bronco family. Ford’s Chicago course, made possible by the show’s temporary move to July from its usual timing in February, includes a 38-degree hill and water fording. Visitors can ride in the Bronco’s two- and four-door variants and the Bronco Sport.

While the auto show circuit was shut down due to the pandemic, Ford took the Bronco to select markets so consumers could have hands-on time with it and do small off-roading excursions, said Suzy Deering, Ford’s marketing chief.

Ford took lessons from those interactions, she said, and applied them to the Built Wild experience. In the last six months or so, Deering said the automaker honed in on what it wanted to create with this new Bronco setup. The course was designed by race car driver Vaughn Gittin Jr.

“We don’t want to just put cars out there on the carpet,” Deering told Automotive News. “We really wanted to bring them to life in a very different way.”

Ford also is using the Chicago show to unveil its 10,000-square-foot “Built to Electrify” display that will highlight the Mustang Mach-E, F-150 Lightning, E-Transit van and hybrid Maverick compact pickup.

Ford will let consumers ride in the Mach-E, while the Lightning makes its public debut with an experience Deering called “immersive theater” that explains what people can expect from the electric pickup.

Deering said Ford is using the EV display to educate customers because electrification is a “big shift.” She said Ford is looking to break down some of the myths about EVs.

“Being able to actually be one-on-one, having those conversations with customers and starting to answer the concerns that they may have, or even answering some of the excitement they have around that is super important,” Deering said.

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