When I was a kid, my dad and I would make the pilgrimage from our small town in Indiana to the big city of Chicago every February to visit the country’s largest auto show. 

My dad is such a Car Guy™ that after I was born, he rigged a precarious baby seat in the trunk of a Datsun 240Z for my ride home from the hospital. Pretty good parenting!

I grew up loving cars, so it was quite a treat to cover the 2024 Chicago Auto Show for Luckbox. What I wasn’t expecting was the fake trees, ersatz boulders and artfully applied mud on a multitude of conveyances marketed as “adventure vehicles.” What’s with all this nature cosplay? I thought we were at the show for the cars, trucks, vans and SUVs themselves.

Ready for adventure?

Tim Huber defined the “adventure” category of motoring in an article for HiConsumption, a digital lifestyle magazine for men. “‘Adventure vehicle’ is a big term to be throwing around, and we’re sure a lot of different definitions fit,” Huber wrote. “For us, however, it’s a fairly specific genre of vehicle, boasting equal parts versatility, durability, dependability and go-anywhere capability.”

Whether you want to conquer rugged terrain or just need something to take you to an off-the-grid location, adventure vehicles are the Swiss Army knives of the auto world. And more automakers are focusing on off-road or adventure-type cars. “Auto manufacturers are simply selling the image of the millennial lifestyle,” Huber wrote.

But there’s more to it, as Humphrey Bwayo maintained in Autoevolution: “People don’t buy vehicles for who they are, but rather, who they want to be. Millennials are shaping the current consumer markets because they’re adventure-seekers, spontaneous, curious about the unknown and highly emphasize being unique.”

Even though the most harrowing trip many of these vehicles will face is the drive-thru at Chick-Fil-A, consumers want the potential to escape the 9-5 grind and live out their lives in a National Forest. Or maybe I’m just reading from my diary. 

Subaru: an outdoor OG

Japanese automakers definitely understand the assignment when it comes to marketing cars for adventure. In a rugged display at the auto show, Subaru (FUJHY) simulated several woodland scenarios for their vehicles to subjugate. Coniferous trees (hey, look at me using ninth-grade science class) dotted the booth, and the bland carpet of Chicago’s McCormick Place was replaced with a mockup of the dewy moss and pine needle floor of a forest in the Pacific Northwest.

Subaru’s latest lineup was not showroom pristine. Instead, the vehicles on display were covered in mud and grime and looked frozen in time as they climbed a steep incline. The display included a treehouse, log benches, a tent pitched on the ground and a tent mounted on a roof rack. The company even had puppies you could adopt.

Of all the Subaru display vehicles, I enjoyed the new 2024 Ascent the most. The eight-passenger SUV had a functional yet appealing interior layout with a huge touchscreen display. It comes with symmetrical all-wheel drive and 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Subaru describes its 75.6 cubic feet of cargo space as class-leading.

The Base Ascent starts at $34,395 but goes up to $48,695 for the seven-passenger Touring model. I give it three and a half Patagonia vests out of five. It’s definitely one of the more affordable models I saw. 

Ride a Bronco  

If Subaru was trying to set a scene and engage your mind, Ford (F) was trying to jack up your adrenaline and elevate your heart rate with its “Bronco Experience.” That’s what they called the massive indoor test track and a revolving coterie of the latest Bronco models, each performing off-camber maneuvers. It demonstrated Bronco’s class-leading electronic-locking front and rear axles and had a 40° hill climb with a squeal-inducing rapid descent.

The auto-show setting for the Broncos drew inspiration from rugged terrain ranging from the desert outside Moab, Utah, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There wasn’t just a “Sasquatch Crossing” sign. There was a Sasquatch posing for selfies with attendees.

The Raptor iteration of the Bronco was my favorite with its glossy green exterior and menacing 37-inch tires. It’s a dead sexy car from the outside, but reading that sticker price is another way to elevate your heart rate.

Coming in at a starting price of $90,035, I was shocked that the interior had bungee nets instead of side door compartments. Some parts of the interior just felt cheap. But there are tons of off-road modes, and you can even remove the doors and roof. Look, for $90K imma need it to come with someone to remove the roof for me.

It does have G.O.A.T mode, though, which is just a *chef’s kiss* by the Ford marketing team. It stands for Goes Over Any Terrain. I was impressed with the camera systems in the Broncos to help drivers navigate off-road obstacles using wheel view and a cool drone mode, but 90K is a bonkers price. Four Patagonia vests out of five.

If money is no object …

GM (GM) showcased its lineup of electric Hummers (that sounds kinkier than it is), but the true main attraction was the integrated EarthCruiser. The base model, two-motor Hummer EV 2 has an astounding 570 horsepower and 7,400 pound-feet of torque with a reported 300-mile range. The price starts at $96,550.

The top-tier Hummer EV Omega has 830 horsepower. (Where are you going? The moon?) It’s rated at a staggering 11,500 pound-feet of torque. (Nope, not overcompensating for anything at all). The Omega trim starts at $138K.

In a partnership with EarthCruiser, GM showcased a GMC Hummer EV with an integrated carbon-fiber overlanding module. Think of it as REI meets Jiffy Pop. It’s a zero-emission pop-up compartment where you can live, sleep and work as you and your billionaire friends wait for them to rebuild that Titanic submarine thingy.

There’s a full-size RV bed, full solar power and a 12-gallon capacity water tank. The tri-layered pop-up roof is insulated, and there’s enough juice to power a fridge/freezer combo for almost a full week.

GM Hummers are actual production vehicles, but the EarthCruiser is a concept and a representative told me they were at the show to gauge consumer interest. I was super interested. A zero-emission overlanding beast? Yes, please.

However, cost is definitely an issue. See above for the base costs across the Hummer line. Now, I’m told the EarthCruiser module will debut with a retail price of around $90,000 to $100,000. So, $100-$138K for the Hummer and then another $90K for the module. That’s a legit, nice-ass three-bedroom house in Kansas somewhere. Five Patagonia vests out of five. 

Hummer EV2
Hummer EV2 with an integrated EarthCruiser by Vonetta Logan

Roads? Who needs ’em?

The pandemic focused us on exploring the outdoors and getting away from urban areas. Just try getting a camping reservation. Manufacturers are leaning into the moment, and this year’s auto show and its displays prove the adventure segment isn’t just growing. It’s here to stay.

“What this market has brought to us is new manufacturers and better-quality products,” said Andrew Funk, president of Cap-it International in an interview for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). “There are new ‘glamping’ and creature comforts that are nice while you’re out in the bush off-roading, but it’s becoming so mainstream now that your average consumer is seriously looking into it as an option.”

So, wherever you’re headed, perhaps an “adventure vehicle” is in your future. I’m of the mindset that any vehicle can be an adventure vehicle if you try hard enough.

Vonetta Logan, a writer and comedian, appears daily on the tastylive network. @vonettalogan