CHICAGO – Eight manufacturers will offer a sampling of vehicles for consumer test rides and drives both inside and outside McCormick Place North and South during the Chicago Auto Show Feb. 8-17.

More than 40 models of cars, trucks, CUVs and SUVs will be available for potential buyers to evaluate.

For Chrysler Fiat Automobiles, it will be the 10th consecutive year offering a test track inside the show, an experience that dates back to the very first Chicago Auto Show in 1901, when a 20-ft.-wide (6.1-m), 0.1-mile-long (0.16-km) circular wooden track was used introduce visitors to the replacement for the horse.

The show proved so popular the track was eliminated the next year to provide more space to display cars, and the feature wasn't revived until then-Chrysler revived it as show space increased.

In 2005, when the show expanded to 1.2 million sq.-ft. (111,480 sq.-m) of space in two halls, McCormick Place South and North, Chrysler took advantage of the added room by creating a track on the floor inside the South Hall to provide rides in its vehicles.

Other automakers followed Chrysler’s lead, with Toyota adding an indoor track four years ago and Chevrolet offering short spins in its Volt electric vehicle two years ago. Other manufacturers provided test drives on city streets or on courses set up in parking lots.

This year, Chrysler will offer two courses inside, Camp Jeep with simulated off-road rides, including travel up and over an 18-ft.-high (5.5-m) dirt hill in Wrangler, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee SUVs, and a simulated street course for Dodge Charger/Challenger and Chrysler 300 sedans, as well as Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans.

Toyota has created a simulated desert-like setting inside for rides in its new Tundra fullsize and Tacoma midsize pickups and 4Runner SUV.

Outside, General Motors will offer its new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra fullsize pickups on both road and closed-parking-lot courses; Ford, its new F-150 pickup, midsize Explorer and compact Escape SUVs and Focus and Fusion sedans; Kia, its new Cadenza sedan alongside Optima gasoline and hybrid sedan versions, plus Forte and Soul cars and Sorento SX CUV.

Elsewhere, Subaru offers the Legacy and Impreza sedans plus Forester, Outback and Crosstrek CUVs; Volkswagen will have its GTI, Beetle, CC, Jetta, Passat and Tiguan models; and Scion will make its complete lineup available for visitor ride-and-drives.

Phil Bockhorn, senior manager of shows and events for Chrysler, says auto-show test rides are a valuable sales tool.

“Our No.1 objective at the show is getting (consumers) in the seats, which is why we have sensors in the front and rear seats of all vehicles in order to count them,” he says. “Our research shows that consumer interest and intention to buy goes up after a test drive. When you see the smiles on people’s faces after the test drives, especially after taking the hill in a Jeep, you know (the promotion) really works."

Nearly 500,000 visitors have taken Chrysler vehicles for test rides at the show. “We'll get 30,000 alone just at our Jeep track,” Bockhorn predicts.

Dave Sloan, president of the Chicago Auto Trade Assn., which represents Chicago new-car dealers and sponsors the auto show, says manufacturers and dealers benefit from test drives as well as consumers.

“The dealer definition of interest in a car is whether the consumer takes a test drive,” he says. “Dealers are always trying to get people to test-drive their cars, because when the person takes the time to take a test drive it usually translates into a sale, and we know that test drives at the show translate into sales.”

Another benefit: “People often wait in line 45 minutes to take a test drive, and the manufacturers have learned to use that time to give visitors messages about their vehicles (and) get consumer feedback about their product,” Sloan says, adding: “If a person is waiting 45 minutes to ride in one of your vehicles, that’s 45 minutes not being spent over in your rivals’ exhibits.”