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updated: 2/9/2012 2:26 PM

Chicago Auto Show is vroom and zoom, not doom and gloom

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  • After years of hype over super-sized Humvee-type vehicles, much of the buzz at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show media preview Wednesday focused on mid-sized and compact cars.

       After years of hype over super-sized Humvee-type vehicles, much of the buzz at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show media preview Wednesday focused on mid-sized and compact cars.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Video: 2012 Auto Show trends

  • 2012 auto show floorplan

    Graphic: 2012 auto show floorplan

  • Getting to the 2012 auto show

    Graphic: Getting to the 2012 auto show

 
 

The next big thing is small.

After years of hype over super-sized Humvee-type vehicles, much of the buzz at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show media preview Wednesday focused on mid-sized and compact cars.

That moderate trend is and will be showing up in driveways across the suburbs where the SUV was king, experts say, reflecting the realities of a fragile economy and volatile gas prices.

"We're seeing a definite migration from larger to smaller (vehicles)," Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs said.

"Middle-America doesn't want to give up the SUV altogether but they're demanding far more in terms of economy and maneuverability."

At a number of press events, auto manufacturers emphasized fuel efficiency.

"It's the best fuel economy in its class," Hyundai executive Mike O'Brien said, pointing to an Elantra GT estimated to reach 39 mpg on the highway.

"The compact segment is already hot today," O'Brien said. "We expect it to get even hotter."

The Chicago Auto Show opens to the public Friday and runs through Feb. 19 at McCormick Place.

Chrysler reintroduced its much-maligned Dodge Dart as a sporty, affordable car with a base price of $15,995. It's the first small car the automaker has built since the Neon, Krebs said.

The Dart "could very easily be your starting car or (for) someone who just wants a good value but doesn't need anything too large," Dodge spokesman Ryan Nagode said.

Chrysler this week announced it will build the Dart at its Belvidere plant, creating an estimated 16,000 jobs.

Jobs were also on the mind of Yoshimi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America Inc. He talked about the resurgence of the industry in a speech to The Economic Club of Chicago.

"After several incredibly tough years, the industry is making a strong comeback," Inaba said. Back in 2009, Ford, GMC and Chrysler were on the brink of financial disaster, while 2010 marked a series of embarrassing recalls for Toyota and Honda.

But this year, Toyota expects to begin investing $400 million to upgrade its Princeton, Ind., plant to build Highlander hybrids, Inaba said. The move should create 400 jobs.

Earlier in the day Volvo President and CEO John Maloney, a native of Morton Grove, projected sales of about 13.7 million in cars in the U.S. in 2012 during a keynote speech. That compares favorably with total sales of 11.5 million in 2010 and 10.4 million in 2009, which was the industry's worst year since 1982, he noted.

Part of auto manufacturing's resurgence will come from its 180-degree turn from gas guzzlers, Maloney said.

"It just makes sense from an environmental standpoint -- making engines that are much more fuel efficient. It makes sense from a logistical standpoint -- allowing us to focus our expertise in areas that yield the greatest benefit," he said.

"And it makes sense from a cost standpoint -- fewer engines and fewer parts mean leaner, smarter production."

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