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Article updated: 2/8/2013 12:59 PM

Mileage vs. muscle at Chicago Auto Show

By Marni Pyke

Consumers might flirt with the provocative 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray at this year's Chicago Auto Show, but not many are expected to go home with one.

Instead, fuel economy is what car buyers want when they visit showrooms in the suburbs, local experts say.

"The No. 1 reason that we see people replacing their old vehicle is for fuel mileage," said Ray Scarpelli, owner of Ray's Chevrolet in Fox Lake and a Chicago Automobile Trade Association director.

Organizers of this year's 105th auto show are promising to provide the best of both worlds, flaunting hot cars like the Stingray and its competitor the Dodge SRT Viper along with fuel-efficient standbys, concepts and redesigns like the Toyota Corolla and Honda's "Urban SUV" crossover.

The auto show runs Saturday, Feb. 9, through Monday, Feb. 18, at McCormick Place in Chicago.

"One of the big stories we're telling is the improving fuel economy story," Scarpelli said. "There are hybrids, electrics and regular gas-powered cars that all get better gas mileage as a fleet."

Chevrolet was in high gear at a media preview Thursday, premiering its Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel. The manufacturer had a rough patch in the 1970s with a problematic diesel line, but the 2014 version is a significant move, experts said.

"It's the only domestic diesel available," Chevrolet marketing executive Christi Landy said. "It's going to compete head-to-head with German (models). ... In fact we expect it to beat the Volkswagen Jetta."

The new Cruze is estimated at 42 mpg on the highway and will start at $25,695. "It's based on proven architecture used in European models but designed for U.S. markets," Landy said.

Meanwhile Toyota was ready to take on all comers with its new Tundra truck series.

"These are more engaging vehicles for the North American market," Toyota Group President Bill Fay said. Five grades range from compacts to full-size trucks with luxury trimmings like leather seats. Including compact versions with Bluetooth and backup cameras was important to Toyota "even though our competitors have abandoned the compact market," Fay added, with a dig at Ford and Chevrolet.

Among the hyperboles were the Tundra's "aggressive look," "muscular front view" and "forceful headlights."

The trucks will launch in September, when pricing details will be available.

What gives dealers like Scarpelli reason to be optimistic about 2013 is that consumers who've held on to their vehicles for dear life during the recession have reached a tipping point.

The average age of cars and SUVs in America is more than 11 years and the average time people keep their vehicles has stretched from four years in 2001 to nearly six years in 2012, according to auto industry analyst Polk & Co.

And after several years in the doldrums with bailouts and recalls, manufacturers are shaking off the hangover of the late 2000s with a 2013 display that isn't ashamed of sporty, luxury showstoppers.

In a keynote address Thursday morning, Jaguar Land Rover North America President Andy Goss said sales are building as the manufacturer extends to China and India while trying to cater to North American needs.

He joked about Thursday's sleet storm and said one complaint from domestic Jaguar drivers was the lack of all-wheel drive, which will be remedied in the 2014 model he introduced. "We were out of sync with customer demand," Goss said.

Meanwhile, new federal rules -- requiring auto manufacturers to reach average fuel efficiency of 35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by model year 2025 -- are forcing a sea change for gas guzzlers. Even Cadillac is coming out with an electric/hybrid model, the Cadillac ELR premiering at the auto show.

Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds Inc., was pleasantly surprised by Toyota's "rakish" concept Corolla, the Furia.

"Midsize used to be mundane. Now there's a combination of style and fuel economy," Visnic said. "It's never been viewed as the sexiest choice, but there are some great new choices."

Kia executives, meanwhile hyped a "new direction" for the brand, going beyond grooving hamsters and appealing to sophisticates. To that end, they showcased a concept crossover, a copper-colored Cross GT, billed as a sleeker, posher Sorento.

"It's a grown-up Kia," Kia chief designer Tom Kearns said. "I wanted the design to revolve around desire."

Meanwhile, Truck Trend Executive Editor Allyson Harwood thought a focus on commercial trucks by manufacturers indicated a continuing trend of small-business growth. Both Nissan and Dodge Ram promoted work vehicles -- Nissan's updated 2013 NV200 and Ram's ProMaster cargo vans.

"The truck market was hit pretty hard by the recession ... but there was a strong emphasis on getting back to work" at the show, she said.

Auto: Cadillac to premiere first hybrid model in Chicago

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