Chicago Auto Show’s all about economy

By From page C1 | February 10, 2012

CHICAGO — High mileage trumped the environment at this year’s Chicago Auto Show.

With gas expected to top $4 a gallon in the coming months, green for most consumers these days is what’s left in their wallets.

And carmakers across the board are responding, promoting a plethora of high-mileage vehicles at the auto show, which opened to the media Wednesday and welcomes the public beginning Friday.

The key to this new high-mileage drive is the ways carmakers expect to do it. They’re using a variety of powertrains and fuels to achieve better mileage.

“In the future, cars will run on a variety of fuels. What works well for Springfield may not work well for Shanghai,” said Yoshi Inaba, president of Toyota Motors North America Inc.

Toyota, which plans to introduce 19 new or updated vehicles this year, intends to focus on hybrid vehicles, including the family of four Prius models, he noted. “Hybrids will remain the core of Toyota,” he said.

Other carmakers, like Volkswagen AG, intend to push diesel vehicles as an efficient alternative to gasoline cars. VW introduced the 2013 Beetle TDI at the show, touting its 39 mpg in highway driving.

“For us, diesels are an important part of our strategy,” said Tim Mahoney, VW’s chief marketing officer .

A proven fuel sipper, often 30 percent more efficient than gasoline engines of the same size, diesels still face the challenge of public acceptance.

But the tide could be turning.

This year, VW expects nearly 30 percent of all of its midsize Passats sold to be diesels. The Passat is one of six diesel models the German automaker offers.

“Diesel is becoming much more accessible, and all of our diesel models remain in high demand,” he said.

Other carmakers may follow VW down that diesel highway. Jeep recently announced it’s going to bring a diesel-powered Grand Cherokee to America next year.

“Diesel is perfect for an SUV,” said Mike Manley, Jeep president. “The way to convince people to buy a diesel vehicle is to get them to drive one.”

Indeed. Today’s diesels are nothing like the ones that were around 20 years ago. Then again, neither are the traditional internal combustion engines that use gasoline.

Hyundai North America debuted two variations of the popular compact Elantra: a coupe and a sportier GT model. The coupe will hit 40 mpg highway when it arrives later this year.

The GT will get 39 mpg highway.

John Krafcik, president of Hyundai North America, cited the high mileage of the Elantra as one of the key selling points for these nicely appointed vehicles.

“Consumers expect high mileage today,” he said.

Even the big vehicles need to produce big mileage numbers for consumer consideration.

With 32 mpg, GMC’s 2013 Acadia crossover should garner more attention from consumers who used to drive SUVs.

“It’s flexible, efficient and offers a segment-leading 32 mpg,” said Tony DiSalle, vice president of Buick and GMC marketing.

It makes sense to focus on mileage with everyone waiting to see how high gas prices will go this year. There’s not a better way to hedge a bet than get the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.

To be honest, there were a few vehicles shown in Chicago that didn’t focus on fuel economy – they were after the most fun per gallon instead. The 650-horsepower 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 convertible provides an answer to a question no one ever knew was there.

Should anyone make a 650-horsepower Mustang convertible? The answer: Of course.

Nissan also seems to be following the high mileage route with the introduction of the NV200 – a work van that will take on the likes of the Ford Transit Connect. The NV200 features a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine. It arrives early next year. No mileage numbers were provided.

The difference between previous auto shows and this one is that high mileage seems to be understood. Gone is the veneer of green that carmakers used to wrap around themselves when they rolled out special edition high-mileage vehicles.

Now, eco-friendly has been transformed into customer-friendly, and high mileage is likely to mean high sales.

And that gets the carmaker’s attention.


By Scott Burgess, auto critic, The Detroit News

New York Times News Service

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