A Fine Line At The Chicago Auto Show

A trip around the floor of the Chicago Auto Show reveals two conflicting messages: horsepower and fuel economy.

Chevrolet is allowing show visitors to take test drives of the plug-in Volt, only a few yards from the stage where it unveiled the Camaro ZL1 super-charged convertible. Ford has mounted an F-series pickup truck equipped with a fuel-efficient Ecoboost engine atop a sign for the Ford Mustang. \And Dodge is promising a gutsy “man van” that will appeal to men who normally would not be caught dead in minivans, even as it declares, “cars can be fuel efficient without being neutered.”

It might seem confusing, but there’s a good reason for both approaches.

Automakers are slowly climbing out of the worst industry sales in decades. Last year, they collectively sold 11.5 million cars in the United States, up from a devastating 2009 that saw General Motors and Chrysler go through bankruptcy.

January sales were hotter than anyone expected, thanks to what some in the industry say was a price war started by G.M. and joined by Toyota. And there’s great desire among executives to see those stronger sales continue. That’s where hot cars and trucks come in. Even if buyers don’t take home the latest models, they might purchase something else. And, 25% of people who attend auto shows go car shopping within the year, industry statistics show.

But there are no guarantees, especially as fuel prices rise. James Farley, group vice president at Ford, said $4 to $5 a gallon gasoline is not a question of if, but when. Bob Carter, head of the Toyota division, says his company expects gas prices nationally to top $3.50 this summer (gas already sells for more at many high-priced Chicago stations).

Automakers have watched several times in the past as high prices and fuel shortages stopped sales in their tracks. So they want to be able to have both kinds of vehicles in their lineups.

Visitors to the Chicago show, which opens to the public on Friday, will get to see plenty of automobiles. The show spans 1.2 million square feet, making it the biggest in the United States, and the roominess guarantees that visitors can move about easily even on the most crowded days.

Are you going to the Chicago show? Did you go to the Detroit auto show? What do you look for in a show? Let us know in the comments section, and feel free to post your own car pictures here and on our Facebook page.

Meanwhile, here’s the piece I wrote for Friday’s NY Times about the Chicago show.

Leave a Reply