Automakers again tout small cars at Detroit show

By Dee-ann Durbin

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this product image provided by General Motors, the company's new Buick Verano is shown. The company says it will unveil the upscale compact car on Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 at the Detroit auto show, GM’s only new model to debut at the event.

General Motors) NO SALES, Associated Press

DETROIT — A new Prius wagon, a small Ford minivan and a Volkswagen sedan won't be the sexiest cars at the Detroit auto show. But car makers are counting on them being winners this year if more buyers start choosing small size and fuel efficiency over horsepower and heft.

The show, which opens to the public Jan. 15, was known for over-the-top stunts and out-there concept cars in its pre-recession days. In 2006, Chrysler drove a Jeep through a plate-glass window; the following year, a Chinese automaker revealed a concept car with shag carpeting and wheels that ran down its middle.

There will still be eye-popping cars on display. Porsche has promised something "spectacular." There will also be some new concepts, such as a Kia crossover with swiveling rear seats and side doors that hinge on the roof, like a DeLorean sports car. But the industry was sobered by the economic crisis, and it's betting buyers were, too, especially with gas prices and U.S. fuel economy standards rising.

There's no guarantee Americans will scale back on size. In fact, after touting downsized cars and electric vehicles at last year's show, the industry saw trucks and SUVs outsell cars during 2010. But conditions are ripe for that trend to reverse.

If that happens, Detroit won't be left behind as it was in the 1970s or even three years ago, when gas price spikes allowed small, Japanese-made cars to capture the compact market. General Motors and Ford have stylish, well-made models, such the new Focus and Cruze. While Toyota and Honda still lead in that area, Detroit is stealing back more of their customers.

Car companies rely on big shows in Detroit, Beijing, Geneva and elsewhere to show off new models and test new designs on hundreds of thousands of visitors. The world first saw the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, at the 2007 Detroit show, for example. It finally went on sale last month.

Other ideas don't pan out. Hydrogen-powered concept cars were all the rage three years ago. None have reached the market.

Among this year's offerings:

— The Prius wagon, Toyota's first entry in a planned family of Prius hybrids.

— The 9th generation version of the Honda Civic, one of the top-selling compact cars in the U.S.

— The Chevrolet Sonic subcompact, which replaces General Motors' Aveo and brings it more upscale.

— The Buick Verano, which is based on the Chevrolet Cruze and will be the smallest car in Buick's lineup.

— The Hyundai Veloster, a sporty, two-door coupe that Hyundai estimates will get 40 miles per gallon.

— The new Mercedes C-Class, featuring a smaller, four-cylinder engine.

— The Ford C-Max, a pint-sized, seven passenger minivan.

— The new A6 sedan that Audi says will get at least 25 percent better fuel economy than the outgoing model.

— A new, unnamed, midsize car from Volkswagen.

The industry thinks it's making the right bet by focusing on cars, even though pickups and SUVs captured slightly more of the U.S. market last year, about 50.2 percent. That happened because construction companies and small businesses bought necessary work trucks as the economy sputtered back to life.

"The truck and SUV buyer is more of a need-based buyer. They're coming back to the market first. This year, as the economy improves, there will be more demand on the car side," said Don Esmond, Toyota's senior vice president of U.S. operations.

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