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Out of more than a dozen models unveiled this week the Chicago Auto Show, the one likely to attract the most buyers is a big SUV.


Amid fuel-price shocks and all the talk of the latest hybrid, Chevrolet used the show to bring out the Traverse, an eight-passenger SUV that measures even a few inches longer than the Chevy Tahoe, a full-size, truck-based sport-utility.

But General Motors is quick to point out that Traverse weighs 500 pounds less than Tahoe, is powered by a V-6 instead of a V-8 and will get better gas mileage. With its smallest V-8, Tahoe averages 16 miles per gallon. EPA ratings aren't final for Traverse, but the similar Buick Enclave averages 19. Expect Traverse to top that.

“We aren't stupid,” Mark LaNeve, GM's sales and marketing chief, said bluntly. “We know that things have changed dramatically and that consumers want their vehicles to be more fuel efficient. That means, over time, the mix of vehicles we sell will shift.”

What hasn't shifted is consumers' demand for space, performance, living-room comfort and a low price. In other words, everything they have now, but with better gas mileage.

The upshot is that despite increasingly stringent fuel economy standards, large SUVs and pickups and big sedans will continue to be a major part of the automotive landscape in the U.S., absent a catastrophe such as the supply of foreign oil drying up.

“You've got all the utility of a Tahoe in a more efficient package,” Aaron Bragman, a research analyst at industry forecaster Global Insight, said of Traverse. “It may not be that much more efficient, but these are the kinds of gradual steps, the small improvements, they will make.

“No amount of legislation is going to change what people want,” Bragman added. “There will not be a sudden shift to subcompacts.”

Throughout McCormick Place carmakers are showing vehicles that reflect the conflicting demands of rising gas prices and consumer desire for speed, style and convenience.

Lincoln, for example, will launch the Chicago-built MKS in July as its new flagship sedan, but the car will have a V-6 instead of the V-8 typical of luxury models.

“People driving a big vehicle with a V-8 can feel guilty about it, like everyone's against them,” said Lincoln car marketing manager Pei-wen Hsu. But MKS won't lack for performance. The standard engine cranks out 270 horsepower, and next year Lincoln will add a turbocharger, boosting horsepower to about 350.

Toyota is displaying the Venza, a four-door hatchback/wagon based on the Camry sedan with SUV styling cues. It's smaller than either of Toyota's current midsize SUVs, the 4Runner and Highlander. But the leader in hybrids also trotted out a revamped Sequoia, a full-size, V-8-powered SUV that gets 15 mpg. It expects the fresh design to drive sales up from last year's 23,000.

“Our job is to provide the customer what they want,” said Executive Vice President Don Esmond. “The market (for big SUVs) will probably get smaller, but there are still a lot of people who tow boats or go on camping trips,” so it won't disappear.

At the Detroit Auto Show in January the industry almost in unison touted fuel-saving technology, alternative fuels such as ethanol and other green initiatives. That show caters to international media and is where automakers announce new strategies and models that burnish their image.

Chicago is a consumer show that attracts more than 1.2 million visitors annually and kicks off the spring selling season.

And in spite of a federal law mandating fuel economy of 35 mpg by 2020, that means consumers will still lust after seats for eight — preferably leather and heated — horsepower and sex appeal.

“This isn't a transportation industry; it's an extension of the fashion industry. You wear your watch, you wear your suit and you wear your car,” IRN Inc. analyst Erich Merkle said.

Sales of SUVs of all sizes and types rose to 4.67 million last year from 4.5 million in 2004. The main difference is that more than half are “crossovers,” models such as Traverse and Enclave that are built on lighter-weight car platforms instead of truck frames, like Tahoe.

“There's still a lot of growth in that segment, it's just a change in the format of the vehicle,” Merkle said.

Merkle thinks styling and interior room will drive sales of the Traverse more than any mileage improvement. If Traverse averages 20 mpg, an average driver may save $40 to $50 a month on gas compared to a Tahoe.

“My cable bill costs more than that,” Merkle said. “The overriding reason they'll buy it is the styling. It's fresh, not worn and dated like the Tahoe. They'll say, `I want that in my garage. I want to be seen driving that to work.' “

When GM asked consumers in Los Angeles recently what they wanted in a green vehicle, they described a Tahoe — but one that gets 45 mpg. The closest GM comes to that is the Tahoe Hybrid, which gets 21 mpg in the city and starts at $50,000.

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