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CHICAGO — McCormick Place is filled with some of the sleekest, most stylish vehicles you'll ever see for the Chicago Auto Show, which opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 21.

"Until you've seen the Chicago Auto Show on a busy Saturday, you haven't seen an auto show," General Manager Dave Sloan said.

Ford put the Calumet Region-made Explorer front and center when you first enter the South Hall at the nation's largest auto show. The automaker picked Chicago to debut the new Ford Explorer XLT Sport appearance package with 20-inch magnetic gray wheels, ebony black body side molding, leather seat bolsters by Salerno and Miko suede.

"We took a lot of the design elements of our very popular Sport model, and put it into a less costly package more focused on the design and less on the performance of the engine," Explorer Marketing Manager Omar Odeh said. "Within the SUV segment, there are so many consumers looking for the styling. They just love that sport styling with the big wheels and grilles and everything, but don't necessarily want the big powertrain."

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker, one of the Calumet Region's largest employers, also announced at a Chicago Auto Show media preview Thursday that it will make four new SUVs in the next four years. 

Ford just had a banner year with SUVs, selling more 740,000 in the United States and — for the first time — even more than that abroad, said Mark LaNeve, Ford Motor Co. vice president of marketing, sales and service. About 50,000 Explorers made in Chicago's far South Side Hegewisch neighborhood were shipped abroad to international markets last year.

The automaker anticipates SUV sales, which support more than 5,000 jobs at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch and the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights, will continue to grow because of their popularity with baby boomers and millennials who purchase them when starting families.

"The conventional thinking is that millennials are less interested in vehicle ownership," he said. "But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of the millennial car buyer has been greatly exaggerated."

Market research shows two-thirds would in fact spend less on entertainment and eating out to make a car payment, LaNeve said. Baby boomers continue to prefer SUVs, which they find easier to get in and out of, and are often trading up for more luxury models. Low gas prices help boost SUV sales, but they are hardly the only reason for the steadily growing popularity of the vehicle.

SUVs aren't the costly gas guzzlers they once were, LaNeve said. The Ford Explorer for instance gets 19 mpg in city driving, and 28 mpg in highway driving, which would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.

"As you may have heard, SUVs had a banner year last year, one of many they've had since 2010," he said. "Nearly one of every three vehicles sold in the U.S. today is an SUV. Over the next four years, SUVs will grow another 40 percent to take 40 percent of the market."

Automakers just had a record year last year, with a record 17.5 million units sold in the United States 

"2016 has every reason to be another very, very strong year for the industry," LaNeve said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.