by Jeff Gilbert
WWJ AutoBeat Reporter

With car sales starting to show signs of life, the major auto makers are showing off their latest stuff at the Chicago Auto Show, the largest consumer oriented show.

“Even as much as Detroit is a media show, it’s as much a consumer show here in Chicago,” says Tony DiSalle, Buick’s vice president of marketing.  “We like gauging consumer response to our products.”

As Buick showed off a mild hybrid version of the Regal, called e-Assist, another GM brand went the other way.  Chevy debuting the Camaro ZL1, with a 550 horsepower engine.

“It is the highest level performance for Camaro,” says GM design chief Ed Welburn.  “It is a very, very special car.”

The convertible version of the Camaro is hitting the market now.  It will be followed by the ZL1 early next year.  Both of these products are meant to keep the Camaro lineup fresh, in its competition with the Ford Mustang.

Dodge, meanwhile is revitalizing it’s line up of performance oriented R/T vehicles.  Five Dodge vehicles will get the R/T treatment, including the Dodge Caravan.

“We’re finding that people use their vans for anything,” said Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles.  “Only half of the people who own our minivans have kids.”

Chrysler says what it calls a “man van” is meant for people who need a minivan, but want more excitement.

Hyundai giving its Genesis sport sedan a 5-liter, 429 horsepower engine.  It’s the most powerful engine Hyundai has ever made.

While Ford isn’t bringing any new products to this show, it is launching a new effort to promote a product that they make at their Chicago Assembly Plant, the all new Explorer, with a new program called “Go-Do Adventures.”

“The program invites everyone, everyone in this room, every customer in America, to dream about how they would use the Explorer to create their own dream road trip,” says Ford vice president of marketing Jim Farley.

Winners will get a week in an explorer, with Ford paying for their road trip.  They’ll document it online, with some winners chosen for a special one hour TV program.

While Toyota has a new Matrix at this show, most of the attention has been on the government investigation clearing Toyota’s electronic systems.  Toyota division General Manager Bob Carter says he’s pleased with the decision, and now it’s time to move on to the job of building and selling new vehicles.

“We were confident,” said Carter.  “Not only did NASA and the Department of Transportation put a lot of energy into evaluating these systems, but so have we.”

Follow Jeff Gilbert on Twitter @jefferygilbert

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