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Driving in the post-SUV era

From subcompacts to crossovers, auto show stresses choice

DETROIT -- Lexus and Chrysler are debuting luxurious sedans at this year's North American International Auto Show. Ford is offering a chiseled new crossover. Honda is hyping a subcompact. As the age of the SUV comes to an end in the United States, automakers are engaged in a race to figure out the next hot trends.

''The theme of this year's show is customer choice," said Bob Cosmai, head of Hyundai Motor Co.'s North America division.

Crossover vehicles, which ride lower to the ground than sport-utility vehicles but offer similar interior comfort, are expected to outsell SUVs in the United States this year. Ford Motor Co. wants to lead that segment with the 2007 Ford Edge.

The Edge, with sharp lines and the distinctive three-bar grille of the Ford Fusion sedan, is expected in showrooms this fall. Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said the vehicle will stand out in a crossover market that is getting more crowded with vehicles that ''are somewhat nondescript."

But the truly envy-worthy vehicles at this year's show are the muscle cars. After seeing the success of the Ford Mustang -- and hearing the clamoring of baby boomers -- US automakers went back 40 years for some inspiration. DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is showing the Dodge Challenger concept, based on a model from 1970, while General Motors Corp. unveiled the Chevrolet Camaro concept, an update of that beloved muscle car.

Lots of people are also prowling around the Geely 7151 CK sedan, the first vehicle from China to be shown at the Detroit show. It was one of the first vehicles Chrysler chief executive Tom LaSorda sat in when he arrived. Most analysts say the interior of the Geely sedan is too pared down for American consumers. Geely says it plans to make upgrades before it sells the vehicle in the United States in 2008.

LaSorda wouldn't give his opinion on the car, but said Chinese automakers will be serious competition in a few years. ''It's an absolute force to be reckoned with at the end of this decade or early next decade," he said.

Other notables: The Chrysler Imperial concept looks a lot like a Rolls-Royce. The Lexus LS 460 has reclining rear seats and a hands-free parking system. And the Honda Fit, a subcompact, should appeal to consumers jittery about fuel prices.

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