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Tech, fuel efficiency headline Pittsburgh International Auto Show

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Workers set up in preparation for the 2014 Pittsburgh International Auto Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on February 13, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Mark Schaller, Ford Mustang Product Marketing Manager, discusses the 2015 Ford Mustang prior to the 2014 Pittsburgh International Auto Show opening at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on February 13, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Elyse Large, of Knoxville, Tenn., sprays a coating onto the 2015 Ford Mustang tires prior to the 2014 Pittsburgh International Auto Show opening at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on February 13, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Workers set up in preparation for the 2014 Pittsburgh International Auto Show at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on February 13, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Brandt Coultas, Ford F-150 Consumer Marketing Manager, is interviewed in front of the 2015 Ford F-150 prior to the 2014 Pittsburgh International Auto Show opening at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on February 13, 2014.

Only two trends matter in the auto industry these days — fuel economy and technology.

Consumers checking out new models at this year's Pittsburgh International Auto Show aren't likely to miss the emphasis on either one. Automakers are talking about the use of lighter, higher-strength metals to improve miles per gallon, and the electronic technology packed into the center column that mimics today's smartphones and apps.

“We have quite a few debuts of new models,” said John Putzier, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealer Association, which sponsors the event. They include the redesigned 2015 Ford Mustang; the BMW i3, that automaker's first electric vehicle; and a C7 Corvette Stingray.

Automakers are gearing up to improve mph in anticipation of higher government-mandated mileage standards that will go into effect in 2025, and are introducing more computer technology to answer consumer demand. Those trends are getting attention at the same time that new vehicle sales have risen just 2 percent since Labor Day, and inventories of unsold cars are at their highest since the recession.

The auto show starts on Friday in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, and runs through Monday.

The focus is to show consumers why they should be excited about buying, said Putzier. About 65,000 to 70,000 consumers are expected, up from 63,000 last year, depending on the weather.

“The goal is to get people out of the cold. Many don't understand that it is a manufacturer's show, not a dealer's show. There's zero pressure. It's a one-stop shop to see and learn about a lot of brands.”

Ford Motor Co. was at the center of the huge convention center floor that had more than 35 brands and 600 vehicles on display at a preview on Thursday. Ford is featuring its 2015 Mustang, redesigned for its 50th anniversary, and its 2015 F-150 pickup, with an aluminum and high-strength steel body that saves 700 pounds. Both will go on sale in the fourth quarter.

“This one is new from the ground up,” said Mark Schaller, Mustang's product marketing manager. “There's not a part we haven't touched from wheels to roof.” The Mustang look was tweaked with a lower roof and rear deck lid. And a host of new technology is included, such as blind-spot notification that alerts the driver with an amber light in the read-view mirror, and cross traffic alerts that warns when a car is coming up from behind in a parking lot.

Mazda product specialist Steven Douglas said the automaker has introduced its Skytiactiv technology in three models to deliver up to 40 mph. The package uses high tensile strength steel that is 15 percent lighter but stronger, a six-speed automatic transmission and two new engines in its CX5, Mazda 6 and Mazda 3 models.

Toyota's latest is an newly redesigned Corolla that has new automatic transmission to increase mph, and a new sportier look, said Chris Petschler, a product specialist.

The new Chrysler 200 mid-sized SUV also is redesigned, and has a nine-speed automatic transmission that will help increase mileage to 35 mph, said spokeswoman Lisa Barrow.

Automakers aren't the only industry participants working to increase sales.

Huntington Bank of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's third largest auto lender, introduced 84-month new-car loans in the fall, said Bruce Coleman, vice president of auto finance. That comes on top of a 75-month loan that can be used on new and used cars, he said.

“The 84-month program makes the payment a little bit more budget friendly,” Coleman said, but most of Huntington's auto portfolio has 66-month loans. “The reason we feel more comfortable doing it is because vehicles retain their value longer these days so there's less risk. I remember in the early 70s cars did not last as long, but the average age of the domestic fleet today is approaching 11 years.”

Automotive News, an industry trade newspaper, reported that a more than 100-day supply of unsold vehicles in early February and a slow sales rate in January could mean a return of bigger discounts, incentives and lower profit margins for the automakers.

The dealers association's Putzier said sales have been flat, but “a lot of it is weather-related. Most retail in general has taken a hit.” The auto industry is still projecting more than 16 million new vehicles will be sold in 2014, he said. “It hasn't been that high since the recession.”

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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