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What to See at the Chicago Auto Show

Low gas prices mean that companies are comfortable with a range of SUVs, muscle cars, and luxury concept coupes, but the car of the future might be one that tries its hardest not to look like one.

The auto industry is in a funny place right now. Last year probably set a record for vehicle sales, while the oil market has collapsed, meaning not only that people are buying more cars, they’re buying less-efficient, high-margin SUVs and trucks.

On the other hand, new research out of the University of Michigan shows that for every age group below 55-59 years old, the proportion of people with driver’s licenses has fallen over the past three decades, and fallen precipitously for ages 34 and younger. In 2014, public transportation hit its highest ridership levels since the mid-20th century, driven largely by increased use in medium-sized cities like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, and Denver, and an increasing urbanization of the American population that’s allowed people to be less dependent on their cars.

And even if consumers are currently enjoying the benefits of cheap gas, CAFE standards—Corporate Average Fuel Economy, a company-wide measure of efficiency—are set to rise dramatically over the next decade, putting pressure on gas mileage even if gas prices don’t.

So for all the conservatively luxurious concept vehicles, and the usual muscle cars arrayed in bright primary hues, the most important car at the Chicago Auto Show might be the modest-looking little Chevy Bolt. It’s an electric car with a 200-mile range and a price tag just below $30,000 (after federal tax credits), considered to be the thresholds at which the mass market will start buying in on all-electric cars. Unlike most of its electric predecessors, it looks like an utterly normal compact car instead of bearing kitchen-appliance electric-car chic, and has been normalized since it came to the Auto Show last year as a concept. And it’ll be available late this year, while its closest competition, the Tesla Model 3, doesn’t yet have a firm shipping date or price.

As always, part of the fun of the Auto Show is the wonder of the unattainable, from six-figure (or even seven-figure) luxury cars to the literally priceless glimpses of the future from concept cars. But the Bolt is different in its own way: trying to seize the future by looking nothing like it.

GO The Chicago Auto Show runs February 13-21 at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr. chicagoautoshow.com

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