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Time was when the most conspicuous new vehicles at the Chicago Auto Show were the ones the manufacturers elected not to display-the cars and trucks slated to enter production within a year or so after the show closed.

While that`s still true to some degree, a new tradition is unfolding at McCormick Place. Now it`s not unusual to view half a dozen or more new models that are scheduled to hit the streets in the next six months, as well as a score of concept vehicles that provide some strong clues to transportation trends in the mid-1990s.

This year`s event hosts several 1991 products from the Big Three, even though the new model year doesn`t open officially till fall.

Among the more significant new entries from the domestic manufacturers are the Chevrolet Caprice, the Buick Park Avenue, the Ford Escort and the Dodge Stealth. Caprice and Escort go on sale this spring, Park Avenue this summer and Stealth this fall.

And what about the new-for-1991 models you won`t see at the show? Among the most important are GM`s coming Saturn compacts and Chrysler`s restyled mini-vans.

Here is a rundown of new products that are anticipated from the Big Three for `91 and beyond:


In terms of sheer dollars spent on an avalanche of new products for 1990, GM has easily outmuscled its domestic competitors, and as the first of the

`91s begin arriving at dealerships later this spring, the General still carries the big stick.

GM expects to launch three major new car lines in the coming year, representing a total investment of at least $4 billion. Spending levels at Ford and Chrysler are far more modest in comparison, and the potential payoff is not nearly as critical.

At GM, the key issue remains how to inflate its sagging market share, and the answer may be to flood the market with new products in virtually every segment. For 1990, the corporation focused its efforts on mini-vans and midsize cars; in `91, its attention will shift to compact, full-size and luxury models.

The gala event of the season, of course, will be the long-anticipated debut late this fall of the Saturn sedan, followed in spring 1991 by a sporty 2+2. A wagon prototype has been built, but there`s no firm word on whether it will go into production.

By the time those products reach the market, along with a new 1.9-liter engine (in two variants) and two new transmissions, Saturn will have spent $2.5 billion to $3 billion on development, manufacturing and related activities-a staggering investment considering the relatively low production volumes-less than 250,000 units a year initially-now planned for the line.

To help blunt the continuing onslaught of Asian imports and transplants, GM will beef up the Geo series at Chevrolet with the addition of a stub-tailed ''Kammback'' edition of the Storm, which may be dubbed Apex, as well as a jaunty Metro convertible.

High-output, turbo versions of the Storm and Metro also are in the pipeline for the coming year.

But GM won`t neglect its lucrative family-car business. The big Chevrolet Caprice sedan, which is on display at the show, is getting its first significant makeover in years this spring, with a sleek, new, aero-style body shell that reminds some observers of Ford`s Taurus. The first entry in the GM300 program, the new Caprice continues to ride on a 116-inch wheelbase and remains rear-wheel drive, with the 5-liter V8 as its standard engine.

The sedan will be joined this fall by restyled full-size wagons at Chevrolet, Buick (Electra Estate) and Oldsmobile (Custom Cruiser), with a new aero profile that also resembles that of the Taurus/Sable wagons.

When Cadillac speeded up a crash redesign of the DeVille and Fleetwood for 1989, the companion luxury sedans at Buick and Oldsmobile were left to soldier on for another year or two with a boxy, squared-off silhouette that`s beginning to look rather dated.

For `91, the C-body Park Avenue at Buick and the 98 Regency and Touring Sedan at Oldsmobile will receive a sorely needed beauty treatment. The newly designed Regency will be called the Elite. The new designs feature lots of flush glass and softly rounded surfaces, as evidenced in the `91 Buick Park Avenue Ultra, which is on display at the show. GM engineers have squeezed a bit more juice from the cars` Series 3800 V-6 engine, which is being mated with a new electronic, four-speed automatic transmission. Elsewhere under the skin, most other mechanical pieces will be carried over from the present C-cars.

GM has scheduled modest facelifts this spring for the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, prior to a major overhaul now scheduled for the `93 model year. On display at the show are the revived Camaro Z28 and freshened Firebird TransAm-both have lifted most of their mechanical components from their predecessors.

Other changes find a styling overhaul for the Pontiac Bonneville in the 1992 model year with a new front end and a more sloping rear end treatment;

and the addition of a sporty SS or perhaps Monte Carlo addition to the Chevy Lumina midsize car line.

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