More stories related to Chicago Auto Show While the U.S. auto industry’s mid-winter salon gears up for only a dozen first-ever vehicle introductions, there’s no reason to downplay its significance.

Sandwiched between Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January and next month’s Geneva International Motor Show, the 2005 Chicago Auto Show will play host to several key launches.

They include the throwback Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV, the freshened Cadillac DTS large sedan (seen roaming the streets of Washington D.C. last month during the presidential inauguration) and the third vehicle in Ford Motor Co.’s CD3 midsize sedan trio bowing in ’06 – the Mercury Milan.

Each vehicle will be rolled out Feb. 9, marking the first, and traditionally most significant, of two press days at Chicago’s McCormick Place, which expands the auto show’s footprint to 1.2 million sq.-ft. (111,500 sq.-m) for 2005.

Hyundai gives a glimpse of Portico concept.

But the Windy City’s big secret officially doesn’t get let out of the bag until Feb. 10, when Honda Motor Co. Ltd. shows off a concept version of its next-generation Civic.

Although Honda officials remain silent about the company’s actual blueprint for Chicago, several sources confirm the auto maker plans to unveil a version of the ’06 Civic that will be close to the final production model if past Honda “concepts” are any indication.

Honda officials only are willing to say the vehicle will be more friendly to the tuner crowd than the current-generation small car. (See related story: New Civic to Be More Tuner Friendly )

Traditionally seen as a platform for truck unveilings, Chicago’s slate boasts a healthy dose of cars – including the fullsize Buick Lucerne, Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG and E-350 sedan, in addition to the Mercury Milan and Cadillac DTS.

The Milan enters the market later in the year, built off Ford’s CD3 architecture. It is Mercury’s second new sedan in as many years and is positioned to take the place of the soon-to-be discontinued Sable.(See related story: Mercury Confirms Milan Moniker; Opens ‘New Doors’)

Jaguar Cars North America plans an announcement concerning the slow-selling XJ large sedan lineup, officials tell Ward’s.

Trucks still threaten to stop the show, however, with Toyota Motor Corp.’s FJ Cruiser leading the way.

The FJ Cruiser, relying heavily on mid-20th century styling cues, promises to be “an updated iteration of one of the first true off-road machines,” Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Chief Operating Officer Jim Press tells Ward’s. (See related story: Press: Toyota’s FJ Cruiser Not Bare Bones SUV )

Chrysler Group’s Dodge truck boys look to trump Toyota with a “Mega Cab” version of the Ram pickup. Dodge also will unveil a concept vehicle.

Chrysler will host a test track in McCormick’s confines, at which interested parties can climb hills in a Jeep Wrangler; tow lumber in a Dodge Ram; and maneuver through a slalom course in a Chrysler 300C – chauffeured by professional drivers.(See related story: Chrysler to Offer Indoor Test Drives at Chicago Show)

Kia Motors Corp. will introduce the ’06 Sedona minivan sized to compete with the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. The vehicle will come in long- and short-wheelbase versions and feature a folding second row of seats. (See related story: Kia Debuts Rio, Large SUV Concept)

The ’06 Mercury Mountaineer SUV debuts in Chicago, boasting a revised interior; improvements under the hood, including a beefier V-8 and 6-speed transmission; and the second-generation of Mercury’s new-century design, which debuted on the ’02 Mountaineer.

Mountaineer sales fell off dramatically in January, plummeting 22% vs. like-2004. The mid-model update debuts alongside a freshened Explorer on the same platform, which Ford is saving for the New York Auto Show in late March. (See related story: Ford Explorer to Find More Horses in ’06)

Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. joins the truck fray with the only known cross/utility vehicle for the show, the Portico concept. The vehicle features a pillar-less door configuration and three rows of seating.

In addition to giving a glimpse of Hyundai’s hopes for future product configurations, the vehicle also reveals a new design direction for the Korean auto maker.

jstoll@primediabusiness.com