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Sketch of Kia Track'ster concept.

This week's Chicago auto show saw a bevy of new small car unveilings, most notably the Hyundai Elantra coupe and hatchback, as well as the Kia Track'ster two-door mini-ute concept, diesel Beetle and Mopar-accessorized Dodge Dart and Fiat 500 models.

The Elantra hatchback will replace the 2012 Elantra Touring wagon, which is still based on the previous-generation body style, and not the more modern "fluidically sculpted" Elantra that battled the Honda Civic for the best-selling car in Canada title for much of 2011. The new Elantra hatchback is a hot-looking compact car, based closely on the i30 hatchback sold already in Europe and elsewhere.

The Elantra Hatchback will provide Hyundai once more with a new body style that the Civic doesn't offer, but is popular in key rivals such as the Mazda3 and Ford Focus, and even Toyota with its Matrix version of the Corolla.

The sexier two-door Elantra coupe will also help Hyundai's pursuit of this title, as the Civic is one of the few players in this market that offers a compact coupe. It speaks to Hyundai's confidence in its products and styling acumen that Hyundai would launch this coupe even as its three-door Veloster Turbo and refreshed rear-wheel-drive Genesis Coupe are coming to market.

Kia's Track'ster concept may have two-doors, but this lowered and slammed two-door version of the Soul is no coupe. Created in Kia's California design studio, the boxy concept is designed to showcase what a sporting version of the subcompact Soul crossover could look like.

Featuring about 250 hp, Kia says there are no plans to put it into production. But it does acknowledge that it is looking at various production derivatives of the California-designed Soul, including a convertible version based on the Soul'ster concept, which is under "final assessment for production."

The diesel Volkswagen Beetle will not look much if any different from its gasoline counterpart, but should provide notably lower fuel bills, with European mileage figures reported at 8.1 litres/100 km city and 6.0 highway. It's slated to go on sale in the summer, with the same 2.0-litre, 140-hp TDI engine as in the Jetta and Golf.

As for Chrysler, with Mopar celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, expect to see many Chrysler and Fiat vehicles given special Mopar treatments this year. Even newly unveiled ones such as the Dodge Dart, which doesn't go on sale until closer to mid-year, showcased a special edition 'GTS 210 Tribute' edition using a sampling of the 150 accessories Mopar will offer for it, including a performance kit that increases its power from a stock 184 hp to the 210 reflected in its name.

A bright-yellow Fiat 500 'Stinger' edition with black accents inside and out was also shown. An unspecified but certainly more modest power bump-up was available from this kit's cold-air intake and performance exhaust, leaving the upcoming Fiat 500 Abarth's 160-hp turbocharged engine as the unchallenged top performer in the family.

Fisker hit by cash crunch

Fisker has reportedly cut back its U.S. production and engineering operations due to a cash crunch, laying off 66 employees and contractors, while renegotiating a half-billion-dollar loan from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The $529-million (U.S.) loan was to support production of the plug-in Fisker Karma sedan, a shapely full-size extended range sedan that sells for about $100,000, as well as the more affordable mid-size Nina sedan that's to be built in the U.S. This comes less than a week after Fisker announced the Karma was officially on sale in Canada, with retail locations either up or going up soon in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

The company has received $193-million of the total loan, but the rest of the funds were contingent on Fisker meeting various sales and production milestones on the Karma, which it hasn't, thanks in part to various delays and an early safety recall, the Associated Press reported this week. The negotiations on new terms have begun, and are close to a resolution, says the company. But the majority of those DOE funds were directed to go to the Nina, which is to be built in Wilmington, Del., while the Karma is built in Finland.

The company said in its statement that it planned to increase its presence in Canada once Karma production had ramped up, but an e-mail request for more information on when the first cars would arrive and Canadian prices went unanswered.

AJAC and World Car of the Year release finalist shortlists

The finalists for the AJAC and World Car and Truck of the Year awards were announced recently, with the Hyundai-Kia group figuring prominently in both.

The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada announced that the Hyundai Accent and Elantra were up for the 2012 Car of the Year award, as was sister company Kia's Optima. The Koreans did not place in AJAC's Utility Vehicle of The Year finalists, however, where the winner will be either the BMW X3, Dodge Journey or Volkswagen Touareg TDI diesel.

The group's Best New Design award is also down to three finalists: the Hyundai Veloster, Jaguar XKR-S and Range Rover Evoque.

All of these winners will be announced next Thursday at the media preview of the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto, which opens to the public on Friday.

With another couple months before World Car of The Year winners are announced at the New York International auto show in April, the WCOTY group will release its top threes for WCOTY and World Performance Car of the Year at the Geneva Motor show in March.

The contenders for 2012 World Car of The Year, which includes trucks and utilities, are: the Audi A6 Sedan/Avant, Audi Q3, BMW 1-Series, BMW 3-Series, Chevrolet Volt/Opel/Vauxhall Ampera, Citroen DS5, Ford Focus, Land Rover Evoque, Porsche 911 and Volkswagen Up!

The finalists for World Performance Car of The Year are: the Audi RS 3 Sportback, BMW 1-Series M Coupe, BMW M5, Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Ferrari FF, Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4, McLaren MP4-12C, Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG, Mercedes-Benz C-63 Coupe AMG Black Series and Porsche 911.

As a member and voter in both groups, it's interesting that the selection process is much more extensive and scientific for AJAC, but there seems to be much more corporate interest in the newer World Car awards by senior auto executives used to dealing with global decisions. AJAC members do several days of back-to-back testing of models during each year's TestFest, compared to an e-mail balloting process of international journalists who judge each vehicle based on their own separate test drives throughout the year.

There are plans afoot by WCOTY organizers, some of whom also help run TestFest, to try to assemble an international TestFest-like event. But the formula for gathering 66 globe-hopping auto writers as well as a greater number of geographically diverse vehicles in one spot has proved elusive.

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