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Lightweight, High-Tech Vehicles Hit Detroit

Image: Toyota area at North American International Auto Show in Detroit

The Toyota logo and race cars are under wraps inside Cobo Center, home of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 9, 2014. The show is expected to draw about 5,000 journalists and 800,000 visitors. Carlos Osorio / AP

From pint-sized minicars to a new lightweight aluminum pickup truck, this month’s North American International Auto Show promises not only to usher in a new year but also to give a sense of the dramatic changes that will sweep through the industry for years to come.

The annual event, more commonly known as the Detroit Auto Show, is expected to include as many as 50 all-new cars, trucks, crossovers and concept vehicles, according to Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which sponsors the yearly event. Plus, several dozen vehicles first seen at last autumn’s Frankfurt, Tokyo and Los Angeles auto shows will make their first appearances in Motown.

Though the riverfront convention center is just a few blocks from the towering General Motors headquarters in the Renaissance Center, the NAIAS has long maintained a Swiss-like neutrality. Over nearly a quarter century it has brought some major news from European and Japanese manufacturers – including the launches of two key Japanese luxury brands: Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti. And this year is going to continue that trend.

Some of the most significant Asian previews will put an emphasis on performance. That includes the all-new, V-8-powered Lexus RC-F, the next-generation Subaru WRX STi “pocket rocket,” the “racing-inspired” Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge Concept and Kia’s GT4 Stinger.

Europeans will weigh in with plenty of power: BMW is offering two new high-performance cars in the form of the 2015 M3 and M4 models, while Bentley will have a maxed-out version of its GT luxury sports coupe.

Not to be outdone, General Motors’ Chevrolet will reveal the new Corvette Z06, an even more powerful – at an estimated 600 hp – version of the Stingray that was the star of the 2013 NAIAS.While such muscle machines might seem counter-intuitive in today’s environment – especially as huge increases in federally mandated mileage laws take effect in 2016 and again in 2025 – American motorists are demanding more performance than ever. But these are by no means the fuel-swilling muscle cars of the ‘60s. The Corvette Stingray, for example, can get up to 30 mpg. And Audi is expected to reveal a battery-based show car that could approach triple-digit mileage while also launching from 0 to 60 at sports car speeds.

Image: General Motors display at North American International Auto Show
The General Motors display area is seen as preparations are under way for next week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Carlos Osorio / AP

Indeed, today’s automakers are expected to balance the best of all worlds – meaning high mileage, low emissions and great performance. And perhaps nothing planned for the 2014 Detroit Auto Show will be more symbolic of what it takes to get there than the next-generation Ford F-Series, set to be the first vehicle introduced Jan 13.

Full-size pickups were the turnaround story of 2013 and should remain hot-sellers as the economy recovers. But Ford hopes to take environmental concerns out of the equation by switching from heavy steel to lightweight aluminum, shaving somewhere north of 500 pounds of mass in the process – which could yield as much as a 5 mile per gallon increase in mileage.

General Motors, meanwhile, will take another approach by downsizing the GMC Canyon pickup for those who don’t need to be driving a tank-sized truck.

With fuel prices down sharply from last spring and expected to be relatively stable for the next several years, the small car market has lost some momentum, but it won’t be forgotten at the Detroit show. Honda will weigh in with its next-gen Fit subcompact, though the new model will be larger, roomier, more powerful – and yet more fuel-efficient, it promises.

Mini will show Detroit the replacement for its hardtop model, along with a new John Cooper Works edition that will be the most powerful model the British maker has ever offered.

Beyond all the new sheet metal, “gearheads” will be able to check out some dramatic new drivetrain technologies, from direct-injection gas engines to the latest hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles. Ford will even display a new solar-charging version of its C-Max plug-in hybrid – though that model made its formal debut at the Consumer Electronics Show a week earlier in Las Vegas.

Even conventional gas engines are undergoing huge changes. Consider that the miniscule 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant in the Kia GT4 Stinger will produce as much power as a big V-8 might have managed not that many years ago.

High-tech electronics will also be in the spotlight. Automakers will not just enhance their infotainment systems but expand the number of smartphone-linked apps they can handle. The latest safety gear in vehicles like the new Mercedes S600 will fall just a step short of fully autonomous driving. Even headlights are going high-tech thanks to new LED and even laser bulb technologies.

No wonder auto show organizers are expecting record attendance as the U.S. new car market continues its rapid recovery after the industry’s worst downturn since the Great Depression.

More from The Detroit Bureau:

10 Debuts to Watch at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show