Beyond the usual hype at the Detroit auto show, automakers have plenty to crow about this year: U.S. sales are the highest since 2008 and they're expected to keep growing. Buyers are being lured by cheap loans and an improving economy.
The timing is perfect for automakers to unveil more than 40 new cars and trucks this month at the industry's annual trade show in Detroit. While there will be a few wild concept cars, like a tiny pickup from Smart, there will also be many models that will go on sale this year.
Carmakers, feeling buoyant about their prospects for 2012, will try to outdo each other with lights, music and models to generate buzz among the show's 750,000 expected visitors.
Here are three trends to look for when the show opens to the public on Jan. 14: Fuel-efficient cars with more style and safety features; trendy subcompacts for younger buyers; and small luxury sedans.
— Smaller but stylish: Gas prices have dropped from their $4 peak last spring but remain high. People looking for a more efficient car will have plenty of choices among midsize sedans and compacts.
Being efficient doesn't mean these cars will be stripped down. They'll be loaded with gadgets to win customers in these fiercely competitive car segments. Midsize and compact are nearly tied as the largest segment in the U.S, and combined they make up more than 40 percent of the nation's sales.
Ford unveils a redone version of its top-selling Fusion midsize sedan. The new model, which goes on sale this fall, will feature a sharper, more chiseled design and a warning system to alert drivers when they drift into another lane. It's the first time such a system has been on a non-luxury car, Ford says. The price and fuel economy of the Fusion aren't finalized, but expect them to be competitive.
Honda, normally a top-seller of midsize cars, will unveil a new Accord coupe, a model that will foreshadow the looks of its new sedan due in showrooms later this year.
Both cars will compete with Chevrolet's new Malibu sedan, which goes on sale this spring. With better fuel economy, improved styling and new features, the three cars hope to steal sales from Toyota's Camry, the perennial leader among midsize sedans.
The show will also feature smaller cars, including the Dodge Dart, which is the first car jointly designed by Chrysler and its Italian owner, Fiat SpA. The Dart's name is borrowed from a hot-selling compact introduced in 1960. It's Chrysler's latest effort to launch a strong competitor in small cars, a segment where it normally falls short. The Dart will heat up an already competitive market that includes the new Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic.
Volkswagen will also debut a hybrid version of the Jetta, hoping to keep its sales momentum going. Last year, sales of the Jetta jumped after it was redesigned.
— Downsized Luxury: Luxury car sales grew just 2.8 percent compared with 10-percent growth for the industry as a whole, according to Autodata Corp. But an improving economy and a slew of new cars could turn that around, especially since many of those new models are less expensive, small sedans.
Cadillac, BMW and Acura all plan to unveil new small cars. Hyundai — a company that targets more budget-minded customers — will launch a new Genesis Coupe, aiming for luxury buyers who want to spend less.
Ford's Lincoln brand, which is being overhauled, will give a big hint about its new direction with a concept version of the MKZ midsize car. The new MKZ will go on sale later this year. But the most striking luxury model may be at the Lexus stand, which will display the swooping LF-LC hybrid sports car concept that was crafted in Toyota's California design studio.
— Mad for Millennials: Millennials — the 70 million people born between 1981 and 2000 — are a growing force in the market. But they'd just as soon buy a smart phone and text their friends as purchase a car to go visit them. Like buyers from the past, Millennials will start out with small, more affordable cars. But unlike earlier generations, they expect luxury and connectivity, automakers say.
To appeal to this group, this year's show will feature subcompacts with perks like leather seats, ambient lighting, and easy connections to cell phone applications like Pandora.
Subcompacts unveiled at the show will include Toyota's new Prius C hybrid, the Mini Roadster convertible, the sporty Chevrolet Sonic RS and a turbocharged version of the new Hyundai Veloster.
Smart will debut the For-Us concept, an electric pickup truck that is so tiny it could fit in the bed of a regular truck. And Chevrolet will show off two concept cars aimed at Millennials. No details on those yet, but they're expected to have high gas mileage and enough room to haul friends around.