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Opening weekend breaks record at Detroit Auto Show

7:56 AM, Jan 20, 2014   |    comments
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DETROIT - The Detroit Auto Show drew more than 106,000 people on opening weekend for the public, beating 2013's attendance.

Five big trends driving the Detroit auto show

The last car has emerged through a haze of fake fog. The blaring techno-music has finally stopped. And no more auto executives are parading across stages tossing out cliches about how their new models look like they're racing while standing still.

What did we learn from his week's press preview for North American International Auto Show in Detroit, now opening to the public? A few fascinating trends emerged that point to the future of an auto industry that's in the midst of huge changes.

Once again, the show revealed more fuel efficiency and more technology, but that's not all. Here are five takeaways from the big show in Detroit:

1. Don't count out the good ol' gasoline engine. Despite endless talk about electric cars and hybrids, this show was dominated by introductions of cars with the same piston-powered motors that have moved cars for a century.

They're not going away. They're only getting better.

With turbo charging and direct injection and increasingly sophisticated computer engine management, automakers are getting previously unattainable levels of power and fuel efficiency at the same time. Subaru, for instance, coaxes 305 horsepower from its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine for the new cult performance hit WRX STI. Even the more grown-up Cadillac ATS Coupe introduced at the show, a version of the new Caddy entry sedan, boasts nearly 10% more torque from its turbocharged 2.0-liter four, for a V-6-like total of 295.

2. Gas mileage rules. Government fuel-economy mandates are bearing down on automakers, forcing tough, costly choices to get more mileage. They have pretty much worked through the easy approaches, such as putting smaller engines into bigger cars.

Ford's decision to switch to all-aluminum bodies for its best-selling vehicle, the F-150, reflects a costly gamble. The switch from steel has taken up to 700 pounds out of the vehicle, making fuel-economy numbers sure to go up. But the trucks cost more to make and more to repair if damaged. It's yet to be seen whether truck buyers will see that as worth it.

Meanwhile, Honda's Acura and Chrysler have gone with industry-leading nine-speed automatic transmissions for their latest entries. There will be one in the new Acura TLX and in the Chrysler 200 sedans, both unveiled here. The transmission goes into the Chrysler after its industry-first debut in the new Jeep Cherokee, which just went on sale. More gears are better able to keep engines operating at their most efficient, but also add cost and complexity to the transmission.

Automakers also continue to experiment with new materials and thinner designs to get more interior room in smaller, lighter vehicles that use less fuel.

3. Luxury can be affordable. A generation ago, luxury cars were reserved for the fortunate elite. But today, premium brands are offering more products priced to pull in the upper reaches of the mass market.

Audi shook up the Detroit show this year with its Q3, the fun, little crossover companion to the new A3 small sedan priced on Thursday at slightly less than $30,000. Both are aimed at successful thirtysomething dot-commers whose stock option gains are burning a hole in the pockets of their torn Levis. Likewise, BMW showed a new 2 Series entry-level coupe. Both are chasing the kind of runaway success of Mercedes-Benz's new $29,995 CLA sedan.

Although it will appeal to older, more well-heeled buyers, the new edition of the Hyundai Genesis shown here, is still priced thousands less than snobbier Euro-competition. The original Genesis pushed aside the naysayers who didn't think that a value-oriented mass brand could sell a credible luxury car. Now, the redesigned Genesis aims to do it again.

4. Will some models be sleepers? The models that most excite the media crowd often are unexceptional, while the introductions that generate little hoopla go on to transform the industry.

Before the aluminum F-150 literally crashed through barriers on the Ford stage to become the talk of the show, the brand showed a new full-size Transit that could shake up the commercial van market even if the crowd yawned. Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields announced that the much roomier and more efficient Transit eventually will replace the ubiquitous E-Series commercial van (whose roots go back to the old Econoline).

Nissan's Sport Sedan Concept also got less note than many of the intros, but it's one of its most attractive designs in years and is a hint of a new Maxima. If that happens, it would join the full-size car class design revolution that has given the segment new life. It would join the new Chevrolet Impala, Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera in being some of the most attractive cars on the road now.

5. What's up with the Smurf cars? For years now, auto shows have bedeviled photographers by showing new models in colors that designers lover, but which make blah images - white, medium gray or silver. But this year, bright blue seemed to be the new gray - the "in" show color. The Porsche Targa, Lexus RC F, BMW M3, VW Passat high-efficiency model, Chrysler 200 and half the Audi stand featured cars in Smurf-like blue.

Certainly, it's time for the industry to move on with some new colors. But blue seemed a choice from left field. Lately, blue has been reserved for hybrids, electrics and other cars that call themselves "green." Now, it seems to have gone mainstream, though the industry has a long way to go to ever rival the color riot that took hold in the late 1950s and 1960s.

10 cool road trip cars at Detroit Auto Show

What are the coolest road-trip vehicles on display on the manufacturers' stands at the North American International Auto Show this year? Step aside, flashy Corvettes and mega pick-up trucks. Here are the favorites of Detroit Free Press Travel Writer Ellen Creager:

• Kia K900 V8. Cool "VIP Rear Seat Package" features power reclining seats for backseat passengers that tilt so far back you can doze for miles. This rear-wheel drive car oozes comfort for solidly built adults headed cross-country ($60,000; on sale in spring.)

• Fiat 500L Thalassa. Like a Creamsicle on wheels. Nobody will fail to see you in this tricked-out Chrysler Mopar customized Fiat. With its white roof, orange body and teak floor mats, it's a playful car for sports travelers. ($50,000 customized.)

• Range Rover Autobiography Black Edition. I can dream, can't I? Long wheelbase Rover features footrests, bottle chiller and a panoramic roof. It also has 2 flip-down desks for business travelers being whisked across the state when the jet is on the fritz. ($99,500.)

• MX-5 Miata. One of the greatest inexpensive sports cars ever made. It makes solo travel on paved country roads more fun than should be legal. Just don't bring a lot of luggage; its trunk is only big enough for a couple of packed duffel bags. ($29,500.)

• Ford Flex Limited. I have a soft spot for this boxy family SUV; the one I saw had an impractical but luscious white interior and a ruby red exterior. Multipanel vista roof, 12-speaker Sony radio, optional V6 Ecoboost engine. Who's up for a trip west? ($50,000.)

• Honda Odyssey Touring Elite. Yep, this is the one with the built-in vacuum cleaner. This briskly practical, slightly ordinary passenger van has plenty of seating flexibility and entertainment options to make sure the kids don't kill each other on long trips. ($44,000.)

• Subaru Forester 2.0 XT Touring. The Forester got a jazzy styling makeover for this year, but this sturdy all-wheel drive vehicle still appeals to solid outdoorsy types headed to muddy valleys and distant snowy peaks -- or those who wish they were. ($32,995.)

• Buick LaCrosse. Very fine car for long road trips, with cocoon-like refined interior. Its new "driver confidence package" includes lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and other safety features; I also like the available power rear sunshades, zzzz. ($38,000.)

• Ford Focus Titanium Hatchback. Peppy, comfortable and so sturdy on the freeway. It's a trustworthy trip companion, with 37 miles per gallon highway. Hatchback opening helps when packing the fairly wimpy sized trunk ($24,400.)

• 1965 Ford Mustang. Mint-condition convertible -- the serial No. 1 Mustang -- on loan from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, is just be part of Ford's Mustang exhibit. But its clean lines promise a wind-in-your-hair road trip transporting you all the way back to the '60s. (Priceless.)

Full disclosure: Creager's daughter works for Toyota North America, her brother-in-law works at GM, her nephew works at Ford and her stepmom is a GM retiree, Creager once worked for Chrysler and owns a 2000 Miata and a 2008 Saturn. Her husband owns a Nissan.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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