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5 things car fans learned at the Detroit Auto Show

By Dee-Ann Durbin and Tom Krisher
Associated Press

DETROIT A race-worthy Corvette, a sumptuous Mercedes C-Class and other glitzy new models caught the eye at this year’s North American International Auto Show, but larger trends in the auto industry were also on display.

Here are five things we learned at the auto show’s media days last week.

1 Glimpse of the future

Several automakers showed concepts, which are experimental cars that test design ideas and new technology.

Toyota’s FT-1, a sinewy sport car, reflects the company’s desire to shed its stodgy reputation and build cars that make your heart pound. The clean, white Volvo XC coupe, made of high-strength steel, shows that Scandinavian safety can be sexy.

Some concepts are just trial balloons. Honda’s space age FCEV barely looks drivable; it’s just testing the design limits for Honda’s new fuel cell cars. Others, such as Kia’s radical GT4 Stinger sports car – which would take the Korean carmaker in a whole new direction – may be headed to showrooms.

2 Let’s make a deal

Automakers and analysts expect total U.S. sales between 16 million and 16.5 million this year. That’s a return to pre-recession levels and a natural place for sales to be, based on population and other factors. But there’s a catch: The easy sales have already been made.

Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American CEO, says the big sales gains – at least 1 million a year for four straight years – were driven by pent-up demand from people who held on to their cars through the recession and needed new ones. But that demand is drying up; many are forecasting industry sales gains of 500,000 or less this year.

Automakers could offer better lease deals and other incentives to get their share of sales.

3 Everyone’s an engineer

“Alloy” is now a buzz word. Ford’s new F-150 pickup truck had everyone talking about materials. Toyota pointed out the aluminum hood of the hybrid Prius. Honda said it uses magnesium for steering beams. The electric BMW i3 is made of carbon fiber. Volvo promises high-strength boron steel.

In the future, expect even more discussion about materials, their properties, their cost and their benefits or drawbacks. The carbon fiber used on the hood of the Corvette Stingray, for example, is half the weight of aluminum, says chief engineer Tadge Juechter. But carbon fiber also has drawbacks. It’s pricey and takes longer to form into parts – hardly ideal for high-production models. And steel still has its place. Beneath the aluminum, the F-150’s frame is made of high-strength steel.

4 Bigger is better

Using new materials does more than just shed weight. It also debunks the widely held theory that cars and trucks will have to get smaller, or use batteries or other alternative power, in order to meet strict federal gas mileage requirements.

That’s good news for the industry. Vehicles have quietly been getting bigger for the past few years. The Audi A4, for example, has gained 6 inches in the past decade, and its little sibling, the A3, has stretched to take its place. The A3 sedan is nearly the same size as the A4 was in 2004.

At the same time, U.S. consumers are also choosing bigger vehicles. Car sales grew at less than half the pace of SUVs and crossovers last year, according to Autodata Corp.

5 Zoom, zoom

Those fuel economy mandates once appeared to signal the death of sporty cars. But of the 50-plus new models being introduced in Detroit, more than a dozen are performance cars.

Chevrolet unveiled two race-worthy versions of the Corvette, each with a staggering 625 horsepower V8, while Volkswagen pulled the cover off the 290-horsepower Golf R compact. Subaru unveiled a high-speed version of the already powerful WRX small car. Lexus showed its 450-horsepower RC F.

Kia omitted the radio from its 315-horsepower GT4 Stinger because it thinks drivers will prefer the sound of the engine.

AP writers Jeff Karoub and David Runk contributed.

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