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Detroit Auto Show sets the stage for a big 2014

Sunday, 12 Jan 2014 | 9:00 AM ET

From pint-size minis to a lightweight aluminum pickup, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), kicking off Monday, promises not only to usher in a new year but to give a sense of some of the dramatic changes that will sweep through the auto industry for years to come.

More commonly known as the Detroit Auto Show, the annual event is significant enough to bring an estimated 5,000-plus journalists from around the world to the Motor City, along with most of the industry's top executives. After the press-only days, about 750,000 members of the public will visit the newly upgraded Cobo Center to check out the wares from dozens of domestic and foreign carmakers.

The Ford C-MAX Energi Concept, shown at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Ford C-MAX Energi Concept, shown at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

That lineup is expected to include as many as 50 new cars, trucks, crossovers and concept vehicles, and a number of vehicles seen at last fall's shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo and Los Angeles, according to Rod Alberts, the executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which sponsors the event.

(Read more: Ford exec backpedals after saying it tracks drivers)

Though the convention center is just a few blocks from the towering General Motors headquarters, the NAIAS has long maintained a Swiss-like neutrality.

In fact, over nearly 25 years, it has brought some major news from European and Japanese carmakers. Those include the launches of two key Japanese luxury brands: Toyota's Lexus and Nissan's Infiniti. That trend is continuing this year.

Some of the most significant previews from Asia emphasize performance. That includes the new V-8-powered Lexus RC F, the next-generation Subaru WRX STI, the "racing-inspired" Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge Concept and Kia's GT4 Stinger.

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

Not to be outdone, GM's Chevrolet is unveiling the Corvette Z06, which, at an estimated 600 horsepower, is an even more powerful version of the Stingray that was the star of last year's show.

Nissan's autonomous push
CNBC's Phil LeBeau reports that Nissan plans to sell a self-driven car by 2020, while IHS Automotive estimates that self-drivers will account for less than 1 percent of the global car market by 2025.

Though such muscle machines might seem counterintuitive today (and with sharp increases in federally mandated mileage laws taking effect in 2016 and 2025), American motorists are demanding more performance. But these are by no means the fuel guzzlers of the 1960s.

The Stingray, for example, can get up to 30 mpg. Audi is expected to reveal a battery-based show car that could approach triple-digit mileage while launching from zero to 60 at sports car speeds.

Indeed, today's automakers are expected to combine the best of all worlds—high mileage, low emissions and great performance. And perhaps nothing in the 2014 Detroit Auto Show will be more symbolic of what it takes to get there than the next-generation Ford F-Series truck, set to be the first vehicle introduced, on Monday morning.

Full-size pickups were the turnaround story of 2013 and should remain big 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 five mile per gallon increase in mileage.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Ford 'aluminum-intensive' F-150 pickup a likely auto show star)

GM is taking another approach, meanwhile, downsizing the GMC Canyon pickup for those who don't need 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 representative is its next-generation Fit subcompact, though the new model is larger roomier, more powerful and—it promises—more fuel efficient.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: 2015 Honda Fit—Small is big at the Detroit Auto Show)

Mini is showing Detroit the replacement for its hardtop model, along with a new John Cooper Works edition that is the most powerful model ever offered by the British maker.

Gearheads also can check out some dramatic new drivetrain technologies—from direct-injection gas engines to the latest hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles. Ford is even showing off a solar-charging version of its C-Max plug-in hybrid, though that model made its formal debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Even conventional gas engines are undergoing huge changes. Consider that the minuscule 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder power plant in the Kia GT4 Stinger produces as much juice as a V-8 might have managed not too many years ago.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: 2015 Mercedes C-Class—The "Baby Benz" is all grown up)

As they were at CES in Las Vegas, high-tech electronics will be in the spotlight in Detroit.

Automakers have enhanced their infotainment systems and increased how many smartphone-linked apps they can handle. The latest safety gear in vehicles such as the new Mercedes-Benz S600 fall just of fully autonomous driving. Even headlights are going high tech, thanks to new LED and laser-bulb technologies.

Auto show organizers expect record attendance, as the country's new-car market continues to recover after the industry's worst downturn since the Great Depression.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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