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Muscling up at the Detroit Auto Show

We have seen the future at the Detroit Auto Show, and it is muscle cars.

Judging by the number of beefy vehicles on display at the 2014 North American International Auto Show (as it's formally known), the world's automakers are betting that buyers have grown tired of stodgy and want something sexier when they get behind the wheel.

"Everybody is trying to come up with a halo car for their brand," said Dave Sullivan, senior analyst with AutoPacific, referring to a vehicle that draws buyers to showrooms.

The Chevrolet 2014 Corvette Stingray, named the North American Car of the Year, at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
The Chevrolet 2014 Corvette Stingray, named the North American Car of the Year, at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show

It could be a win-win for automakers that, despite the sluggish economy, are coming off an explosive sales year (thanks to truck demand). Muscle cars tend to be more expensive, but they give a brand cachet that helps it sell other vehicles.

It wasn't like this last year.

When the doors opened at Detroit's Cobo Center for the 2013 show, visitors were greeted by an array of new hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric vehicles. They even got a chance to drive some of the latest green machines on a special course in the basement of the sprawling convention center.

(Read more: GM's new CEO draws a big following)

While a number of green machines are on display as the 2014 auto show gets set to open to the public, the spotlight is shining in a different direction. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Toyota stand.

Only last November, the Japanese giant detailed plans to put a hydrogen car into production by 2015. But while a prototype is on display, Toyota's big news for Detroit is the FT-1 sports car concept, outfitted with a classic high-performance internal combustion engine rather than one of the company's many hybrid drivetrains.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Kia builds buzz with Stinger concept car)

Toyota is by no means the exception. Muscle cars were in abundance during a two-day media preview earlier this week, with barely a word spoken about alternative-fuel technology.

But for those who might fret about a return to the industry's gas-guzzling ways, automakers took pains to point out that their newest performance cars are more fuel-efficient than past models. The 450 horsepower Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, for example, gets up to 30 mpg.

Chevy is back with the unveiling of an even more potent version of the 'Vette, the new, 625-horsepower Z06. Across the Cobo floor, Ford will give the public its first look at the all-new, 50th anniversary Mustang.

Kevin Hunter, Toyota's U.S. design chief, told reporters that its show car—whose name is an abbreviation of "Future Toyota"—is "emblematic" of its planned direction, spurred by CEO Akio Toyoda, a serious performance fan and occasional race car driver.

(Read more: The coolest cars at the Detroit Auto Show)

Then there's Nissan. Perhaps no industry leader is more passionate about battery power than its CEO, Carlos Ghosn. But Japan's second-largest carmaker has delayed "until late in the decade" its plans to produce a high-end version of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle for its Infiniti division, said Johan de Nysschen, a former Audi executive who took the helm at Infiniti in late 2012.

In Detroit, the upscale unit focused on the Q50 Eau Rouge, a high-performance version of the midsize luxury sedan it launched for 2014.

"The question [is] whether you can be a serious global luxury brand without a performance division," de Nysschen said. He quickly offered a one-word answer, "No."

Indeed, a quick check of the offerings at other prestige stands would support that view.

BMW is using the show to unveil its new M3 and M4 high-performance models. Mercedes-Benz is launching a new 12-cylinder version of the big S-Class sedan and a new, high-powered S-Class Coupe.

Lexus, the Toyota subsidiary that in past years rolled out a number of hybrids in Detroit, is introducing the RC F, a 450-horsepower screamer meant to compete with the new BMW M4.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Volvo concept XC Coupe, Ford Mustang win design awards)

Industry analysts warn that, by their very definition, halo cars tend to be low-volume. But there's significant demand for some models. The U.S. accounts for nearly half of the sales of Mercedes' ultrapowerful AMG models, with Southern California alone generating nearly a quarter of worldwide demand, according to U.S. CEO Steve Cannon.

Sales in the so-called premium sports segment are expected to roughly double between 2011 (when recession-racked demand bottomed) and 2016, to about 62,000, according to an AutoPacific forecast.

Among more mainstream models, the consulting firm expects the new Mustang to drive a 20 percent boost in demand, to 91,000, in 2016. Even little Subaru has big expectations for the all-new WRX STi "hot hatch" that it is showing off in Detroit.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: A complete Detroit Auto Show roundup)

By cutting out mass, improving aerodynamics and using new technologies, most all these models are getting markedly better mileage than they were before.

The Corvette Stingray's engine, for example, uses direct injection and can even shut off half of its cylinders when power demand is light. Most new Porsches have a Stop/Start function: The engine shuts off instead of idling, firing up automatically when the driver's foot lifts off the brake. And new double-clutch and 8- and 9-speed automatic gearboxes further boost efficiency.

So while the revival of the muscle car may frustrate environmentalists, regulators and insurance actuaries, fans are pleased to be getting what is for them the best of all worlds.

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

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