A new Volt, new trucks, new optimism in Detroit

Chevy Volt.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Chevy Volt.

Not since the late 90's has the North American International Auto Show buzzed with the kind of optimism industry leaders are showing in Detroit this weekend.

"The celebratory spirit of America's great auto shows returned to Motor City this year," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com.

For auto industry executives, these are heady times thanks to surging sales, rising profits, and a feeling the auto industry is in the midst a technological transformation that will continue to fuel sales for years to come.

Sunday night, General Motors unveiled its first convertible in 25 years, the Cascada, and concept sedan, the Avenir.

After growing Buick sales 11 percent in the U.S. last year, GM is trying to capitalize on the brand's momentum.

"There are a lot of people who don't remember what Buick was about when the brand struggled and they like what they seeing right now," said Mark Reuss, GM's global product development chief.

Read MoreGM's Barra looks forward after 'troubling' year

Meanwhile, GM hopes the new Volt will give a long overdue boost to the company's struggling efforts to take the lead with electric vehicles.

"The first-generation Volt couldn't establish wide-spread support because of its short electric range, limited passenger capacity, less-than-stunning exterior shape and high price," said Brauer. "The new Volt will address all of these issues, giving it a real chance at "Prius-like" success for Chevrolet."

After unveiling the Volt, GM CEO Mary Barra is expected to show the automaker's vision of where electric cars three to four years down the line with Chevy Bolt.

The Bolt's calling card: a projected range of up to 200 miles all electric at a price point of close to $30,000.

For Barra and GM the Bolt is an important reveal because it's setting a target in the future that could revolutionize the domestic auto industry.

After the horrendous year GM went through in 2014, the Bolt is chance for Barra to remind people inside and outside the company that GM still has ambitious goals.

The ambitions for Toyota and Nissan are to finally make a substantial dent in the dominance of the Big 3 in pickup trucks.

Toyota is showing a re-designed Tacoma in a mid-size pickup market that has become more competitive thanks to the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.

Meanwhile, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn will introduce an all-new Titan pickup truck as the Japanese automaker tries to become a true player in the full-size pickup market that has seen new models from the Big 3 all make their mark.

As much as this auto show has different feel, it's different than it was during boom years in the late 90's and early 2000's. Back then, profitability was hit and miss.

There would be some years where earnings in North America would be surging and others where strong sales did not lead to big profits because of overcapacity and a bloated cost structure.

These days, thanks to the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, the cost structures for the industry have been lowered. That's given automakers an extended run of profitable quarters.

But the memory of the painful bankruptcies is a reminder to the auto industry that this period of prosperity is different than the late 90's.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.