Detroit auto show offers glimpse of future without the sedan. You want a utility vehicle or sports car?

  • The North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week will mostly feature a lineup heavy on trucks and SUVs with a few high-profile debuts of sports cars.
  • Industry watchers say the nature of the auto show is changing, as are automakers.
The Ford exhibit is shown at the 2018 North American International Auto Show January 16, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 5,100 journalists from 61 countries attend the NAIAS each year.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images
The Ford exhibit is shown at the 2018 North American International Auto Show January 16, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 5,100 journalists from 61 countries attend the NAIAS each year.

The lineup at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week offers a glimpse of what new car lots are going to be stocked with in the future: Crammed with trucks, SUVs and high performance sports cars.

A quick scan of the expected debuts shows just how important trucks and SUVs have become to buyers. Ford will display the latest update on its top-selling Ford Explorer midsize SUV, which has been refreshed for the first time since 2011. Cadillac will debut its three-row XT6 SUV, and Ram Trucks will beef up its already lauded full-size pickup lineup with a heavy duty 2500 series truck.

It reflects the change in consumer appetites toward high-riding utility vehicles that has left traditional family sedans sitting unwanted on dealer lots.

But there are still some things sedans, coupes and roadsters can do better than their beefy SUV and truck counterparts, and that shows in the investments automakers are still willing to make in them. They are lighter, lower to the ground, and much more agile: perfect for driving very fast and taking tight turns.

Toyota is expected to delight its fans with the return of the two-seater Supra, after a 20-year hiatus. The Supra is widely considered one of the classic Japanese tuner cars, which was originally in production from 1978-2002. The new car borrows engines and some architecture from German automaker BMW.

Ford will unveil a high-performance version of its Mustang sports car, the Shelby GT500. The car is expected to be a track-ready car that will to some extent likely compete with the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. While Ford said in early 2018 that it plans to largely stop selling traditional passenger cars, it intends to keep the legendary Mustang.

Lexus will also debut the RC F and RC F Track Edition, both high performance sedans. Lexus is especially positioning the limited run track edition as a luxury sedan that includes upgrades typically found on high-end sports cars.

"What I have been saying for awhile is cars are always going to have an advantage over SUVs in terms of weight, wind resistance and center of gravity," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, which provides information on the auto industry. "So if everyone is buying an SUV, what role does a car have to play? What you are going to see is mostly SUV sales and high performance car sales.

"That middle area of non-high performance cars is what is going to disappear, and that is what we are already seeing happen," he said.

As the automakers undergo a difficult transition themselves, the auto shows are also suffering through their own transition. This will be the last year Detroit hosts the auto show in January — from Monday until Jan. 27. In 2020, the show moves to the middle of the summer. Organizers have hinted they may change the format of the show and add other entertainment.

This year also saw several automakers, particularly from Europe, bow out of the show. It's a sign that many car companies are becoming more choosy about which shows they attend, and increasingly relying on their own events and other channels to spread word of their products.

For example, when Ford debuted the 2015 Mustang — the first year it began to sell the vehicle internationally — the automaker staged simultaneous debuts around the world. None was at an auto show. Electric car maker Tesla has attended some shows, such as the Los Angeles Auto Show, but it largely stages its own events, which it livestreams on the internet. Jaguar held a similar solitary launch event for its electric crossover, the I-Pace.

Of course, not all European manufacturers abandoned the Detroit show. Though Volkswagen Group's Audi and Porsche brands will not be represented, the Volkswagen brand itself will be.

The bigger question is whether companies need to do product reveals at auto shows given how expensive they can be, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, a website that connects car buyers and sellers. "Automakers are just not convinced there is a return on investment there," she said.

The competition for media attention is stiff, Brauer said. "It is a million-dollar-plus investment. And if there are 20 different companies doing it in a 24 hour period. You are competing with all these other guys for the same attention."

That said, some car companies may decide to stand on the sidelines one year and then return the next when they feel they have a particular product well suited to a certain market or a certain message they want to convey, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Markit, which tracks the auto industry.

"You could be at the 2019 show and then skip a couple of years and then come back when you have the right message for the show," she said.

But auto shows still have a great deal to offer consumers, who can see scores of vehicles from nearly every brand without feeling the pressure associated with visiting dealers. About 800,000 people visit the show every year, Krebs said.