5 lessons from U.S. auto show

New materials, high-performance cars garner attention

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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.

Ford's aluminum-clad F-150 shows us that automakers are figuring out how to improve fuel economy and still give Americans the big vehicles they want. Porsche's 911 Targa and pocket rockets from Volkswagen and Subaru demonstrate that buyers still love performance cars, no matter what their budget. And new mainstream cars like the Honda Fit and Chrysler 200 will have to work hard to compete in a market that's not growing as fast as it once did.

Here are five things we learned at the auto show's media days last week. The show opened to the public Saturday.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE.

Infiniti, Kia, Volkswagen, Nissan, Audi, Mini, Volvo, Honda. These and other 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. Volkswagen's BlueMotion concept -- a souped-up Passat -- shows technical prowess, deactivating cylinders from its four-cylinder engine to get an estimated 42 mpg on the highway.

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, like Kia's radical GT4 Stinger sports car -- which would take the Korean carmaker in a whole new direction -- may be headed to showrooms.

The mere fact that the show is packed with concepts is a good sign. During the recession, budgets for these dream cars dried up.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL.

It's become a buyer's market. And the industry knows it.

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.

That could be a boon for car buyers. Automakers could offer better lease deals and other incentives get their share of sales. But that can quickly spiral into an expensive game for carmakers.

EVERYONE'S AN ENGINEER.

At past shows, nobody talked much about what the cars were made of. The widespread use of aluminum in the body of Ford's new F-150 pickup truck changed that. "Alloy" is now a buzz word.

The F-150 -- whose body is made of 5000 and 600 series aluminum alloys -- 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.

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.

"The expectation used to be that you'd have to get the green version, the eco model," Dominique said. "But now everyone's baking it in normally."

That's good news for the industry. Vehicles have quietly been getting bigger for the past few years, to the point that compacts are as big as older midsize cars. The Audi A4, for example, has gained 6 inches in the last 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, at least while gas prices are steady. Car sales grew at less than half the pace of SUVs and crossovers last year, according to Autodata Corp.

Ford's gamble on aluminum suggests those trends could continue despite the government's mandate that fleets meet a 54.5 mpg average by 2025.

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.