Great expectations from the 2013 Detroit auto show

The cautious optimism that ruled recent editions of the Detroit auto show is yielding a brighter – if not exactly luminous – outlook.

The show, in any year the most significant showcase for the North American automotive industry, opens with press previews on 14 and 15 January, and to the public on 18 January. With General Motors (GM) and Chrysler having emerged in recent years from bankruptcies and taxpayer-financed bailouts, the show has also served as a thermometer of sorts for the US automotive industry, where the relative health of manufacturers is gauged by the vehicles they introduce, the extravagance of their displays and the words left unsaid by their chief executives in keynote speeches.

Having shipped 14.5 million units in 2012, its strongest performance since 2007, the automotive sector is bullish on continued growth for 2013. Kurt McNeil, sales chief for GM, cited “the industry's momentum and the overall health of the US economy” in the conglomerate’s industry-wide forecast of 15 million to 15.5 million units shipped in 2013 – still well off the industry’s pre-recession heights, but stronger than its 2009 nadir.

Though it is the hometown show for GM, Ford and Chrysler, none of the so-called Big Three has leveraged the platform to introduce a show-stopping “halo” car since 2002, when Ford rolled out a concept that would become the limited-edition GT supercar. That may change with the unveiling of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette, the latest iteration of the legendary sports car, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

Known internally and among Corvette cognoscenti as the C7, the seventh-generation car has been teased in a series of shadowy photographs and heavily stylised black-and-white videos since September. Powered by an evolved small-block V8 engine and constructed largely of lightweight materials like aluminium and carbon fibre, the Corvette is pitched as every bit the world-class track monster that buyers otherwise expect from Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari, but at a lower price.

Inarguably, however, the brand entering Detroit with the most swagger is Toyota, fresh off of shipping 9.7 million vehicles worldwide in 2012 – the most of any automaker. Intimations of Toyota’s return to hegemonic form, after two years mired by recalls and a federal inquiry into reports of unintended acceleration, came at the 2012 Detroit show, when it debuted a rakish Camry concept and, from its Lexus luxury subsidiary, the LF-Lc hybrid sports car concept: a sinuous design statement that earned the prestigious EyesOn Design award for 2012.

On 14 January, Toyota will bring the Furia concept, a sporty compact expected to hint toward the redesigned Corolla, long awaiting an overhaul. It will also show the next generation of the IS compact sports sedan, its answer to the dominant BMW 3 Series.

German automakers also plan a show of strength on 14 January, though few surprises are expected. The BMW Concept 4 Series Coupe, having made its web debut in December, presages the replacement for the 3 Series coupe. A face-lifted Z4 roadster will join it, as will a 554-horsepower version of the 6 Series Gran Coupe, wearing the telltale “M” badge of BMW’s Motorsport division.

Mercedes-Benz, which began European sales of its redesigned compact A-Class hatchback in recent months, will show the CLA compact sedan. The CLA, previewed in concept form at the 2012 Beijing motor show, is intended to prove that the brand of the three-pointed star is serious about stuffing premium features in small packages for the US market – a notion American buyers have traditionally balked at.

Overtures to breeding urbanites will be made in the nebulous, if increasingly critical, crossover segment. Having orchestrated an ambitious, costly re-launch of its Lincoln luxury brand in December, Ford has high hopes for a premium compact crossover based on the Ford Escape (marketed in Europe as the Kuga), which Lincoln is expected to debut. Honda, too, believes building small will translate to sales gold. It will show a crossover concept that would be priced below the CR-V, which has long jockeyed for segment dominance with the Escape and the Toyota RAV4.

Attendees hoping to glean automakers’ strategies for meeting US fuel-economy targets may be reduced to reading tea leaves. Aside from the ELR plug-in hybrid, Cadillac’s long-anticipated equivalent to the Chevy Volt, little in the way of new product suggests how GM – or any major manufacturer – would achieve a fleet-wide fuel-economy average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. That figure was a centrepiece of President Obama’s environmental agenda in 2011 and 2012.

Despite some highly visible growing pains in the past year, electric-vehicle manufacturers will continue to have a presence at the show. Past appearances by Tesla Motors, the California-based builder of luxury EVs, have been perfunctory at best in Detroit; the company reserves major product news for highly choreographed events on Pacific Standard Time. Whether it brings a bang this year – or, more appropriately, a jolt – remains to be seen.

Follow BBC Autos throughout the show’s press previews for in-depth coverage of product introductions, parties and other happenings around the Motor City. Check back for coverage, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.