The Best Cars From Detroit 2011: An Energetic, Right-Sized Auto Show

The crowds were back and the sense of impending doom was gone. But the proliferation of safe designs and shortage of insane concepts shows an industry playing it safe.

For the first time since the auto industry raced off a cliff two years ago, the Detroit auto show was mobbed. Back were the sold-out hotels, the lavish parties, the teeming masses of reporters. The sensible plans that carmakers—particularly those from Detroit—had been talking about for the past three years had finally yielded fleets of solidly built, attractive, efficient production cars. In the absence of a few more stunning concepts and surprising debuts, however, the confidence felt a little tentative.

Click to launch our gallery of the most noteworthy cars at this year's Detroit Auto Show

Mercedes E-Cell

With its gullwing doors and radioactive paint job—officially, that color is "AMG lumilectric magno"— the Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell, a pure-electric supercar that made its North American debut in Detroit, was the flashiest car at the show. Mercedes insists the car is real, and that it will go into production in 2013.Seth Fletcher

Mercedes E-Cell Side Shot

Four electric motors together produce 525 hp and 649 pound-feet of torque, flinging the E-Cell from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. A 48 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack composed of 324 individual cells supplies the power.Seth Fletcher

Mercedes E-Cell: Under the Hood

The black box under the hood houses the car's power electronics, while the batteries sit where the driveshaft would normally go.Seth Fletcher

Porsche 918 RSR

The most extreme performance car on the showroom floor was undoubtedly the Porsche 918 RSR, a mid-engine hybrid supercar with two electric motors in front and a flywheel accumulator, which stores energy during braking and then releases it on demand. It's an exotic sibling of the already astounding 918 Spyder hybrid concept. Altogether, the V8 racing engine (which produces 563 hp at 10,300 rpm) and the two 75 kW electric motors generate a peak 767 hp. Jalopnik has a good explainer on the flywheel technology.Seth Fletcher

Ford Focus

Supercars aside, this was really Ford's show. Midmorning on the first press day, the automaker held a press conference in which it emphasized the global nature of the company, the importance of the C-segment (compact car) platform, and rounded out the company's lineup of electrified vehicles.Seth Fletcher

Ford Focus: Tangerine

The tangerine-chrome Focus ST showcased the ability of this modest compact car to be thoroughly tricked out.Seth Fletcher

Ford Focus Electric

The Focus Electric, which was revealed last week at CES, was also in the house.Seth Fletcher

Ford C-MAX

The Ford C-MAX you see here is a sort of mini-minivan, coming to North America via Europe. Monday morning Ford also announced that in 2012 it would start building both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max.Seth Fletcher

Toyota Prius V

As expected, the Prius-plural family was revealed this week in Detroit. The Prius V pictured here is the larger brother, a hybrid with 50 percent more cargo room than the standard 3rd-generation Prius.Seth Fletcher

Toyota Prius C

This is the Prius C, a concept for a smaller, more affordable, more efficient mini-Prius. Expect a production car based on the concept early next year.Seth Fletcher

Toyota Prius Plug-In

Then there's the Prius plug-in hybrid, which will also roll out early next year. With a full charge of its lithium-ion battery, it can run 12 miles on electricity alone, provided you don't break 60 mph. With the Chevy Volt (which runs 40 miles on electricity alone) and the Nissan Leaf (a purely electric vehicle with a range of up to 120 miles on a charge) already on the market, the plug-in Prius feels to us like too little, too late.Seth Fletcher

Toyota Tesla RAV-4 EV

The resurrected RAV-4 EV, a joint project of Toyota and Tesla, was on the showroom floor in prototype form.Seth Fletcher

Chevy Sonic

Chevrolet's press conference at the end of the first day did not, as plenty of people expected, yield a follow-up vehicle to the Volt. Instead, Chevy pulled the wraps off of the Sonic, the sub-compact replacement for the Aveo.Seth Fletcher

Chevy Sonic Front

A direct competitor with the Ford Fiesta, the Sonic will come with either a 1.8-liter four cylinder or turbocharged 1.4-liter engine.Seth Fletcher

Buick Verano

Buick continued its quest to become a car company for people under the age of 100 by unveiling the 2012 Verano, a "baby LaCrosse" that, to our eyes, looks great. The Verano comes standard with a 177-hp, 2.4-liter Ecotec engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Expect a 2.0L turbocharged engine to follow, along with the option of a six-speed manual transmission.Seth Fletcher

Audi A6 Hybrid

Audi showed off the company's second hybrid ever, the A6 hybrid, which pairs a 211 hp 4-cylinder engine with a relatively potent 45 hp electric motor. A 1.3 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack delivers the charge. Audi says it can travel up to 62 mph on electricity alone.Seth Fletcher

Volkswagen Passat

Volkswagen's new, larger Passat was, alas, the design disappointment of the show. That said, we're eager to drive the diesel version: VW says that the 2.0-liter TDI engine can get 43 mpg on the highway. For a roomy sedan, that is impressive.Seth Fletcher

2011 BMW 1-Series M Coupe

The M badged 1-series drops a 335-hp inline six-cylinder engine into an already sprightly little couple. It arrives this spring, and we cannot wait to drive it.Seth Fletcher

Honda Civic Concept

Honda is reworking the Civic to compete in the intensifying small-car-wars. No one expects the actual production Civics—including a hybrid and natural gas version—to look much different than this sedan or the coupe concept that also appeared at the show.Seth Fletcher

Honda Fit EV

First announced at last fall's Los Angeles Auto Show, an electric version of the Honda Fit is set to go on sale in 2012.Seth Fletcher

Hyundai Veloster

Hyundai's Veloster is, like the press conference at which it was revealed, a heavy-handed attempt to become hip with the cool kids. And it is very much a youthmobile, with a starting price of around $17,000, a 1.6-liter direct-injection engine, a paddle-shifted dual-clutch transmission, and three doors.Seth Fletcher

Hyundai Veloster Rear

Heavy-handed or not, the Veloster was one of the more talked-about debuts of the show, thanks in part to some edgy design flourishes, like this bubbly rear end.Seth Fletcher