2012 Detroit Auto Show: Top 10 most anticipated debuts

We’re just days away from the Detroit Auto Show….If not at the all-time high sales before the Great Recession, new car sales are coming back. However, for some automakers — like Japan’s Honda and Toyota, still recovering from years of sliding market share and a 2011 that saw natural disasters disrupt production — their unveilings at this year’s Detroit auto show may be the most critical in some time.

Here are my 10 most-anticipated Detroit debuts during next week’s media days:

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10. Smart ForUs concept

What we know: Parent Mercedes-Benz has been rolling out concepts of its next-generation Smart car, due for 2013, throughout the past year. So far, we’ve seen the ForSpeed roadster and ForVision coupe concepts, both based on a brand new platform developed by Mercedes and Renault-Nissan. The Detroit-bound ForUs is a pure-electric two-seat pickup.

What we don’t know: Is the ForUs a teaser for a production version of the next Smart? Or just a car show flight of fancy?

9. 2013 Buick Encore

What we know: General Motors’ premium brand is debuting its second crossover, the Encore, set to go on sale later next year. And although it will share its looks with the existing mid-size Enclave crossover, the junior Buick will be much smaller.

What we don’t know: Just how small will the Encore be? Based on spy shots of an Opel version being tested, the Buick will be based on GM’s subcompact platform that also supports the current Chevrolet Sonic.

8. Lincoln MKZ concept

What we know: Ford realizes its “do or die” time for its struggling Lincoln premium brand. Years of little differentiation from lower-priced Ford products, and a confusing letter-naming system, have seen sales drop to new lows. Ford has created a new Lincoln design studio, and hired a new design chief. The first result will be the debut of the Ford Fusion-based MKZ sedan concept, set to foreshadow the brand’s new look.

What we don’t know: Will the MKZ concept’s new design be enough to reinvigorate Lincoln?

7. 2013 Cadillac ATS

What we know: Smaller than the existing mid-size CTS, the compact ATS is Cadillac’s true crack at the BMW 3 Series-dominated entry-level sports sedan segment. A host of four- and six-cylinder engines (with up to 318 hp), and manual and automatic transmissions will be available. The small Caddy also debuts an all-new GM rear/all-wheel-drive platform that may spawn the next Chevy Camaro.

What we don’t know: Will Cadillac be able to sway import (i.e. BMW and Audi) customers to the new ATS?

6. Toyota NS4 concept

What we know: Not much. Toyota has only released a teaser image of the front corner of the NS4, showing a headlight and saying it will be a “hybrid”.

What we don’t know: Will the NS4 be a hatchback or sedan? We don’t know. As witnessed with the new Scion FR-S sports car and the Lexus LF-LC concept, Toyota is trying to make its cars more interesting to look at. So the NS4 may give clues to either the next Prius or Corolla, both due for replacement as 2015 models.

5. 2013 Dodge Dart

What we know: The compact five-passenger Dart sedan is the first of what we’ve been promised are a slew of new, small Chrysler Group vehicles based on Fiat bits and bites. Replacing the woeful Caliber, the Dart will use a wider and longer Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, dubbed Compact U.S. Wide. Power will come from a trio (2.0-litre; turbocharged 1.4-litre; a 2.4-litre) of Fiat-sourced four-bangers.

What we don’t know: Can Dodge exorcize the demons from its uncompetitive Caliber, and challenge class-leaders like the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze?

4. 2013 Ford Fusion

What we know: With its looks coming from last year’s Ford Evos concept, and power from Ford’s EcoBoost turbocharged engine family, the U.S. automaker has already given plenty of hints about its forthcoming 2013 Fusion. Like the recently introduced Fiesta and Focus, Ford is minimizing the differences between its vehicles globally. We’ve been told the new Fusion’s steering, ride and handling will match the current European Mondeo.

What we don’t know: Will the “Europeanization” of the new Fusion keep it at the top of the mid-size sedan sales charts?

3. 2013 Honda Accord Coupe concept

What we know: Honda’s concepts are usually thinly disguised production cars. So expect the Accord Coupe show car to give clues to what the new Accord two- and four-door sedan will look like, both expected to also go on sale late next year as 2013 models. Based on a technology preview before this year’s Tokyo auto show, expect the new Accord to offer a CVT as the base automatic, and engines with direct-injection and double-overhead cams for better fuel economy and power.

What we don’t know: Will the new Accord bring back customers who have migrated away to rival mid-size sedans like the Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima?

2. Lexus LF-LC concept

What we know: Like Honda’s Acura, Toyota’s premium Lexus brand needs to get out of a product and styling rut that has seen its market-share plummet in the lucrative North American luxury car market. Several U.S. publications leaked images of the LF-LC, so we know it’s a swoopy-looking 2+2 with an aggressive styling first seen on the Lexus LF-A super car.

What we don’t know: Everything else. Like how the Lexus will be powered (hybrid? electric?) or will it go into production.

1. Acura NSX concept

What we know: Honda is treating this year’s Detroit show as a re-launch pad for its struggling premium Acura brand. Along with a long-rumoured replacement for its legendary NSX super car that will showcase a raft of new engineering ideas, two new 2013 models — the Civic-based ILX premium compact sedan and the second-generation RDX compact crossover — will also be unveiled.

What we don’t know: We know the NSX is coming. But will it have hybrid power, or all-wheel-drive? Will it be mid-engined, like the original? Or look like the Acura-supplied car seen on the set of the upcoming Avengers movie?

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