Your Essential 2016 Detroit Auto Show Preview

Our chief auto critic gets you prepped for the big dance.

Paul Warner/Getty Images

A few years ago, Detroit might have strung Foxxcon-style nets around its Cobo Center auto show, considering the potential for executive suicides in the wake of collapsing car sales and automaker bankruptcies.

But boom has replaced bust, with carmakers selling a record 17.5 million cars in the U.S. in 2015. Buyers are snapping up high-margin pickups and swollen SUVs as fast as they can fill them with $2 unleaded, making carmakers drunk on profits and creating a pervasive, circa-2007 sense of déjà vu. So expect champagne soaking (and slurping) at next week’s media previews for the 2016 North American International Auto Show, as carmakers roll out their latest automotive gobstoppers—plus a Chrysler minivan that’s sweet and roomy enough for Augustus Gloop.

Where Los Angeles once challenged Detroit for supremacy, Detroit has reestablished its bona fides as the nation’s preeminent auto show. Organizers are promising $200 million in new exhibits on a reshuffled Cobo Center floor that saw 55 world or North American debuts last year. According to data assembled by show officials, the NAIAS drew more than double the media coverage of Los Angeles last year, including more than 200,000 online mentions in a single day.

Where nothing on that floor should spark fire like 2015’s out-of-nowhere Ford GT supercar—unless another automaker can keep a surprise hidden from hackers in Uzbekistan—there’s plenty to keep the Internet and car fans humming. Or visit Motown yourself, with the show open to the public Jan. 16-24, and take in the city that’s working overtime to turn industrial decay into something more than a drive-by photo op.

Some of the more baited-breath reveals of the show remain under wraps for now, but here’s our latest preview of key production and concept cars scheduled to twirl onstage in Detroit.

2017 Lincoln Continental

Lincoln Continental Concept

It might not be Lincoln’s Last Stand, but if the sharp-dressed Continental, which was previewed here in 2015, can’t gain showroom traction, then it’s hard to see where Ford’s luxury brand would go. The 3-liter Ecoboost twin-turbo V-6 should do the job, though some are tut-tutting over the Lincoln’s front-drive Fusion/MKZ roots. The bigger key: Will the interior be anywhere near as knockout as the concept version’s Sixties splendor? It had better be, considering uber-rich competition such as the all-new Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

Mercedes’ ramped-up luxury styling is becoming the toast of the industry and the bane of competitors, and this 10th-generation E-Class antes up accordingly. For 2017, the world’s best-selling luxury sedan becomes the legit junior executive to the S-Class’s CEO. An insane features list includes the ability to autonomously steer away from pedestrians, smartphone- controlled automated parking (only in Europe for now), and adaptive cruise control that reads speed limit signs and sets the pace accordingly.

2017 Volvo S90

Emerging from a long hibernation, and now under Chinese ownership, Volvo follows up the award-hogging XC90 with a lovely, decorous S90 flagship sedan. On sale in early summer, the S90 will look to lure folks from the Germans’ showrooms with its Scandinavian sensibility, the XC90’s Sensus infotainment touchscreen and of course safety—including a City Safety unit that can halt not just for cars and pedestrians, but large-animal species. Moose included.

Lexus LC 500

Lexus LF-LC Concept

Stuck in development hell since 2012, the production version of the polarizing LF-LC coupe concept will show its anime-slasher face. Motoring.com.au believes the LC 500 will adopt the 5-liter V-8 from the RC F and GS F (with roughly 467 horsepower), but with the industry’s first 10-speed automatic transmission. We’re expecting to see a LC 350h hybrid version, and an LC F around 2018 that will boost power to near-supercar levels with a smaller V-8 and dual electric turbochargers.

2017 Buick Envision

“Imported from Detroit” was Chrysler’s witty, Eminem-backed tag line in 2011. Don’t expect Buick to use “Made in China” as its new midsize SUV steams from Shandong Province onto the doorstep of the United Auto Workers. The union is ready to go all Tiananmen Square, but the Buick—on sale in July—fills a China-deep lineup hole in the nation’s most popular sales segment. The AWD Envision, with a front-driver to follow, gets 252 horses from a 2-liter turbo four, with goodies including a 4G LTE connection and Wifi hotspot.

2017 Chrysler Town & Country

Chrysler 700C Concept

Toyota billed its Sienna as the “Swagger Wagon,” but Chrysler’s new Bratmobile may one-up it with zestier styling perhaps influenced by the 700C minivan concept shown in Detroit in 2012. On sale in February for around $27,000 to start, the T&C looks to insinuate itself into Honda-Toyota territory with features like an electric-motor-based AWD system; a direct-injection V-6 and nine-speed transmission; a coming plug-in hybrid variant; and a hands-free, foot-waggling opener for side doors. Oh, and a built-in vacuum cleaner to suck up customers from the top-shelf Odyssey.

Acura Precision Concept

Some car companies prefer to tease like Gypsy Rose Lee, slowly peeling off the wraps. For now, this Acura’s candy-apple skin emerges from shadow, revealing enough Jaguar-meets-Mazda curves to cause heavy breathing. It’s clearly a coupe, though that could be tease-and-denial for long-suffering Integra fans. Acura design director Dave Marek says the concept’s styling language will influence sedans the most. But Marek’s big idea is “to more strongly express performance through design.” Since Acuras have suffered a shortage of both, we’ll take anything we can get.

Meet the Fiskers

Henrik Fisker, designer of the snakebit Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid, Aston Martin DB9 and BMW Z8, is building show suspense with a pair of under-wraps concepts, including a Michigan-built luxury sports car called The Force 1. It’s based on an American sports car (perhaps the Corvette), with a carbon-fiber body, “laser blade” taillamps and a price well north of $200,000. At that price, it had better look good and perform better, as the Karma’s puke-green performance and disastrously short run has our Skepto-meter running high. That is, if it gets to Detroit at all.

2017 Honda Ridgeline

The market’s sense of humor and daring has been stifled by the Cotton Mathers of practicality. But Honda will resuscitate the Ridgeline, the charmingly oddball, car-based pickup that shattered the truck mold. Spy photos have suggested the new model would look more straight-laced, but it’s based on the outstanding new Pilot SUV, including its 3.5-liter V-6 with roughly 300 ponies.

2017 Ford Fusion

Wicked midsize competition—the reworked Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu and Kia Optima among them—has Ford whipping up a heavily refreshed Fusion for the 2017 model year. That includes a newly tailored body and a softer, richer interior that adopts Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as part of a much-improved Sync connectivity system. Expect a new Energi plug-in hybrid version for buyers who don’t expect $2-a-gallon to stick around forever.