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Muscling up at the Detroit Auto Show

We have seen the future at the Detroit Auto Show, and it is muscle cars.

Judging by the number of beefy vehicles on display at the 2014 North American International Auto Show (as it's formally known), the world's automakers are betting that buyers have grown tired of stodgy and want something sexier when they get behind the wheel.

"Everybody is trying to come up with a halo car for their brand," said Dave Sullivan, senior analyst with AutoPacific, referring to a vehicle that draws buyers to showrooms.

The Chevrolet 2014 Corvette Stingray, named the North American Car of the Year, at the 2014 Detroit Auto ShowStan Honda | AFP | Getty Images

It could be a win-win for automakers that, despite the sluggish economy, are coming off an explosive sales year (thanks to truck demand). Muscle cars tend to be more expensive, but they give a brand cachet that helps it sell other vehicles.

It wasn't like this last year.

When the doors opened at Detroit's Cobo Center for the 2013 show, visitors were greeted by an array of new hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric vehicles. They even got a chance to drive some of the latest green machines on a special course in the basement of the sprawling convention center.

(Read more: GM's new CEO draws a big following)

While a number of green machines are on display as the 2014 auto show gets set to open to the public, the spotlight is shining in a different direction. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Toyota stand.

Only last November, the Japanese giant detailed plans to put a hydrogen car into production by 2015. But while a prototype is on display, Toyota's big news for Detroit is the FT-1 sports car concept, outfitted with a classic high-performance internal combustion engine rather than one of the company's many hybrid drivetrains.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Kia builds buzz with Stinger concept car)

Toyota is by no means the exception. Muscle cars were in abundance during a two-day media preview earlier this week, with barely a word spoken about alternative-fuel technology.

But for those who might fret about a return to the industry's gas-guzzling ways, automakers took pains to point out that their newest performance cars are more fuel-efficient than past models. The 450 horsepower Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, for example, gets up to 30 mpg.

Chevy is back with the unveiling of an even more potent version of the 'Vette, the new, 625-horsepower Z06. Across the Cobo floor, Ford will give the public its first look at the all-new, 50th anniversary Mustang.

Kevin Hunter, Toyota's U.S. design chief, told reporters that its show car—whose name is an abbreviation of "Future Toyota"—is "emblematic" of its planned direction, spurred by CEO Akio Toyoda, a serious performance fan and occasional race car driver.

(Read more: The coolest cars at the Detroit Auto Show)

Then there's Nissan. Perhaps no industry leader is more passionate about battery power than its CEO, Carlos Ghosn. But Japan's second-largest carmaker has delayed "until late in the decade" its plans to produce a high-end version of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle for its Infiniti division, said Johan de Nysschen, a former Audi executive who took the helm at Infiniti in late 2012.

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