4 Star Cars of the Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- It's hard to imagine that the auto industry can replicate the drama of its remarkable 2010 turnaround, but the start of the Detroit Auto Show next week, which TheStreet will cover live, will sketch out the industry's path for the current year.

With rising fuel prices as a backdrop, it is not surprising that green cars will be the focus of the show's press preview next week. However, Keith Crain, editor of Automotive News, reminds us that the press preview and the auto show itself are two separate, unequal events.

"What they show the press is not always what the public will be interested in," Crain said. At the Detroit press preview, "You will see a huge push on green, high-mileage, plug-ins and environmentally active vehicles," he said. "You will see hybrids, plug-ins, smaller high mileage engines, some diesel, and a lot of environmentally-activated power plants."

When the public show opens on Saturday, "pickup trucks and SUVs will get center stage," Crain said.

He added that among the U.S. automakers, Ford ( F) is in the best position. "Ford has a lot of high-mileage small cars," he said. "Ford is ready to swing either way," depending on whether gas prices trend sufficiently high enough that consumers are encouraged to make a move to small cars. "The one thing you have to do in this business is to stay really flexible, to build the Fiesta one week and F-150s the next."

Read on for a look at four key vehicles that will be showcased at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show.

Ford C-Max

Ford will unveil the production version of the seven-seat 2012 Ford C-Max, a small alternative to a standard minivan. The vehicle shares a platform with the Focus and is part of the global small vehicle strategy expected to deliver at least ten vehicles -- and two million annual sales -- from a single platform by 2012. Already on sale in Europe, it will hit the U.S. in late 2011 or early 2012.

Analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive said "Ford is looking for the C-Max to have the level of success of the Transit, but it's targeted to the retail rather than commercial consumers."

According to Ford, the C-MAX "is an all-new, affordable transportation alternative for growing, busy North American families who crave industry-first technology, flexible seating and interior space, sporty performance and best-in-class fuel economy."

Toyota Prius

The Chevy Volt may be getting a lot of attention, but through December GM had sold just 326 of them. By contrast, the Toyota ( TM)Prius has sold about 300,000 units, making it the world's best-selling hybrid. (That's a 2010 Prius above.)

At the auto show, Toyota plans to unveil the Prius C, a smaller version of the current model, and the Prius V, a hatchback.

Consumer Reports has said "the Volt works, but depending on how it is used and where, it may not save you money, especially in the Northeast or California. In those regions especially, the Prius remains a proven, more cost-effective choice for green motoring."

Toyota has said its No. 1 brand at the end of the decade will be the Prius, not the Camry. In 2010, U.S. sales of the Prius totaled 140,928, up 1.6%. Camry sales totaled 327,804, down 7.5%.

Lindland agreed that consumers may not be ready for the invasion of the green cars.

"There is definitely a disconnect between what manufacturers are being forced to produce because of fuel standards and what consumers want to buy," she said. "We haven't really seen dramatic changes in vehicle sales or types of vehicles, but we have seen short-term changes when gas prices have spiked. In June 2008, you could not get your hands on a Prius, but by November, Toyota was offering thousands of dollars of incentives."

Overall, Lindland said, the auto show including the press preview "will be a really nicely diversified show, with some all new vehicles, some concept vehicles coming out and a lot of interesting fantasy, like the Porsche 918."

Chrysler 300

Chrysler will be showing the new 2011 Chrysler 300 series and the new 2011 Jeep Compass at the auto show. The full-size, rear-wheel driven sedan will arrive in showrooms during the current quarter.

Says Chrysler, "With more than 55 years of elegant proportions and head-turning style, the all-new 2011 Chrysler 300 delivers contemporary styling with design details unexpected in the segment." Design features include a sculpted hood with "dramatic front-fender forms" in a car "designed to exude a luxurious environment."

The 300 is built at the Brampton Assembly Plant in Brampton, Ontario.

Chevrolet Sonic

GM ( GM) is expected to debut the Sonic, which will replace the Aveo.

The Sonic will represent one more step in the U.S. automakers' effort to regain a footing in the small car market, which had been largely ceded to foreign automakers. Chevrolet has already introduced the Cruze, which Lindland called "terrific," noting: "It's a nice, solid, quiet well-built small car."

The Sonic, which is smaller than the Cruze, will be built at GM's Orion Township plant starting Aug. 1. Like the Cruze, Sonic will be a global car.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

More from Stocks

Micron Shares Soar; Chipmaker Is 'Managing for Profitability' Now, Says Analyst

Micron Shares Soar; Chipmaker Is 'Managing for Profitability' Now, Says Analyst

Dow Slips 178 Points; S&P 500 and Nasdaq Also Decline

Dow Slips 178 Points; S&P 500 and Nasdaq Also Decline

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Deflects Tough Questions From European Parliament

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Deflects Tough Questions From European Parliament

What Does China's Tariff Deal Mean for Automakers Like Tesla?

What Does China's Tariff Deal Mean for Automakers Like Tesla?

Lowe's Taps Home Depot Veteran As New CEO

Lowe's Taps Home Depot Veteran As New CEO