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Sport rules the Detroit auto show

Automakers at the 2014 Detroit auto show left the boring behind, showing off new concepts and models with exciting design.

Toyota FT-1
Wayne Cunningham/CNET
Toyota FT-1
Toyota's FT-1 concept car suggests a new direction in design for the automaker. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With the global economy on a rubber band for the past couple of decades, automakers circled the wagons, taking a conservative approach to their model lineups. But at the 2014 Detroit auto show, it looks like we can have fun things once again.

Toyota, that hallmark of sensible cars, showed off an exciting new concept called the FT-1. Although not meant as a production prototype, it shows that Toyota is letting its designers have fun, and hopefully presages new models with a more emotional appeal.

Likewise, Toyota's luxury brand Lexus gave its new RC coupe its North American debut, and took the wraps off the RC F, a high-performance version of the RC. It's been some years since Lexus had a coupe, and the RC fills this niche nicely. It's a GT-style car that partially resembles the Scion FR-S, Toyota's joint project with Subaru. The RC also comes with a new infotainment interface for Lexus, a touch pad, something we're seeing from other luxury automakers.

Subaru WRX STi
Subaru released the WRX STi at the Detroit show.

Speaking of Subaru, this all-wheel-drive king among automakers followed up its introduction of the WRX last year with the WRX STi. The STi variant carries over its engine from the previous generation, for an output of 305 horsepower, but gets a complicated new version of Subaru's all-wheel-drive system.

Kia, which also comes up short in the sports car game, showed off the GT4 Stinger concept. This new concept answers the question, "What if Kia made a sports car?" It's a cool-looking little fastback with very unique lines, revealing some smart designers in Kia's studio. More enticing is the fact that Kia specifies an engine for the GT4 Stinger, a 2-liter turbocharged mill making 315 horsepower.

BMW used Detroit to introduce its revamped M4 coupe and M3 sedan, introducing a body-style bifurcation to the previous M3 performance car. More than just a name change, the M4 and M3 show up with downsized engines, dropping from 4-liter V-8s to 3-liter V-6es. However, turbocharging and tuning mean a higher output, while other running gear benefits from the type of development we saw on the M6.

The new Corvette Z06 produces 625 horsepower. Josh Miller/CNET

Of course, the big daddy of the performance cars unveiled at Detroit has to be the Corvette Z06. The Z06 builds on the 2014 Corvette Stingray launched last year, increasing the engine size and adding even more performance enhancements. Its new LT4 V-8 engine displaces 6.2 liters and gets a supercharger to achieve 625 horsepower. That's going to be one ridiculously powerful car, but from what we've seen of the new Stingray, it should also be very manageable.

Ford made its big performance-car debut last year with the new Mustang, which was on prominent display in Detroit. To put its own mark on the show, Ford made a very important update to another American icon, the F-150 pick-up truck. To shave weight and get better fuel economy, the new F-150 gets an aluminum body. There will also be a 2.7-liter V-6 engine option from Ford's EcoBoost line, and many new tech features, such as available surround-view cameras.

If this Detroit auto show is any indication, it looks like dealer lots will be filled with many enticing new models in the near future.

Click here to check out CNET's full coverage of the 2014 Detroit auto show.