2014 Cadillac ELR

In Detroit, the car is still king. And there’s no better demonstration of its enduring power than the NORTH AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW, the annual gathering of gearheads, vehicle vendors and journalists. The show serves as a platform for companies to showcase their new and novel vehicles, and 2014 is no exception. Dozens of new models are expected to be unveiled, including trucks, SUVs and experimental concepts. But some of the most exciting new debuts are cars. More than just new models, the cars on display in Detroit this month are redefining what cars are and what they can do. Here are three turning heads in the Motor City before coming to dealerships near you this year.

Electric vehicles are graduating to the upper echelon of the luxury market. The Cadillac ELR is the first extended-range electric vehicle from a full-line luxury brand, and it has an under-the-hood engineering ethos that matches its sleek outer appearance. This $75,995 hybrid has an advanced electric propulsion system and, for longer drives, a gas-powered generator that kicks in when the battery is drained. The driver also has greater control of the lithium-ion battery’s charge through regenerative braking via the “Regen on Demand” paddle shifters on the steering wheel, which slow the car (much like downshifting) and help extend the battery’s 35-mile range. Keep an eye on the sales figures — this may be the year when electric vehicles break into the highest end of the marketplace. www.cadillac.com

Mercedes is debuting its new C-Class in Detroit, but it’s what people can’t see that makes this car unique. Wherever possible, the car uses aluminum and composite materials instead of steel to cut weight and improve gas mileage. And there may be no safer car on the market: The design features deformation zones that crumple during a collision, channeling the force away from passengers; a slew of collision-avoidance scanners that detect objects, even those that unexpectedly leap out from the roadside; and air bags that automatically deactivate when a child seat is installed. Adding to the air of next-gen luxury, the car uses its GPS to detect when the car is approaching tunnels, then switches to recirculated air. Price TBD, www.mbusa.com

The Ford Mustang is synonymous with the mid-1960s and has held on stubbornly to its retro roots — until now. Hoping a modern design will attract a legion of younger buyers, this new generation ’stang hopes to shed the gas-guzzler image while keeping its muscle-car status. The key to its flexibility? Offering engine options. The standard choice will be the familiar 5.0-liter V-8 estimated at more than 420 horsepower, but those who want better efficiency — and buyers in European markets with tighter fuel regulations — can opt for a 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine that is estimated to put out more than 305 horsepower. The Mustang’s classic beefy design is also slimming down, which will hopefully help to trim gas bills. The Detroit car show is the public’s first chance at a close-up view of the new Mustang, which Ford removed from a cocoon of tight secrecy late last year. Price TBD, www.ford.com