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North American International Auto Show reflects changing values

The Ford Fusion street car, left, gets a refresh for 2016, and so does the Sprint Cup version. Courtesy Ford Motor Company

DETROIT -- Performance is still a major selling point in the American automotive market, but competition from attributes like efficiency, practicality and connectivity is getting stronger.

That much is evident from the show floor at the North American International Auto Show, which runs from January 16-24 at Detroit's Cobo Center. While there are plenty of high-horsepower street machines on display, the number of race cars has declined dramatically from recent years.

Granted, NAIAS isn't about race cars. There's a dedicated show for that, and as a matter of fact, it's happening right now -- the January 14-17 Autosport International show, in Birmingham, England.

But while Ford featured a "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" banner in its complex NAIAS exhibit and publicly debuted the lightly reworked Fusion that will compete in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, most of the other manufacturers chose a different message this year.

Some of that makes sense. While the rate of change in production cars is arguably greater than ever in some respects, racing cars have stayed basically the same for years now, even decades, as a result of the introduction of regulations or the simple fact that development has reached its limit in many areas.

Back in 2008-09, the lack of competition machinery at NAIAS could be explained by the downturn in the economy. Now, with a record 17 million car and truck sales projected for the year ahead, the dearth of race cars can be put down to changing priorities in the automotive industry, and that is a concerning message for racing fans.

The exception is Ford, which is investing heavily in a factory sports car program that will feature Chip Ganassi Racing running a pair of Ford GTs in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA Weather Tech Sports Car Championship, combining for a four-car assault on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The whole program has been designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford's historic victory at Le Mans in 1966, though by competing in the GTE Pro class, they won't be in contention for overall honors this year.

To maximize its competition potential, the new GT was developed as a road car and a race car in parallel. In fact, the street version will actually be more powerful than the heavily regulated race car.

Ford also debuted the mid-cycle refresh of its popular Fusion sedan, which gains a Sport model featuring a 2.7-liter EcoBoost turbo V-6 cranking out 325 horsepower. The Fusion Sport is the basis for Ford's new NASCAR Cup car, though the changes are so subtle it takes a trained eye to spot them.

The Fusion platform serves as the basis for the new Lincoln Continental, which brings Bentley-like styling to the mainstream U.S. luxury car market.

Meanwhile, the two vehicles that are arguably the most important debutants at Detroit are about as far removed from racing as they could be.

Chrysler unveiled a ground-up redesign of its minivan, rebranded as Pacifica and including a plug-in hybrid version expected to produce 80 MPG on the EPA city test. And Honda showed off its new Ridgeline pickup truck; with a unibody design again based on the Pilot SUV, the 2017 Ridgeline is a much more conventional-looking truck than the quirky original that was produced from 2006-14.

Mercedes-Benz chose NAIAS to take the wraps off its new E-Class midsize sedan, although the car will have a greater impact in Europe, where it is a bestseller. Mercedes also unveiled a trio of convertibles as part of its relentless attempt to produce a vehicle for absolutely every niche of the market.

Buyers in the market for a new sports car have many more choices. BMW took the wraps off its M2, which the company says is the spiritual successor to the beloved 2002tii. Maker of the self-proclaimed "Ultimate Driving Machine," BMW has been recently criticized for cars that have lost their sharp connection with the driver, something the maker hopes to rectify with the M2.

Enthusiasts bemoan the fact that all Porsche 911 models are turbocharged, but you can't escape the fact that even the base model is faster and more refined than ever. Porsche unveiled uprated Turbo and Turbo S versions of the sixth-generation 911, which has been on the market for a couple of years now.

Speaking of refined, expect that to be the watchword when Lexus' LC500 coupe hits the streets. Incorporating technology and styling cues from the limited production $375,000 LF-A, the LC500 should come in at around a quarter of that price. It sports a 467-horsepower V-8 and an industry-first 10-speed automatic gearbox.

A much more attractive coupe is featured on the Buick stand: The Avista concept car would make a fine 21st century Riviera. Buick also showed its restyled Lacrosse midsize sedan and the Envision crossover, which was designed and built in China. Other key General Motors reveals include the production version of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the Chevy Cruze hatchback and the downsized GMC Acadia SUV.

As usual, there is a little something for everyone on display at NAIAS. Unless you happen to be looking for race cars.