1. Innovation Everywhere
Many automakers went to great lengths to tout their latest high-technology advances. General Motors (GM) opened the show with the surprise Chevy Bolt, a prototype electric car that will have a 200-mile range and a price tag around $30,000 when it (probably) comes to market around 2017.
Mercedes-Benz (DDAIY) showed off its prototype self-driving car, a luxurious sitting room on wheels. Honda (HMC) had its upcoming hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered car, along with cutting-edge race cars and other high-tech displays.
And you couldn't turn around on the huge Ford (F) stand without hearing the word "innovation." From its radical Ford GT supercar to the limited self-driving features that are already finding their way into mainstream Fords, the company's executives made a point of emphasizing its pursuit of a high-tech edge.
2. High Performance -- but With High-Tech Twists
Ford stole the show with its racy-looking GT supercar. But the GT isn't powered by a V8 like the ones that powered earlier Ford GTs. This one has EcoBoost -- a near-racing-spec version of the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 that Ford offers as a fuel-efficient V8 alternative in its F-150 and Explorer.
In those vehicles, the 3.5-liter EcoBoost makes about 360 horsepower -- but it'll make more than 600 horsepower in the new GT.
The new Acura NSX sports car wowed a crowd that included comedian Jerry Seinfeld -- but again, it doesn't have the gas-guzzling power plant you'd expect. It does have a twin-turbo V6, but the new NSX is a hybrid: It has three (yes, three) electric motors that add to the V6's thrust.
More mainstream entries were picking up the high-tech green theme as well. Mercedes-Benz had a plug-in hybrid version of its top-of-the-line S Class sedan on display, and BMW (BAMXF) and Audi both had premium electric cars on their stands.
Tesla Motors (TSLA) showed off a cherry-red example of the scorching new P85D version of its Model S sedan. The dual-motor P85D is an all-electric supercar that will do 0 to 60 miles per hour in a breathtaking 3.2 seconds. But unlike Ford's GT and Acura's NSX, the Model S P85D is also a comfortable sedan.
3. The Line Between Luxury and Mainstream Is Getting Very Blurry
Automakers have discovered that mainstream buyers will pay extra for luxury-car-like features in mainstream models. That has helped boost profits at companies like Ford, which has perfected the practice. Ford's new-for-2015 F-150 pickup can be ordered in a Platinum trim that includes plush heated and cooled leather seats, wood trim, and a slew of high-tech safety features -- but it'll cost you over $50,000.
That's more than twice the price of a base-model F-150, and there's a lot of profit for Ford in that difference. Ford has rolled out that approach on many of its other models, and other mainstream brands like General Motors' Chevrolet have followed suit.
Meanwhile, some automakers traditionally associated with high-priced luxury are going in the other direction, releasing affordable models in search of new customers. Mercedes-Benz's compact CLA sedan starts at just over $30,000, and it has been a huge hit -- so much so that Cadillac's new president told reporters in Detroit that his brand is working on a competitor.
Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.