Mercedes-Benz unveils the all-new sixth-generation SL 550 on the eve...

Mercedes-Benz unveils the all-new sixth-generation SL 550 on the eve of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, January 8, 2012. Credit: AP Photo

Automakers have plenty to crow about this year: U.S. sales are the highest since 2008 and they're expected to keep growing.

The timing is perfect for automakers to unveil more than 40 new cars and trucks this month at the industry's annual trade show in Detroit.

Carmakers, feeling buoyant about prospects for 2012, will try to outdo each other with lights, music and models to generate buzz among the show's 750,000 expected visitors.

Here are three trends to look for when the show opens to the public on Jan. 14: Fuel-efficient cars with more style and safety features; trendy subcompacts for younger buyers; and small luxury sedans.

Smaller but stylish. Gas prices have dropped from their $4 peak last spring but remain high. People looking for a more efficient car will have plenty of choices among midsize sedans and compacts.

Ford unveils a redone midsize Fusion, to go on sale in the fall. Honda will unveil a new Accord coupe. Both cars will compete with Chevrolet's new Malibu, to go on sale this spring.

With better fuel economy, styling and new features, the three cars hope to steal sales from Toyota's Camry, the perennial midsize leader.

Smaller cars include the new Dodge Dart, the first car jointly designed by Chrysler and its Italian owner, Fiat SpA. With a name borrowed from a hot-selling compact introduced in 1960, the Dart will heat up an already competitive market that includes Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic.

Volkswagen will debut a hybrid version of the Jetta.

Downsized luxury. Luxury car sales grew just 2.8 percent, compared with 10-percent growth for the industry as a whole, according to Autodata Corp. But many new less expensive, small sedans could turn that around.

Cadillac, BMW and Acura plan to unveil new small cars. Hyundai will launch a new Genesis Coupe, aiming for luxury buyers who want to spend less.

Ford's Lincoln brand is being overhauled.

The most striking luxury model may be from Lexus, which will display the swooping LF-LC hybrid sports car concept that was crafted in Toyota's California design studio.

Mad for millennials. Millennials -- the 70 million people born between 1981 and 2000 -- are a growing force in the market. To appeal to this group, this year's show will feature subcompacts with perks like leather seats, ambient lighting and easy connections to cellphone applications like Pandora.

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