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At the Detroit auto show, automakers are pitching style, flash and sports cars

Sirens wailed and guitar strings screeched as the 2013 Dodge Dart rolled onto a stage at this year’s Detroit auto show. Hundreds were there to see the first new vehicle spawned by the marriage of Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat Group Automobiles S.p.A. in 2009. They weren’t disappointed. The sporty small car, built using Fiat’s Alpha Romeo Giulietta platform, represents yet another attempt by Chrysler to reach into its rich past for an all-new vehicle—in this case, for the name of a popular sedan from the 1960s and 1970s—while shedding its reputation for building only powerful muscle cars and hulking pickup trucks.

The Dart is meant to compete head-to-head with the brisk-selling Chevrolet Cruze, sleek Ford Focus and popular Honda Civic by adding some attitude to the segment. Prospective buyers will have their choice from a long list of optional features, including LED accent lighting, an 8.4-inch touch screen and no less than seven different steering wheel choices. “The traditional ‘why buys?’ in the segment are price, fuel economy and reliability,” says Dodge president Reid Bigland, who chatted with onlookers following the unveiling. “But today those are no longer differentiators. They’re just simply the minimum barriers to entry. We wanted to do more.”

Chrysler wasn’t the only automaker flaunting a little extra flash at the annual industry gathering. Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled a Scion-badged rear-wheel-drive car called the FR-S, built in partnership with Subaru, marking the first time in years it will have a sports car in its lineup. General Motors Co., meanwhile, displayed a sportier version of its subcompact Chevrolet Sonic and two Chevy concept cars that attempted to combine the look of raw power with a frugal budget (with mixed results). For those who can afford the real thing, a long-nosed Lexus sports coupe concept was also on display, as was a low-slung Acura NSX “super car” concept.

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