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From high-powered dream machines to practical plug-ins, these are the vehicles that belong on your auto show bucket list

2014 Corvette Stingray C7 This is the seventh generation of one of the most storied car franchises in Detroit history. The C7 Corvette has sparked excitement – and controversy, too, thanks to its rectangular taillights. Corvettes have featured round taillights for 60 years, and fans consider the new ones no less than vehicular apostasy. Since the 1950s, the Corvette has been designed as a rawboned, uniquely American competitor to uppity European performance brands, blowing them away with sheer power and massive grip (look at those steamroller tires). The C7 corrects some of the glaring flaws in the Corvette’s previous iterations (like the interior, which was often compared to a rental car) and ups the performance ante with a lightweight aluminum chassis. The C7 is also beautiful, marred only by an overwrought tail end that may be revised before production begins in 2014.

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Ferrari 599XX Ferrari is an interesting car brand. It has a long and exotic pedigree, and the company has built some of the most beautiful and compelling cars of all time. But the brand has also attracted armies of car snobs and tech dweebs who use the famous prancing horse logo as an image-enhancer. Never mind all that – the 599XX is a track-only car that shows you why Ferrari became fabled in the first place. The shape is elegant yet brutal, and the 599XX has the mechanical goods to back up its looks – under the hood is an aluminum-block V-12 engine that makes 720-horsepower without turbochargers. I love it.

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Scion FR-S The FR-S is an automotive messiah, designed to attract a new generation of car enthusiasts by offering them a sporting yet practical car for a relatively low price. (If you’re old enough to remember the Datsun 240-Z, you’ll understand the FR-S’s mission.) The FR-S is a classic sports coupe, with rear-wheel-drive, a close-ratio transmission, and fully independent suspension on all four wheels. The FR-S was a joint development project between Scion and Subaru, and is powered by a horizontally opposed engine that keeps the centre of gravity low and gives the FR-S a unique exhaust note. I drove one in a slalom competition last summer and liked it a lot.

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Toyota Fun Vii concept With a skin that can change colours, display patterns or photos, the Fun Vii is a mechanized chameleon (some have dubbed it a rolling mood ring). There are no production plans, but the Fun Vii provides a glimpse into a possible automotive future. It’s a sleek glass and composite pod that reminds me of a smart phone – like the phone, the Fun is designed to be infinitely customizable, adapting to the tastes of its owner. According to Toyota, the look of the car can be changed “as easily as downloading a phone app or uploading an image to Facebook.”

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Ford Transit Connect The Transit is not an exciting vehicle. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important one. The Transit Connect has been adopted by everyone from tradespeople to surfers thanks to its superb space utilization – it’s a box on wheels, with barn-style doors that let you roll in anything from a table saw to a motorcycle, or install a set of bunks for a Ken Kesey-style cross-country sojourn. Ford redesigned the Transit for the 2013 model year, and the changes include aerodynamic tweaks that improve the already-good fuel economy.

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Jaguar F-Type If ever there were a halo car, this is it – the new F-Type is the car that can make Jaguar cool again after decades of decline. The F is the direct descendant of the legendary Jaguar E-Type, a sports car that rocked the world when it hit the market in 1961. (Enzo Ferrari called the E-Type “the most beautiful car ever made.) By the time the E-Type went off the market in 1974, Jaguar had lost its automotive mojo. Since then, the company has been known for four-door saloon cars with dated styling and a thirst for premium fuel. The F-Type is the first beautiful Jaguar to come along in decades, and it signifies a return to the British sports-car ethic that first put Jag on the map.

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Acura NSX concept The NSX is a reminder that there’s more to Honda/Acura than mass-market daily drivers like the Civic and Accord. The NSX, expected to go into production in 2015, will be powered by an advanced hybrid system that couples a mid-mounted V-6 internal engine with electric motors mounted at each wheel. (This will allow for tricks like torque vectoring.) The NSX concept is the spiritual descendant of the original Acura NSX, which was built between 1990 and 2005. Like the original, the next-generation NSX will probably become a cult car.

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2013 Porsche 911 The 911 fills two key roles: world-beater sports car and yuppie status symbol. This car has come a long way since it hit the market in 1963. The original was like a hot-rodded VW Beetle – flattened, stretched and far more powerful, but with the same rear-engine layout and air-cooling. Fifty years later, the 911 has morphed into a larger, more capable car, yet it retains the iconic teardrop shape and rear-mounted engine that defined the original. Porsche purists have criticized it as too large, but the car sells. The 911 is automotive gem-polishing at its finest.

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Toyota Plug-In Prius Moving into the vehicular future is tough. A lot of drivers want a green, super-efficient vehicle, but are deeply disappointed by pure electric cars (range limits and lengthy recharge sessions get old fast). The Plug-In Prius solves these problems with a set of brilliant engineering compromises – it can go about 20 kilometres on battery alone, then switches into gas-hybrid mode, giving it unlimited range. In a month-long test drive, the Plug-In gave me the best overall fuel economy I’ve ever experienced this side of a pure electric. Like a pure electric, the Plug-In gave me the satisfaction of filling up with an extension cord. Unlike a pure electric, the Plug-In could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

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McLaren MP4-12C Spyder McLaren CEO Ron Dennis is famous for his Steve Jobs-style perfectionism – he’s the kind of guy who will order 60 redesigns of a single component, or rebuild a factory wall to make the glass panels line up properly. A close-up scrutiny of the MP4-12C Spyder is like looking inside the meticulous mind behind McLaren – the car is a high-speed science project, milled and formed out of carbon-fibre and exotic metals, powered by a howling, twin-turbo motor, and suspended on digitally controlled shocks. I drove the coupe version last summer, and came away staggered by its speed and eerie competence. The Spyder should be even cooler.

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