Tired of taking a beating in the marketplace and in the press in recent years, Detroit-based U.S. automakers appear to be back - with vehicles that are easier on the eyes and on the gas card.

You'll be able to get behind the wheel of more than a few of them, including preproduction models scheduled to hit showrooms in coming months, at the Philadelphia International Auto Show held Saturday through Feb. 11 at the Convention Center.

With 700 vehicles from 40 manufacturers, it's one of the country's largest car shows.

Display cars worth noting include General Motors' Chevy Camaro, a modern interpretation of the classic muscle car with more than a passing nod to its 1960s heyday; and the Ford Reflex, a high-tech, hybrid sports-car concept that's built to show that small and smart can be sexy.

"One thing about the domestics is they're paying more attention to the car market," Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, said of domestic carmakers. The dealer group organizes the show at the Convention Center each year. The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com are among its sponsors.

The Big Three domestic manufacturers - Ford, GM, and nominally domestic DaimlerChrysler - suffered grievously last year as consumers sought relief from rising fuel prices by buying less fuel-thirsty cars, not trucks and SUVs. Manufacturers with strong car offerings, notably Toyota and Honda, weathered the market shift quite well.

The domestic makers offered cars, too, but in the eyes of consumers, their quality and styling couldn't compare to foreign brands.

"As the emphasis changed, they realized they had not paid as much emphasis to passenger cars," Mazzucola said.

What the Big Three automakers came up with, a renewed commitment to design and sell "expressive" and functional cars, can be seen here at the show: a from-the-ground-up redesign of the Chevy Malibu; Ford's sort-of replacement for its Taurus, the Ford 500; and the Saturn Aura sedan, voted 2007 North American Car of the Year by industry journalists.

"I think what the domestics are saying is ... sorry we left you for a little bit, but we're back," Mazzucola said.

Which isn't to say they're abandoning the high profit-margin trucks and SUVs that caused sales to tank. If anything, there's been a continuing effort to make the bigger vehicles more refined and carlike, through such elements as plusher interiors, more smoothly contoured sheet metal, and improved fuel economy.

Unlike the glitzy media-spectacle auto shows in Los Angeles, Detroit and Tokyo, the Philadelphia show's organizers position it as a "consumer-focused" event intended to aid car shoppers. Some past attendees have griped about what they perceived as a dearth of eye-popping concept cars or the attention-grabbing presentations of world-class shows.

It was a sore point last year for organizers, who note that the show will feature striking models such as Audi's R8, a quite unAudi-like, mid-engine sports coupe based on a Lamborghini platform - in addition to the usual assortment of grocery getters.

"We want to create an environment where consumers can come down, have fun, and do their research side-by-side," said Scott Lustgarten, show chair and president of Wilkie Lexus, Martin Dealership Group, and Lexus of Chester Springs.

To that end, radio station WMMR-FM (93.3) is running a "Body2Body" competition Tuesday through Thursday when contestants will try to maintain bodily contact with a car the longest to win it; and auto expert Mark Perleberg of NADAguides will give attendees tips on how best to buy a car at the Wise Wheels seminar next Thursday and Friday.

Celebrities scheduled to make appearances include Eagles Jeff Garcia, David Akers and Jon Runyan; and the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.

As with previous years' shows, those who pay $175 to attend tonight's black-tie gala to benefit Children's Hospital get to tour the show floor before the masses.

For the show's official Web site and multimedia coverage of the show go to: http://go.philly.com/autoshow.

If You Go

The 2007 Philadelphia International Auto Show, produced by the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, is Saturday through Feb. 11 at the Convention Center, 13th and Race Streets.

Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Feb. 11.

Admission: $12 ages 13 and older on weekends, $10 for adults on weekdays, $6 for children ages 7 to 12 on weekends and weekdays, seniors age 62 and older receive a special admission price of $6 weekdays only.

Online admission: $10 ages 13 and older; $6 for children ages 7 to 12.

Advance discount admission: $8 for adults and $6 for children/seniors at 75 SEPTA sales offices, good for use weekdays.

Transit: SEPTA and the dealers association offer a "Turbo Pass" that allows unlimited one-day travel on SEPTA buses, trolleys and trains weekdays. These passes can be purchased for an additional $8 and are not valid on SEPTA Regional Rail trains arriving in Center City prior to 9:30 a.m. For participating sales locations and information, visit www.phillyautoshow.com.