There's plenty to love about auto shows. Some people get a kick out of seeing new models before they are available to the public. Others like to get a closer look at the rare and exotic cars that they hope to own one day. But aside from being an enthusiast's playground, an auto show can be a valuable tool if you're in the market to buy a new car.
In November, the Los Angeles auto show kicks off the auto show season. Next up in January is the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Chicago Auto Show follows in February, and the New York International Auto Show closes out the season in April. In addition to these four major U.S. auto shows, there are also a number of smaller auto shows in cities throughout the country.
To transition from a casual auto show attendee to a sharp-eyed shopper and researcher, you'll need to have a game plan. Here are some pointers.
Plan a Course of Action
You can approach auto shows from two car-shopper's perspectives. If you have no idea what the right car for you is, use the show to see what's new and which models grab your attention. If you already have an idea of the car you want, use the show to get a more detailed look at it and to check out its competition.
All of the major auto shows post show-floor plans on their Web pages. Print out the plan for the show you're going to attend and circle the location of the automakers whose cars you want to see first. You also should add in a couple of other carmakers you hadn't considered. This will help you plan the most efficient route along the show floors, which are often quite large and can be spread out among convention center halls.
Avoid the Crowds
The opening weekend of any auto show draws the biggest crowds. If you show up then, you'll be squeezing your way through masses of people just to get a glimpse of a car. And if you manage to sit inside a car you're interested in, you'll probably be joined by other people who also are folding the seats up and down and pushing every button there is — not the most relaxed way to assess a car. If possible, try to go to the show on a weekday, preferably as soon as the doors open. But if you can only go on one of the busier days, make sure you show up as early as possible.
Once you're on the show floor, give yourself a minimum of two hours to see everything, says Brendan Flynn, director of communications for the LA Auto Show. That way, you can proceed at your own pace and ask the carmakers' representatives as many questions as you need to.
Going to an auto show allows you to compare the greatest number of cars in the shortest amount of time and distance. It's a much better use of your time than crisscrossing town to visit various dealerships. Don't just look at the car that interests you most. Be sure to check out its competitors, too. If you don't know what the competition is, ask the representatives at the show. They'll know. You should also take a look at our model reviews and road tests ahead of time. We always list a vehicle's competitors in our reviews.
Don't hesitate to put the car through its (stationary) paces. Sit in the front and backseats. Which vehicle is the most comfortable? Which is a good fit for the size of your family? Take a look at the buttons and dials on the instrument panel. Are they well-designed and intuitive? Pop the trunk and picture whether it could haul your average amount of cargo. These questions and their answers will help you determine if the car you're considering fits your needs.
Talk to the Reps
One of the best things about an auto show is the lack of sales pressure. Most of the people staffing the manufacturers' exhibits are not salesmen. "They're trained to be experts on the vehicles," Flynn says. This can be a tremendous help to you. In our experience, many salespeople aren't as knowledgeable about the vehicles as you might think. The auto-show reps have to be well-schooled in the cars on display. Don't hesitate to ask the many questions you may have about the cars you're seeing.
Car technology is moving at such a rapid pace that it can be tough to keep up with how it works and what it does. The carmaker representatives at the show can give you tutorials on anything from pairing your phone via Bluetooth to inputting an address on the navigation system.
Interact and Participate
As an incentive for people to get involved (and, in some cases, to encourage them to share their contact information), some automakers will offer small prizes, such as gift cards, to consumers who participate in the tutorials and trivia contests, Flynn says. These are fun ways to learn about the car and potentially go home with a reward.
Many carmakers' booths are set up with interactive elements such as iPads or computer kiosks. These can provide more in-depth information, allow you to configure the vehicle with options or show you what the car looks like in another color.
Take a Test-Drive
Some auto shows have "ride and drive" events. This is a great opportunity to test-drive the cars you're considering without having to go to multiple dealerships. Not every auto show offers test-drives, nor will the drives include every vehicle on display. But there is no better research than taking a car for a spin yourself. Even if you only go for a ride-along, you can still get a feel for how comfortable the ride is and how loud the road noise or engine noise might be.
Steps To Take After the Show
By the end of your visit, you should have a better idea of which car you might want to buy. Jot down a few notes while the impressions are still fresh in your mind. Make a list of pros and cons for each vehicle to help you decide.
You'll likely find manufacturer suggested retail prices for vehicles at the show. That may or may not be the actual selling price of the cars, however. For more detailed pricing information, take a look at our new car section. If you want to start looking for your vehicle on dealer lots, our new car inventory tool can help. Finally, if you are a first-time new-car buyer, we've also got you covered with a guide that walks you through the process.