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.
The Los Angeles auto show kicks off the season in November. 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 U.S. season in April. In addition to these four major U.S. shows, there are also a number of smaller auto shows in cities throughout the country.
You'll need to have a game plan to transition from a casual auto show attendee to a sharp-eyed shopper and researcher, however. Here are some pointers.
You can approach an auto show from two shopper perspectives. If you're just getting started and have no idea what car is right for you, 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 closer look at a vehicle and check out its competition.
Plan a Course of Action, Via Your Smartphone
Most of the major auto shows have smartphone apps that feature a map of the show floor, exhibit hours and a list of the vehicles on display. Pay attention to the car brand you want to see and note what other makers are nearby. You also should stop by the booths of a few 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.
We also recommend that you download the Edmunds app, available for both Apple and Android smartphones. It's an invaluable tool, whether you need to read an expert review on a car or you want to compare its manufacturer's suggested retail price with its actual average selling price in your area (assuming the car is already in dealer showrooms). You can even enter figures in a calculator to estimate your monthly payment.
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 to 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, vice president of marketing and communications for the L.A. auto show. That way, you can proceed at your own pace and ask the carmakers' representatives as many questions as you need to.
An auto show allows you to compare the greatest number of cars in the shortest amount of time and distance. It is 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 the competitors, ask the representatives at the show. 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. If you're short on time, the Edmunds app will come in handy: The model reviews are formatted for on-the-go reading.
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 salespeople. "They're trained to be experts on the vehicles," Flynn says.
This can be a tremendous help to you. The auto show reps have to be well schooled in the cars on display and since some of the new vehicles haven't yet hit the dealer showrooms, they may be more up to date on car features. Don't hesitate to ask them any 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
Some automakers will offer small prizes, such as gift cards, to visitors who participate in the tutorials and trivia contests or are willing to share their contact information, Flynn says. The activities 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. These are 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 ride comfort, road noise and engine purr (or roar).
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.
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.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.