Taking it all in at the show

Pampered press days are all very well, but the only real way to appreciate the appeal of the auto show is to get right in there.

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

It wasn’t that long ago – at least it doesn’t seem like it – that I would cut out of school for a day to make it down to the auto show on the day that it opened.

It was all part of a strategy for me: the crowds on opening day were usually thinner than on the weekends and I thought (rightly or not) that the staff at the booths of the fancy cars would still be in a good enough mood, if asked nicely, to grant me access to some of my dream cars, to let me sit in them, breathe in the smell of the leather, pretend to work the wheel for just a minute.

I’d spend all day there at the show, visiting every auto maker at least twice, loading myself down with brochures and posters and freebies to the point where I’d be toting a plastic bag in each hand in addition to a bulging backpack.

Then I’d head back toward Union Station, hop on the subway and nearly pass out from exhaustion.

It was a wonderful thing.

And going back to the show this past weekend reminded me just how fun it used to be. Auto shows are work now – where I have to go and get something done, find information for a story – rather than a sensory immersion in all things automotive.

After two days of press conferences and meetings, I was a little tired of walking around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Returning as a show-goer instead of as a reporter proved to completely re-energize me.

Turns out that you, members of the general public, are a much hardier bunch than us journalists. During press days, shuttling between the auto show’s three buildings – via bus or tunnel, covered walkway or stairs – was the source of much complaining.

But in two days of attending the show with the general public and following those same routes, I didn’t hear any complaining. People were way too focused on what exciting car they’d just seen or were going to see next to even notice how long it took to, for example, get from the south Convention Centre to the Rogers Centre.

Sometimes, going from press conference to press conference, it’s easy for auto writers to forget how exciting going to an auto show can be. Many of the cars on display at the show have been at other auto shows around the world – in New York, Geneva, Tokyo and most recently, Detroit – and thus a lot of automotive reporters have already seen them.

To see the public reacting to them for the first time is to be reminded of the emotional connection that even a 2-year-old concept car can make with the public – and why cars like that are still important.

What cars are drawing the most attention (besides the Star Blue Fisker Coachbuild Tramonto parked in the Star booth and which Jim Kenzie had driven up with the car’s owner)?

Flashy and expensive sports cars are as popular as ever, of course. On Saturday, there was a huge crowd around the Audi R8, despite the fact that it was parked on a fairly modest stand deep in the south building. The Lamborghini stand had but two cars on a tiny display up against a wall, but was as busy as any other. The Mercedes SLR McLaren 722 was also a crowd-pleaser, no doubt partly because there was also a pristine vintage 300SL parked beside it.

Back in the north building, I wasn’t the only one drooling all over a bright-red Porsche 911 GT3 (the only version, sniff, of the latest 911 that I have yet to try). In the Rogers Centre, the Ron Fellows Corvette Z06 was proving very popular; indeed, I spoke to two Wheels readers who actually had ones on order.

Exotic cars are a big draw for car enthusiasts, but it’s important to remember (and for us in the media, easy to forget) that a lot of auto show visitors aren’t there just to check out the latest and greatest and the stuff they can’t afford; a lot of them are actually there to shop for their next vehicle.

For them, it’s the opportunity to check out all the models they’re considering in one place that’s the show’s major attraction and the justification for its entry fee.

Even if two possible purchases were in two different buildings, seeing them both – and obtaining brochures and even speaking with no-pressure sales consultants on the floor – was still a heck of a lot easier than travelling from dealership to dealership.

Perhaps validating a couple of major manufacturers’ decision to abandon the minivan market – Ford and GM are both going to let their minis die – crossovers seem to be among the highest-traffic areas on the show floors.

New entries from Ford (Edge), Mitsubishi (Outlander), Hyundai (Santa Fe and the $40,000-plus Veracruz), General Motors (GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook) and others garnered a lot of interest. Kia’s Rondo drew crowds, as did Nissan’s Rogue.

Reflecting a societal interest in environmental issues, cars proclaiming to be “green” were all over the place.

GM’s display does a great job of explaining the various technologies used in a number of its vehicles, while Toyota and Lexus also give hybrid cars (including the Camry Hybrid, Canada’s latest Car of the Year) a lot of prominence. Interestingly enough, even Honda’s motorcycle display makes the environment an important part of its signage (“safety, environment, fun,” it proclaims).

The overall quality of the displays themselves is the best of any Toronto auto show. GM runs live exhibits on its main stage all through the show.

Even if it isn’t as big as the building the company erects at the Frankfurt auto show, BMW’s stand is of equal quality – beautifully executed and with great lighting and presentation.

Both Kia and Mitsubishi have stands that house more cars, and look way better, than their American equivalents at the Detroit auto show less than two months ago (the Mitsubishi stand, in particular, was packed with people when I visited, most eyeing the Lancer Evolution teaser parked out front).

Given what has been, for some of the manufacturers, a pretty rough year, it’s great to see there’s still a lot of energy on the show floor – something that the public could really feel as they milled around.;

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