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At Detroit auto show, car shoppers search for their next set of wheels


Detroit — John Utley of Bloomfield Hills wandered the floor of the Detroit auto show Wednesday, contemplating a replacement for his five-year-old Ram 1500 pickup truck.

In the coming months, he is weighing buying another truck or switching to a hybrid Jeep — though a Chrysler 300 caught his eye as he looked around Stellantis NV's various brand displays.

"I got to get into the car I was looking at, so that's nice," he said. "Who knows ... by the time I walk out of here, I might have a totally different plan."

That's exactly the kind of consumer experience that auto shows are designed to deliver: a one-stop shop where would-be car buyers can explore their options before they make their final decision on one of life's largest purchases. And if Utley ends up visiting a Ram, Jeep or Chrysler dealership to follow through, it'll be an example of what Metro Detroit auto dealers and the organizers of the North American International Auto Show hoped to achieve with a revamped show that made its return last week after a more than three-year hiatus.

"Dealers are thrilled that we have the opportunity to showcase our products and have a centralized place where people can come and see the products and also to be engaged with them and be part of these activations and to experience Detroit and have people get excited about the industry that we love and the products that we sell," said Karl Zimmermann, vice president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, in the run-up to the show, which the DADA organizes. The show opened to the public Sept. 17 and runs through Sunday.

As the site of dozens of high-profile vehicle unveilings and multimillion-dollar outlays by automakers, auto shows already were going by the wayside. The coronavirus pandemic cemented the shift, and the organizers of the Detroit show emphasized that this year's event would aim to put consumers at the forefront.

Regional auto shows in particular have always served as an opportunity for brands to showcase their products and for prospective buyers to explore a variety of options before buying a car, experts said. And that opportunity has taken on new relevance in a vehicle market that has moved toward online ordering amid a nagging inventory crunch caused by parts shortages and other production issues.

"It's often said that a vehicle purchase will be one of the most expensive transactions a person makes in their life, and buying that car or truck online provides the risk of making a big mistake that will last the term of the loan," said Sam Fiorani, vice president of vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions, in an email.

"Buying the wrong vehicle, especially if the buyer never test-drove it or even visited a dealership to sit in it, could deter that person from returning to that dealer or brand and, worse than that, telling friends about their experience," he added. "Car shows can help alleviate that possibility. Building a reputation takes years, but ruining it takes minutes."

'You want to touch it'

Consumers use auto shows in myriad ways, said Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for car shopping website Cars.com. Some have a list of models they want to see in person. Others want to peruse months before they actually make a purchase decision. Others are just there for some family fun.

Jamall Johnson and his family made the trip from Kalamazoo to Detroit Wednesday to check out the new, battery-electric Cadillac Lyriq and several other options they're considering to replace their 2020 Hyundai Palisade. They made the drive "just to see a variety of vehicles in one place and ask questions," Johnson said.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe also caught their eye — and they were hoping to see the latest Lincoln Aviator. But top of mind was getting behind the wheel of the Lyriq.

"It's a new production vehicle and we haven't seen it live," Johnson said. "If you're going to spend $70,000 on a vehicle, you want to touch it."

Candace and John Ammarman of Mason checked out the specs for the 2022 Chevrolet Equinox RS. They're looking to downsize from their Chevy Traverse now that their grandchildren are older. Visiting the show Wednesday helped solidify their interest in the Equinox.

Meanwhile, some auto dealers said they already have seen an impact from the show. Jim Schebil, owner and president of Fox Hills Chrysler Jeep in Plymouth, said after a typical slow start to September, business suddenly picked up.

“It was like on the first day, within the first 5 minutes we had 21 leads,” he said. “People like to go down to the auto show, sit in them, check them out, and then they want to buy them. It’s a great venue now to do that.” The bonus $500 cash being offered on the Jeep Compass crossover and Ram pickup trucks helped, too.

Ford Motor Co., on the other hand, wasn’t offering the bounce-back coupon for which customers at previous auto shows could sign up, said Jim Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn. It still has an ongoing $1,000 incentive for customers ordering a vehicle, he said, but the store hasn’t seen a jump in traffic.

“I had 150 tickets for employees and customers,” he said. “I gave them all away, so that’s a good sign.”

But, he added, “there was a bigger benefit when it was in January. It was a crummy night to go down there with the weather and things, but it was better. You have a lot of competition in the fall.”

'All in one place'

This year's show has some 30 brands represented on the 800,000-square-foot floor at the Huntington Place convention center. Organizers were hoping to attract between 300,000 to 500,000 attendees during the show's public days after hosting roughly 2,000 journalists during preview days last week.

Among the vehicles on display are numerous all-electric models, including the Ford F-150 Lightning, the Volkswagen ID.4, the Buick Wildcat concept, and the GMC Hummer EV, among others.

The transition to EVs is "not happening overnight, and consumers do need to see them, experience them, get to know what they are — and these platforms do have an opportunity to help tell that story," said Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst at S&P Global.

Generally, consumers use auto shows to explore vehicle options roughly three to 12 months before making a purchase decision, she noted.

"The more vehicles that are there in whatever segment that they’re looking for, the better opportunity they have to get into it," Brinley said. "And if they’re considering five different sport utility vehicles, they don’t necessarily have to drive to five different dealerships to see them all. They can see them all in one place."

Experts expect a continued move toward regional, consumer-focused auto shows. Despite the changes, some still see such events as important opportunities for car shoppers to get behind the wheel of a car on which they put down a deposit or to see the variety they won't find in dealership showrooms amid the shift to a lighter inventory retail model.

“I think that trend is only set to continue, as automakers have realized that if they have their own events outside of auto shows, they get a lot more attention for their product for a longer amount of time — and they’re not trying to compete with everybody else that’s unveiling their vehicle at the same time and at the same event," said Bragman of Cars.com.

"Those combination of things and shrinking budgets for these kinds of events from automakers, I think you’re probably going to see a trend more toward this consumer-style thing in the future.”

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble