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Start Your Car Search at an Auto Show

Nov. 15, 2016
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The auto show season is underway, and if you think these events are only for car superfans, think again: They’re actually perfect places to shop for your next new car.

While you can’t purchase a vehicle at an auto show, for about the same ticket price as a movie, you’re free to compare as many models as you’d like. You can sit behind the wheel, pile in the kids to see if they all fit in the back seat, and learn about the latest safety and performance features from product specialists.

Some shows even offer test drives. The Los Angeles Auto Show expects to have almost 100 models that visitors can sign up to drive.

Small car shows pop up throughout the year all over the country, but four major events tend to steal all the thunder. The season starts in November with the Los Angeles Auto Show — known for its eco-friendly niche. Detroit’s North American International Auto Show follows in January, then Chicago’s Auto Show in February. The season closes with the New York International Auto Show in April. Check out this list of other local shows.

Here’s why it makes sense to do your comparison shopping at an auto show:

You’ll see cars from many makers under one roof

Usually, to comparison-shop cars, you have to spend your weekends running across town from one dealership to another — and you’re likely to look at only a few with your limited time and energy. At an auto show, you can check out your favorite brand’s newest models, then simply walk across the convention center floor to scope out the competitors. You may even find a car you never would have considered before — simply because it’s so easy to see and experience in person.

There’s no sales pressure

Each area is staffed by auto experts — but not salespeople. They’re not interested in selling you the car there on the spot; they just want to help you learn more about their models.

“They’re product specialists … not salespeople you’d find at a normal dealership who are based on commission,” says Mike Asner, senior director of Digital and Show Marketing for the L.A. Auto Show.

These experts tend to have the cutting-edge updates from their manufacturers, so shoppers can learn about new car technology without feeling rushed or confused. You may meet some car salespeople as well — likely doing their own research to learn about what’s coming.

You’ll see cars that dealers don’t have yet

Auto show attendees get to see new cars before they even hit the dealerships. This is where the much-anticipated new models are debuted, so you can avoid the buyer’s remorse of getting the model currently in stock, not realizing that the next version will have features or colors you would have preferred. If you’ve done your research at the show, you’ll be ready to buy when the cars actually roll onto the lot.

How to prepare

If you do decide to start your car buying adventure with one of these shows, a little preparation goes a long way.

To avoid the crowds, stick to weekdays and earlier hours. Try to give yourself several hours to explore all the cars. The average participant spends three to four hours covering the entire show, according to Asner. You’ll want time to see the vast selection, tinker with the interactive elements — such as iPads that design your ideal ride, or carmakers’ booths where you can win prizes — and talk to all the representatives.

Bigger auto shows also have smartphone apps that map the showroom floor and provide live updates, which are invaluable in making sure you see all you want to see.

And remember, if you’re truly in the market, you can work out the numbers in advance with an auto loan calculator to see how much car you can afford — before you get swept off your feet by the next big thing.

Nicole Arata is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected].