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The Dealer: Auto shows pack emotional punch for buyers

Published on Friday, 03 February 2012

Last month, I attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, an event that signals the start of the major auto shows across North America.

The Detroit Auto Show is a bellwether event that serves as a gauge of the latest automobile designs and technologies, and future trends.
I’m delighted to report that our industry has gotten its mojo back — with a vengeance. One of the big stories this year is the rebounding of the North American auto industry. The Big Three are producing critically acclaimed and widely popular vehicles in all segments, with solid sales figures to boot.

Auto analysts are predicting sales growth of between 4 and 9 per cent in 2012, representing a third consecutive year of gains. Colleagues that I spoke to were especially upbeat, not only because of the bump in sales but because of all of the ground-breaking designs and technologies being rolled out.

At most major auto shows, a central theme usually emerges based on several key factors: advancements in vehicle design, engineering and technologies; market forces; economic realities; and media talking points.

Although there was plenty of attention focused on “infotainment” systems such as Bluetooth, voice-control systems and touch-screen technology, this year it was all about small, green cars.

Electric cars, hybrid cars and hybrid plug-ins made a significant impact this year, including entries by Lexus (a fuel-efficient hybrid concept car called LF-LC), Toyota (the NS4 plug-in hybrid), Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF (both now available in Canada), Bentley (Continental GT, with a smaller engine), Mercedes Benz (two E Class hybrids), and Acura (the NSX sports car concept with all-wheel drive and two electric motors).

Electric and hybrid vehicles are improving, but so too are gas-powered engines. Of the 17 vehicles competing for the North American Car of the Year in 2011, more than 12 boasted up to 40 miles per gallon. This increased performance is attracting car shoppers who might otherwise have chosen an electric or a hybrid.

Based on my perception of the market, “small” cars are gaining traction among price-conscious and quality-conscious buyers. I saw dozens of smaller cars on display in Detroit, practical mid-size sedans that are affordable to buy and to drive.

One reason automakers are focusing on small cars is to try and woo a younger generation of car buyers. This demographic — referred to as Millennial, or Generation Y — has been more averse to buying new cars, compared to previous generations.

In fact, a 2011 Deloitte survey claimed that Gen Y is more likely to buy a used car than a new one, and Gen Y believes that used cars hold greater value than new cars.

This mindset is posing challenges for automakers in how they design, build and promote automobiles, especially when many young people are choosing not to own a vehicle at all.

Another observation from Detroit is that the buzz surrounding auto shows is still alive and well. We live in a digital age, where more and more of our business and personal affairs are being conducted online, with countless diversions competing for our attention.

It’s encouraging to see that the public still views auto shows as an event worth attending. Of course, auto shows are about glitz and glamour, but they’re also about car enthusiasts connecting with cars in a real, tactile and emotional way.

Car shoppers can conduct all the research they want online, but nothing can replace the pure emotional connection of seeing and touching automobiles up close, and feeling the excitement in the air.

Watch for next week’s column, where I’ll discuss what’s in store at this year’s Canadian International AutoShow ( www.autoshow.ca), which begins on Feb. 17.


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