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Auto Shows Still Exist, but They Look Different

From the October 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

I’m at the Quail, a Motorsports Gathering. This is a vintage-car show held on the Friday before the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Hold up, am I buffering? This is supposed to be the column for the new-cars issue, the one packed with all the model-year changes and redesigns and the old joke about the still-unavailable de Sade package on the Mercury Grand Marquis. What’s with the old cars?

The Quail used to be mainly a show for classic metal. It’s now the modern auto show. Traditional auto shows are in decline, something we wrote about three years ago [“The Show Must Go On,” December 2019]. Since then, a lot has happened to accelerate the retreat. Carmakers are questioning the returns on building a show stand, displaying cars, and paying for all of that carpet. There will still be shows, but the days of the Detroit, New York, Paris, and Los Angeles shows being a cavalcade of significant debuts and concept cars are fading fast in the rearview.

I’d accepted that in-person debuts and press conferences were dead, and then I went to the Quail. The car show for 1 percenters and auto writers who don’t wear sweatpants in public, the Quail is now filled with debuts from luxury brands like Bentley, Bugatti, Lincoln, Lucid, Porsche, and, yes, even Kia. It felt like Frankfurt 2003, but with better food and fancier hats.

I asked Dave Gardner, executive vice president of business and sales at Honda, about Acura’s decision to stage two big debuts at the Quail. Acura’s first EV in concept form and its new IMSA GTP hybrid race car would have been must-sees for both the general-admission folks and brand loyalists at the Detroit show a few weeks later. Why do it here? It’s obvious to me that the Quail offers validation to brands that are relatively new to the luxury segment. Gardner brought up a less obvious point: Market analysis suggests only a dismal fraction of traditional auto-show attendees are inspired to make a purchase. However, the Quail-goers, the salmon-trousers-clad set that slurps oysters between selfies with prewar racers, are perennially in-market buyers of expensive goods—watches, helicopter subscriptions, maybe even a Korean EV. Case in point: A PR rep working Kia’s stand had to inform one insistent visitor that the Kia EV6 GT on display could not yet be purchased at any price.

The above marks just one way automakers are rethinking how to introduce you to your next car. They’re also rethinking advertising, the dealer experience, and pricing. Weird stuff is happening. As shortages sideline price negotiation, Gardner tells me buyers are leaving dealer­ships happier after paying sticker than they were when dickering with Lance in the sweater vest. Clearly, how you’ll meet your next mechanical companion is changing. Speaking of changes, the new-cars section on page 31 charts all of them for 2023. I know Eric Howell of Urbandale, Iowa, has been waiting to find out whether the Mustang Mach-E will have a de Sade package.

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