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How to find your next car at an auto show

It offers a more hands-on experience than you'd get by simply researching online.

When you’re in the market for a new car, an auto show can help you scope out which vehicle might be right for you. It’s the only place where you can see models from several different car brands all at once. And you can also preview vehicles that haven’t been released yet — or find that classic car you’ve always dreamed of.

How to pick a car at an auto show in 5 steps

Follow these steps to get the most out of your trip to an auto show. These events typically aren’t free, so planning ahead can help ensure you get your money’s worth.

1. Plan before you go

Most shows have a smartphone app you can download. Use this to do some preliminary research on cars you might be interested in checking out. Make a route for yourself so you don’t accidentally miss any vehicles — but also leave some room to look at models you didn’t expect to like.

Try skipping opening weekend and block out a few hours to spend there when it’s not crowded. Plan to wear comfortable clothing and bring layers so you can give all of your attention to the car. Got friends who might want to tag along? Bring them so you can get a second opinion.

2. Take your time comparing cars

The beauty of an auto show is that you can really interact with the vehicle. Try out the front and back seats, and see how any additional features work — like a sun roof or folding seats. Pop the trunk, and take lots of pictures so you can compare makes and models when you get home.

3. Ask questions

While car shows aren’t meant for selling cars, there are often sales staff on hand to answer any questions you might have. Ask about prices and deals that might be available on the vehicles you’re interested in. Also consider asking about financing options through the dealership. You can compare that to what private lenders are offering later.

If you’re not interested in talking to a salesperson, you can often get a fair amount of information about the cars by visiting the kiosks. Manufacturers often set up computers or iPads that have all the details you may be looking for.

4. Test-drive — or make an appointment

Many auto shows allow you to test-drive vehicles, though it might be indoors. This can give you an idea of what it feels like behind on the wheel. But it might not give you the full experience.

If you’re seriously considering a vehicle, you might want to also make an appointment with your local dealership. That way you’ll have some extra time to consider your options and can really take the car out on the road.

5. Crunch the numbers

Once you’ve gotten quotes and learned about financing, use our car loan calculator to find out how much the different cars you’re considering might cost you. Pay attention to the following numbers:

  • Down payment. Most lenders require you to make at least a 20% down payment on the vehicle.
  • Monthly cost. A longer term can give you lower monthly repayments.
  • Total cost. A shorter term can reduce the amount you pay in interest and fees over the life of the loan.

Depending on where you live, here are a few auto shows you might want to look in to:

ShowNext dateCost for adults
Los Angeles Auto ShowNovember 22 – December 1, 2019TBD
Chicago Auto ShowFebruary 8–17, 2020$13 per day
Philadelphia Auto ShowFebruary 8–16, 2020TBD
Atlanta International Auto ShowFebruary 26–March 1, 2020TBD
New York International Auto ShowApril 10–19, 2020$17 per day
North American International Auto Show (Detroit)June 13–20, 2020TBD

Why start my car search at an auto show?

Looking for a car at an auto show has several advantages that you won’t get anywhere else.

Compare cars from different manufacturers in person

One of the main perks of an auto show is that you aren’t limited to one manufacturer. Rather than having to drive from dealership to dealership, you can see all of the latest models in one place.

Get a sneak peek at new models

Car shows are often where manufacturers debut new models for the coming year. You often won’t be able to see these at dealerships for at least a few months. This could be particularly helpful if you’re not in a rush to buy.

No pressure to buy

While there are sales representatives at auto shows, they’re not selling the way they would at a dealership. In fact, you generally can’t buy a car at an auto show. While it’s still a sales event, it has a different feel than looking at cars at a dealership.

4 tips for visiting at an auto show

Keep these pointers in mind when planning your trip to an auto show:

  1. Avoid the crowds. If you can swing it, try to go in the morning or early afternoon on a weekday. And try to avoid the opening weekend.
  2. Take advantage of the app. Downloading the auto show app can help you strategize before you even get there.
  3. Participate. Many kiosks have interactive features and games where you can win prizes like gift cards. You’ll learn more about the cars you’re seeing, get some freebies and possibly have more fun.
  4. Take notes while it’s fresh. Write down your impressions right after you leave the show to help you come to a decision later on. Making a pros and cons list can help you decide between two vehicles.

Bottom line

Auto shows can be a great place to get started on your search for a new car. You’ll have a more hands-on experience than you would researching online and can get a ballpark idea of what you’d pay for several different brands. But it’s not ideal if you’re pressed for time — it’s not a year-round event, and you’ll need to spend a few hours walking around.

When you’re ready to buy a car, you can read about your financing options with our guide to auto loans.

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