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Auto shows evolving

One of the first things that really grabs your attention the first few times you drive an all-electric car is its instantaneous response and quickness of acceleration.

That’s among the takeaways after spending a day last weekend at Motor Bella in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac.

A large number of drive-and-ride-along opportunities made up a significant portion of the event, which was billed by organizers as the future of auto shows.

That’s a big promise coming from the people who have brought you the North American International Auto Show. Traditionally held during the middle of January, those who run the Detroit show decided to make some modifications to the traditional format in response to changes in the way manufacturers thought the shows should look and in how they wanted to market their cars.

The 2019 show in Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit, while impressive, had some glaring brands missing, including many of the high-end German manufacturers. That led to a significant portion of the hall being curtained off, and a reduction in the number of displays. Despite that, the show still attracted more than 750,000 visitors.

That helped drive the decision to transform the show into an outdoor event in downtown Detroit in the fall of 2020, where attendees would be able to see samples of what the makers offered and participate in more hands-on events in a brighter, more festive atmosphere. COVID-19 put a halt to those plans and set into motion a series of decisions that led to the creation of the event at the M1 Concourse.

Set across the 87 acres of the facility, the show featured about 350 cars from 35 brands. That meant attendees still were able to get some of that traditional experience, by getting up-close looks at vehicles and having the opportunity to examine many of them inside and out.

But the outdoor setting made it more practical for the manufacturers to offer additional experiences, from actually driving some of the new models to riding along as professional drivers put performance vehicles and SUVs through their paces.

It all made for a day that was pretty far removed from what we’ve come to expect from auto shows.

Seeing an Audi etron, for example, is one thing. Of course, it’s a beautiful vehicle and comes with all of the amenities you would expect to find in any offering from the German luxury brand. Having the opportunity to get behind the wheel and take it on a five-minute-or-so test drive over city streets took that experience to a new level.

Same with the Mustang Mach-E.

Both vehicles offered the chance to experience state-of-the-art technology. Both rode extremely well and both showed an incredible get-up-and-go when the opportunity game to really use the accelerator. There were some differences. The regenerative braking system in the Audi was much-less noticeable and could be accessed from one of the paddles on the steering column. When the Mustang is in the One-Pedal mode, which can be accessed from the touchscreen in the center of the dashboard, the effort is much more noticeable, but it will let you come to a stop after removing your foot from the accelerator.

The Ford specialist described it as being similar to driving a golf cart — it does stop in pretty short order after your foot comes off the pedal.

Ford went a step further, also offering the chance to drive an Expedition, a Bronco, a Bronco Sport and an F-150.

While highly responsive and fun to drive, the Audi and Mustang were missing something — that satisfying sound that comes from a V-8 (OK, now most likely a V-6 or a turbocharged four-cylinder engine) when the right foot is lowered. That, sadly, apparently is a sound that is quickly disappearing from our lives.

A ridealong offered by Ford also showed off the Mach-E’s turning ability (there’s no big engine in the front to get in the way of the wheels) and its acceleration and braking capabilities (all demonstrated while riding with a professional driver on a closed course.)

The outdoor setting allowed Jeep and Ford to show off the capabilities of the Wrangler and Bronco, at Camp Jeep and Bronco Mountain. Unlike the Bronco track — which included some mud and lots of metal — the Jeep demonstration was set up on a man-made dirt track.

Both rides (driven by professional drivers on a closed course) were good at showing just how capable the vehicles were.

Because of the rain that hit the Detroit area late in the week and stayed around well into the morning on Sept. 25, Camp Jeep opened late, but the extra mud only made the experience better. Sadly for those who visited the exhibit later in the day, the Jeeps were seen bypassing the giant made-made hill that dominated the course, meaning some riders didn’t get to experience the climbing or breaking demonstrations.

Just as sad was that the Ram TRX experience, located right next to Camp Jeep, was not able to open at all.

All of that rain, though, did nothing to slow the Dodge Thrill Ride, where passengers had the chance to experience all of the wheel-screeching power that makes the Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcats legendary (professional drivers, closed course.)

The day also offered the chance to get up-close-and-personal with the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer introduced by Stellantis. Though obviously a luxury extension of the Jeep brand, the full-sized, three-row SUVs are not labeled as Jeeps and are being marketed as a sub-brand. (Though the Jeep logo was easy to spot on the moulding around the driver’s side mirror, probably a little bit too big and a little too easy to find than most of the Easter eggs the brand is famous for.)

Fortunately, the steady rain the morning of Sept. 25 gave way to sunshine right before noon, which made Motor Bella much more enjoyable.

And that points to the problems that can go along with outdoor events — rain can put a big damper on the activities. But it also kept attendance down during the early part of the day, which dramatically shortened the waits to get onto the experiences.

Change is not always for the better, but Motor Bella showed how something as familiar as an auto show can be transformed into a new experience while maintaining a lot of the atmosphere of the traditional event.

And it means you likely can expect to see other auto shows upping their game — for instance, the website of the Pittsburgh International Auto Show promises that those who attend the 2022 event — set for Feb. 18-21 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center — will find “a new look and feel to enhance our … show experience.”

The auto show we have come to know is being transformed (sadly, that means you will find fewer printed brochures but plenty of opportunity to have information texted or e-mailed to you.) But all of those changes mean a better, more encompassing experience, whether you are a car guy or girl or someone who’s looking for his or her next vehicle.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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