It’s auto show season, and while that means breathless updates on new concepts and model debuts on enthusiast blogs and social media, the average car shopper probably isn’t paying much attention. It can seem like car shows are more for gearheads than everyday car shoppers, so it’s easy to bypass the auto show in your community. However, for people in the market for a new car, auto shows offer a great opportunity to explore, compare and shop for a new vehicle.  

The 2014 Honda Pilot at the Washington DC Auto Show (U.S. News)

David T. Fischer knows a thing or two about car shopping and auto shows. He’s the chairman and CEO of The Suburban Collection, which is the 13th largest automotive sales group in the U.S. and sells 32 different brands of cars. He’s also the chairman emeritus of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which is one of the largest auto shows in North America. According to Fischer, auto shows are a great place for car shoppers.

“To me, an auto show is the ultimate shopping mall,” says Fischer. “Virtually every car that’s on sale in America is on display. It’s well-lit, warm and comfortable and there’s always pricing and other information available.” 

Though regional shows may not have the splashy concepts and debuts that shows in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York have, Fischer says that they still have “the bulk of everyday cars” that most people are looking to buy. An auto show in your community may not have the cachet of a show in a major city, but that usually means the focus is more on the average car shopper, not people who care more about horsepower than day-to-day livability. 

Here’s what you need to know to shop for a new car at an auto show.

1. Prioritize

With almost every car offered for sale in the U.S. at many auto shows, if you’re planning on shopping, you need a game plan. Before you head to a show, think about the cars you want to get a closer look at. “Start with the brands that are close to your price range and prioritize from there,” says Fischer. You can also browse cars online (our new car rankings are a good place to start) to create a list of your must-see cars at the show.

2. Plan Ahead

Car shows are large events, so knowing where the cars you’re interested in are located will save you a lot of time and a lot of steps. Before you hit your local show, or soon after you arrive, get a map of the show’s layout so you’ll know where you need to go to see the cars you want to see. Wearing comfortable clothes will help too; you’re going to be doing a great deal of walking and getting in and out of a lot of cars.

One of the best things about cars shows is the access you have to the cars themselves. At an auto show, most mainstream models will be open for visitors to explore. That means you can try out all the seats, check the cargo area and look at interior features. Bring anyone who will regularly be driving or riding in the car you’re thinking about buying. Make sure everyone finds the seats comfortable and has enough space. Check out features, like folding seats and pass-throughs to the third row, to make sure you’re comfortable with how they work. You and your crew probably won’t be able to drive the car, but you can make sure pretty much everything else about it works for you.

4. Compare, Compare, Compare

Shopping for a car under normal circumstances is tiring. As soon as you see one car, you need to drive to another dealership to compare it to another. At an auto show, however, comparable cars are just a short walk away. While one car is fresh in your mind, head over to the competition so you can compare.

An auto show can be a no-pressure place to shop for a new car (U.S. News)

5. Shop in Private

Not everyone likes to have a salesperson hovering while they shop for a car. At an auto show, however, there tends to be limited sales staff, and most of them leave visitors alone, unless the visitor asks a question. That means you can take your time and really explore a car. If you have questions, just look around. Chances are, someone from the car brand or a local dealership is there to answer questions and give you more information.

6. Follow Up

After exploring the cars you’re interested in at a car show, it’s time to follow up on the cars that suit your needs the best. While you can’t buy a car at most car shows, you can set up an appointment for a test drive at a later date with any dealer staff who may be there. You can also take home more information on the cars you’re considering. Fischer notes that car shows, “used to have a lot of brochures, but now it’s all online.” Look for QR codes to scan and other online resources near the cars you’re considering. If you really want a brochure, just ask. There’s probably one available. Whether you go paper or online, auto show resources should point you to dealers in your area to complete your purchase. 

7. Have Some Fun

While you may go to the auto shop on a mission, don’t forget to have a little fun. Even smaller regional shows will likely have a few luxury cars on display, and who knows when you’ll have another chance to sit in a Bentley or Audi again? “Even if you’re not looking for a Porsche, they might be next to the VW display” at a show, says Fischer. “You can look at one and think, ‘maybe someday.’”