Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Visit to the 2014 St. Louis Auto Show

My car turns 10 this year. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem; I love my car. It's served me well for (counts on fingers...) 6 1/2 years now.

The only problem is that the old gal is getting a little long in the tooth. She's already needed $3000 put into her to replace transmission fluid lines and other needed repairs about a year ago, and the last time I took her in I was told she needed another $2500 in repairs in the next year or so.

So I've decided to get a new one once all of the snow and salt is gone.

Naturally, this meant a trip to this year's auto show.

For those of you outside of St. Louis, the Auto Show is probably the most action the Edward Jones Dome sees all year. For months ahead of time, there's a huge media blitz, as area TV and radio stations take some of that sweet, sweet, "yes-blood-for-oil" cash of the car companies in exchange for hundreds of outsized promo spots ("Brett Hull will be there! Come watch some stunt driver show his stuff! Free climbing wall and play area for the kids!")

As a result, thousands of people from around the area pay $10 a pop to check out new cars from probably a dozen different manufacturers.

I decided to go on Thursday because my schedule as a freelancer gives me some flexibility, and I was going to be damned if I fought through hordes of MethCo types on Sunday just to sit in a few cars to "whittle down" my potential choices.

Little did I know the adventure that awaited me! I was so blown away that I decided to write up a little travelogue about the experience, so that others attending this weekend might better plan their time down there. Without further delay, please enjoy:

-My first dilemma: where to park? Unfortunately, since I didn't know how long I'd be at the show, I couldn't park at a meter. I had a choice: either use the garage at the U.S. Bank building, which was $2/hr (greedy bastards!) or the dilapidated convention center/Embassy Suites garage next to the circular entrance to the Dome for $1/hr. Despite the general skeeviness of the latter, it was a whole $1/hr less than the U.S. Bank garage, so I decided to go with that one.

-Is this the most depressing set of elevator buttons you've ever seen?

I don't know what kind of area sports fan came up with this scheme, but it defies any kind of logic. How are the Cards in the middle? Blues at the top, Rams at the bottom, just an all-around mess.

-I rode the elevator down with an elderly couple and another 30-ish guy. We disembarked, and the older gentleman's face scrunched up. "Excuse me, do either of you know what 'pay at the pay station' means? Is there some kind of machine we have to use to prepay?"

I look at the other guy. He shrugs his shoulders, "I dunno."

Really? Seriously? I hope my snort conveyed the proper level of disdain. "Yeah, you put your ticket in afterward and pay before you get back in the car, since the machine doesn't know how long you've parked until you're done." The old man got a kick out of that one and thanked me.

Honestly, though, was it such an imposition for the other guy to explain this? Or did he actually not know? Either way, I question his value to our society...

-The first thing I noticed when I got inside: the beer cart was open and ready for business! At 12:30...on a Thursday.

I nodded at the woman manning it, "Bet you only get the die-hards at this hour..." I asked.

As if on cue from the guy behind me: "One Bud Light, please!"

The woman smiled and shook her head, and dutifully filled up the $8.50, 32-once beer for the guy.

-At this point, it would probably be helpful to tell you what I was looking for in terms of a car. As a freelancer, it's tough to know exactly what my budget is, since good months can bring in quite a lot, and not-so-good months are...well...not-so-good for a reason.

Regardless, I was looking for something midsize, with a big enough trunk to fit both my softball stuff and golf clubs at the same time. Leather seats would be a plus, but not necessary. I'd like a good amount of tech (synching up my phone to play music and podcasts would be great), and stuff like a back-up camera would help me scare the shit out of avoid mowing down neighbors and children.

I went into the show targeting the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion as potentially good fits, though I was very open to being convinced otherwise and determined to hit up pretty much all manufacturers that had cars that fit the bill. If there was one "favorite" that I had identified, it was the Nissan Altima; I don't think it's any secret that I enjoy a good sit while driving, and apparently Nissan had NASA engineers design the seats in the Altima. I just hoped that meant that it didn't break into a million fiery pieces. NASA engineering something? What could possibly go wrong?!

-My first victim? The kindly folks at Dodge. I looked at the Challenger and the Charger, but neither really fit what I had in mind. I've driven enough of those weird-looking Chargers with the station wagon back as rental cars to be okay with never setting ass in that driver's seat again. The Challenger, though easy on the eyes, gets garbage gas mileage and is kind of pricey with all of the features I'm looking for.

Not wanting a Jeep (sorry, J. Adams) or Chrysler (yikes...), I shifted my focus to...

-Honda on the other side of the room. Both the Accord and Civic were fine automobiles, though I (obviously) liked the price tag on the Civic better. The only problem? To get leather seats in the Civic, you have to get the super-premium model. This wouldn't be too much of a problem if the standard fabric seats didn't look like they came directly out of Walter White's Aztek, blood stains, blue meth and all. Seriously, they have some kind of weird tribal weave pattern on them that will have people facepalming three years from now--mark my words!

(It's okay--I know you won't. Very few people mark other peoples' words nowadays, unless they're running for office and/or drunk and cross the line. It's part of the reason why I was semi-successful in the sportswriting biz!)

-Acura was next up. I have a couple of buddies that have Acuras, and they seem to like them well enough. Since Acura is the luxury arm of Honda, I figured their cars would be way out of my price range.

Not true--the ILX actually was a pleasant surprise, clocking in at under $30k. If I stretch a bit (or get a big gig here in the next couple of months), I could maybe even get into the TSX, which has a lot more cool bells and whistles in it. I don't know what it was about the Acuras that I liked so much, other than the "feel" of the cockpit--seemingly innocuous details to other people like "how my right elbow rests on the center console/armrest" and "how the steering wheel lines up with the speedometer" are crucial to me, since I know if I get them wrong they'd drive me absolutely nuts.

I think both Acuras fit the bill--I'll have to test drive them to be sure.

-Fiat? Uh...pass! Despite what Catrina Menghia would have you believe, I don't think driving a Fiat will have supermodels throwing themselves at me, unless it's in a "aw, poor baby, probably doesn't even know how to fix a burned out headlight!"-before-she-toussles-my-hair sort of way. Which simply isn't true--I now know how to change a headlight, thanks to a very nice lady at an auto parts store in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, thank you very much!

-Scion? No thanks. I hear they're getting better, but as long as these:

are still on the road, I just can't trust them.

-I bolted right past the Subaru booth (sorry, Paul Hogan) to the Nissan exhibit. Finally, I could see the heavenly seats Altima in action.

But first, I got sidetracked by the Sentra. I have to admit: it pleasantly surprised me. Granted, for some reason, they employed the same pseudo-tribal pattern on the fabric as Honda, but other than that, it's a comfortable car for a compact.

A good-looking gal with high cheekbones came over and asked if I wanted more info on the Sentra. I said "Sure!" (perhaps too-enthusiastically)...and waited. I answered every question about myself short of "what's your shoe size?" "what brand of condoms do you use?", and "what's your bank password so that we can skip all of this 'sell you a car' business and just funnel your cash directly into our pockets?"

Finally, I got a chance to sit in an Altima. I have to admit, it was great--I did kind of feel like I was in Gravity, though that may have had more to do with the sports bra and tights I was wearing than anything else. Still a strong contender...

-Next up: Toyota. I didn't care for the Corolla too much, even though it's light years ahead of anything built even five years ago, save for the same awful pattern on the seats. I swear to God, these car companies are trying to make it so that if you spill coffee on the seat, it's an improvement.

I liked the Camry, and found myself inexplicably drawn to the Prius. I think it was the gas mileage: after seeing a bunch of big numbers on the stickers between 26-32, that "50" really stands out.

A very nice salesman with a 4-letter name ("Greg?" "Tony?" "Mark?"), likely sensing a mark, came over and struck up a conversation about the Prius with me.

Now, I don't know if I'm quite ready to be a "Prius guy." San Fran is a cool enough town, I guess, but the smug is just TOO MUCH for me. At the same time...that sweet, sweet gas mileage...3 times better than my current car! Oh, the places I could go, oh the people I could see...

And yet...the only people I know who own Priuses are ladies. Which is cool--I applaud their responsible stewardship of the environment. But when the car sounds like something out of "The Jetsons" and has all of the pickup of a pimply high schooler with a cracking voice (or so I've heard...), I just don't know if it's for me.

Still, I signed up for the mailing list, in spite of the numerous red flags that the Target credit card scandal should've raised, and moved on to the next booth.

-As a complete aside, I tend to turn on Frasier on the Hallmark Channel for background noise as I write these things, and (no shit) a commercial for Jerusalem just came on! The voice over? "Come breath the same fresh air Jesus breathed..."

...Uh, yeah, just don't take the bus! Seriously, is that the best sales pitch you have, Jerusalem? Can't you do a little better than that? My buddy Jamie went there with his now wife and called the experience "transformational" and "life-changing." The best you can do is "breathe the same air Jesus breathed!" Do you need a new copywriter? If so, I think I know where I could dig one up...

-Lexus was (unsurprisingly) next; I figured I'd check 'em out for the hell of it. To my surprise, they had a couple of cars in the $35-40k range, which might work...if I win the lottery tomorrow...

I visited the booth and got a brochure from the shapely lady manning it. She informed me that the brochure that I got was "kind of a bullshit one" (not her words, but it was the same general gist--not sure why I put it in quotes in the first place, but fuck it...). To get the REAL brochure, I'd have to (you guessed it) reveal the secret location of the Lost City of El Dorado and the various powers that conspired to commit the Kennedy Assassination in another goddamned iPad app to be put on a mailing list.

-There are three types of people trying to sell these cars:

1) Short, spunky guy who's read every sales book ever written. Some of them are young and personable, others are older and slick. Still others are even older and getting close to "Gil in the Simpsons" territory.

2) Attractive ladies. Not all are knockouts, but they all have obviously mastered the art of flirting, at least to the point of getting you to give them your name, address, phone number, and type of car you're going to buy shortly. Amazingly, for most single guys, the same series of events at a bar is considered "a successful night!"

3) Big, tall sons-a-bitches. These days, I'm running a fairly trim 6'0" 200 lbs., and a lot of these guys dwarfed me. They roll up with a toothpick in their mouth, tryin' to intimidate the "city slickers" into buying. Well, joke's on them: no city slickers here! Welcome to St. Louis, fellas!

-Hyundai was underwhelming. I just can't pull the trigger on an Elantra because my buddy Alex already has one. Of course, this is the same buddy who told me, "I don't know why you're going to the auto show. You could just narrow it down online, then go to multiple of those dealerships in the area, test drive the cars, and try to figure out the best deal."

Uh...yeah...or I could spend $10, actually sit in the cars all in one spot, and save trips to about a dozen dealerships that way. Either way...I dunno...fuck it...

-Kia...PASS! I once rented a Kia in South Carolina--the thing felt like it was made completely out of plastic. I've driven power wheels at friends' houses that felt sturdier, though, to be fair, the Kias did have more leg room.

-Next up? Big, bad GM. I wasn't too psyched on them to begin with, and they quickly proved my initial suspicions with few examples of their various models, little employee support, and underwhelming specs on a lot of their cars.

The one interesting booth in the lot was Buick. Buick is apparently huge in China--guess all of those "all the communists want is a Buick in every garage" quips from 1950-1990 paid off. Interestingly enough, in this country, the only people who want Buicks are middle-aged...and older. They're made well, but needless to say, no usb port, big numbers on the spedometer, etc. It's like a near-luxury car crossed with a Jitterbug!

-Ford also wasn't quite what I expected. They had cool displays with broken-down engines all around the cars, but the cars themselves didn't really "wow" me. My mom has a Focus, so there's no way I'm getting that, but even the Fusion disappointed me.

-That was the end of the "traditional" set of booths. Then there were a bunch of small booths with a variety of services ranging from the cool (cars with wheelchair ramps) to ancillary services (detailing, customization) to the ridiculous (why would i want new windows for my a car show?).

One of the highlights of this section? The minibus! Apparently, for only $55,000, without a commercial driver's license, you can buy one of those shuttle buses that they use to take you from the Parking Spot to the airport terminal. If only I had that kind of cash laying around! I'd...certainly not blow it on a party bus...

-Then there was the promo area, located in the south end of the football field. Just by visiting it, I made it in the end zone more easily than the Rams did all season! (Gratuitous shot at the Rams? Check!) "Drive a segway for $5!" (Believe me, I was tempted...). Unbelievably expensive luxury cars! (Look but don't touch!). I found this to be especially intriguing:

I mean, I knew the Blues were hard up for money, but...

-The children's area was in this section, too. Let's just say that if I was a kid, and I was promised "a play area!" and "a climbing wall," I'd be sorely disappointed. The "play area" was one small playground set, with the "climbing wall" (about 4 feet tall) attached to it. Granted, as a kid, I wouldn't have cared--if my parents had left me alone on that thing, I would've been occupied for hours.

Of course, those sad parents counting on being able to dump their kids on the "play area" for a few hours while they looked at cars would've been sorely disappointed. I think the guy I saw in the Honda area on my way out had the right idea; his wife was talking to the saleswoman a ways away, and he had the kids climbing around the display car, saying things like "See? Isn't this car AWESOME?!?" in a high-pitched voice. At least invest the kids in selling the car to your wife!

-I'll close with this: I got back to the garage, paid the parking machine...and proceeded to wait in line for 15 minutes. As I sat there, I thought about one thing, and one thing only: I parked in the garage for 2 hours. Would I pay $2 to avoid a delay leaving the garage? Clearly, the answer is "yes." It's led to a whole new way of thinking about parking downtown! Next time I'm snarled in one of the Stadium lots after a Cards game, or the muni lot...also after a Cards game, I guess...maybe I'll consider parking in a different lot, with easier egress, the next time around.

As for what car I'll be in...well...that remains to be seen...

Thanks for reading...

Aside from being a hopeless shill for his own books, D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, radio personality, and attorney in St. Louis, MO. E-mail him directly at

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