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Buffalo Auto Show returns amid industry transformation

Since the last time the Buffalo Auto Show rolled into town, the auto industry has generated notable news:

  • Ford Motor Co. declared it will phase out nearly all passenger cars from its U.S. lineup by 2020, in favor of trucks and SUVs.
  • General Motors will drop six sedan models from its production lineup by the end of this year, citing changing customer preferences.
  • Autonomous vehicles are drawing attention, as well as controversy over public safety.

But the four-day Buffalo Auto Show, which starts Thursday and runs through Feb. 10, is about the here and now. The shiny new vehicles that will pack the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center are already in showrooms or will be very soon. All the major brands, except for Mazda, plan to have vehicles at the show.

Even though some automakers are changing their product lineup, don't expect to see much of a difference in displays at the auto show, said Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association, which organizes the event.

Stasiak estimated the show will still be a mix of about 60 percent trucks and SUVs, and 40 percent passenger cars. About 300 vehicles are typically displayed.

That's because the Buffalo Auto Show is more showroom than showing off.

"A lot of the vehicles that Ford or GM and some of the dealers and manufacturers bring in, they're not bringing the glitz and glitter, but they're bringing a car that they sell the most of," Stasiak said. "That's what Buffalo is all about: Having the right car, with the right package and the right price, that meets the need of the market in Western New York."

Local dealers count on the auto show to kick off the sales season. (News file photo)

While GM and Ford are moving away from sedans in their production lineups, not every automaker is following suit. Others brands are sticking by their plans for passenger cars. At the auto show in Detroit last month, Toyota's North American CEO said the Japanese carmaker still believed in passenger cars. (With good reason: the Camry was the top-selling passenger car in the U.S. last year.)

But there is no denying the auto market has changed. Car and Driver reported seven of the top 10 selling new vehicles in the U.S. last year were trucks, SUVs or crossovers. And Wards Intelligence figures show car sales dropped 31 percent from 2014 to 2018, while light truck sales increased 37 percent over the same period.

"We do see changes with many of the brands we sell as customers are migrating towards SUV’s and trucks," said Frank Downing Jr., president of Towne Automotive Group. "With relatively low gas prices, combined with the manufacturers offering a much wider range of fuel efficient SUVs, I anticipate that trend will continue over time."

Even so, "people are still buying cars and you will see a lot of awesome cars on display at this year’s Buffalo Auto Show," Downing said.

Industry forecasts call for U.S. new vehicle sales to remain strong this year, even with an anticipated drop from a robust 2018. The National Automobile Dealers Association predicts 2019 sales of 16.8 million new units, after sales topped 17 million units for the fourth straight year in 2018.

 

Stasiak said Buffalo remains one of the strongest markets for leasing in the country, which fuels sales from year to year. "We've conditioned owners in Buffalo to be on a two- or three-year trade cycle," he said.

The Buffalo Auto Show has built a reputation as a place where visitors can check out a variety of new cars and trucks in one place, shielded from the February weather, with some family entertainment thrown in. This year's edition is no different, with Buffalo Sabres forward Johan Larsson set to appear on Feb. 8, and Sabres broadcasters scheduled for Feb. 10.

"Over the years, we've successfully made it a blend of cars and entertainment and family value," Stasiak said.

Meanwhile, Detroit's version, the North American International Auto Show, is making a sweeping change. Starting next year, Detroit will move its show from to June from January, giving the city warmer weather to work with. For years, Detroit's show was a destination for auto executives, international media, and product unveilings, essentially setting the tone for a new year of sales.

Buffalo's show has never had that kind of glamour. But it does have a reputation for driving customers to showrooms for follow-up visits, Stasiak said. Dealers consider the show an unofficial kickoff to the sales season each year.

"We've never had a product launch," Stasiak said. "That's our strength now. We've always been a consumer-driven show for the public."

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