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Is the auto show a good place to comparison shop? One couple finds out

Marc Riehm and his wife Anna, looking to replace their 2003 Acura, headed to the Canadian International AutoShow on Monday with a good idea of what they would be looking for in a new vehicle.

Anna is the commuter, and she wants power. Marc is the weekend driver, and the stereo matters to him. They have a budget of $45,000. Unlike most buyers, they want a manual transmission. When we met at the Toronto Convention Centre, Anna declared: "No North American cars," but Marc said he would at least look at the Cadillac.

George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association, says a show is a "terrible" place to buy a car, because you can't get your current vehicle appraised properly, nor comparison-shop between dealers selling the same brand, nor have access to financing options. However, an auto show is a good place to see a wide range of vehicles.

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It's been 10 years since Marc and Anna shopped for a car. Upon first entering the building, they paused for a moment, taking in the shine and the energy, before diving in. Anna had doors opened before Marc reached the exhibits. As I followed the Riehms from one exhibit to the next, it became apparent that a major hurdle in their shopping exercise would be the inability to take a test-drive. With the enormous strides made by the industry in recent years, some pre-conceived ideas can be changed by actually getting behind the wheel.

First stop was Subaru, with lots of sticks but not enough horsepower for Anna.

At VW, Anna eyed a Passat. "This is nice," she said, scrolling down a list of available transmissions. "You've got choices." Marc was checking out stereo systems.

He got into the driver's seat each time, she got in the back. With two kids at home, rear leg room matters.

Anna was ready to skim the Infiniti exhibit, but ended up spending time with the QX50, happy with the lines as well as the room.

A trek past a Porsche 911 Cabriolet made both pause. "A little investment in your wife's happiness?" she asked with a smile.

Both like the Acura TLS they were replacing, but locating a standard transmission was a recurring issue: find a car you like the look of, find out it's not available with a stick. The only car in the Acura space that drew both was the TLX prototype. With no pricing and a release date in 2015, they moved on.

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The Audis beckoned. Both paused in front of the A4 allroad. Both circled it. Both sat in it. Both loved it. "Does it come in a standard?" asked Marc, reading the information sheet. "I've given up on that," sighed Anna. She needn't have. Audi was offering up cars with manual transmissions everywhere they turned.

Marc had been skirting the BMWs until he heard a stereo thumping out of a M6 Gran Coupe. "Check out the stereo," he laughed. "Check out the price," replied Anna. More than $155,000.

Ready to revisit domestic product, Marc led the way to Cadillac. As he settled into the driver's seat of an ATS, Anna hopped in the back. She caught my eye as her legs barely folded in. "I'm only 5'3"," she said. "No way."

So where did these two wind up? "An Audi A4 manual test drive is in our future," said Marc.

Turns out the auto show is a terrific place to start your search, if not end it.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More

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