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Why many use Toronto's auto show as research for car buying

While the Internet has made researching a car purchase easier, there's no substitute for eyeballing the sheet metal, twiddling the knobs and testing the seats.

It explains why, despite a wealth of data about new vehicles on the Web, there's continued solid attendance at automobile shows.

The Canadian International AutoShow, the largest in the country, drew a record 320,651 visitors to the Toronto venue in 2016, a year when Canadians bought a record 1.95 million new cars and light trucks.

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History suggests more than half will leave the show with a clearer idea of what vehicle they want next.

Foresight Research, a U.S. firm that conducts detailed surveys of attendees at auto shows, has found a high percentage of them are actively shopping, and about half plan to buy within the next year. The car buffs among them also influence others with the information they glean, Foresight found.

Winter months are normally slow for auto sales, but the Toronto show is ideally positioned to help shoppers who normally get serious in the spring.

Ontario dealers experience a dramatic increase in sales in March, says Bob Redinger, president of the Trillium Auto Dealers Association, which represents the province's new-car dealers.

"We don't see a lot of business through the show, but really more after the show," he says. "The show helps them to decide which car they really want."

Some 40 brands are featured at the Toronto show, with more than 50 announced Canadian new-model premieres. So if you're a serious shopper determined to check out the cars on your shortlist, show officials recommend studying the exhibitor floor-plan maps on to plan the best route.

Some auto makers, such as Audi, are offering test drives of specific models, including electric vehicles, and some exhibitors will help book test drives at local dealerships.

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Redinger says some manufacturers offer show-based incentives but you can't actually buy a car there. Some have sales people on the floor but most use trained neutral "product advisers" to staff their exhibits.

"People can get a true picture without being pressured of what the product is and then they can nail it down to, let's say, two or three that they really want," he says.

Besides details about the vehicles, what's the most-asked question?

"How much a month?" Redinger says.

Visitors – about 60 per cent are from the Greater Toronto Area and the rest are from elsewhere in Ontario or Canada – can leave their contact information at an exhibitor's booth if they want a local dealer to get in touch.

The interaction is old-school compared with this year's Chicago Auto Show, where attendees can swipe their ticket at display booths to request information, register for test drives or enter contests.

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However, you don't have to treat a trip to the show as a military mission.

There's plenty to see and do even if you're not actively car-shopping.

There are more than a dozen concept vehicles on display that may hint at the kind you'll be driving a few years down the road.

And if classics are your passion, there's The Canadian Story – Art and the Automobile, a curated exhibit of Canadian-made vehicles marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation. The display includes an 1867 Seth Taylor steam buggy, a 1910 McKay built in Nova Scotia, a 1927 McLaughlin-Buick used by the Royal Family during its tour of Canada that year and one of only 11 surviving 1956 Mercury Monarch Richelieus built at Ford's Oakville, Ont., plant.

The Toronto show is also marking the 50th anniversary of Formula One racing in Canada – which started with the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport (now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), east of Toronto.

The display includes Jacques Villeneuve's 1997 Williams, driven the year he won the world title, and a 1978 Ferrari driven by his legendary father, Gilles, a Benetton driven by seven-time champion Michael Schumacher and several other F1 cars.

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