Attendees view a 2013 BMW 750 Li at the L.A. Auto Show, which is open to the… (Jonathan Alcorn, Bloomberg )
The Los Angeles Auto Show usually ends up costing Eric Nolan a bit of money.
The Bakersfield resident and self-described Mustang guy says he and his wife, Iris, come to the show every year. More than once, they've ended up buying a vehicle they've seen.
"But we just bought a car a week ago for her, so she's not getting another one," Nolan said as the couple checked out an Audi A8 diesel.
They were among thousands who showed up on Friday, the first public day of the L.A. Auto Show, which runs until Dec. 9. Last year, about 920,000 people attended, a 22% increase since 2009, said Brendan Flynn, the show's communications director. This year's attendance could approach the pre-recession peak years, when about a million people streamed through the Convention Center doors to check out the new models, Flynn said.
The profile of the Los Angeles show has risen steadily in the last several years. Before 2006, the L.A. show was considered more of a backwater, despite the huge industry presence in the region, because it was held in January and essentially overlapped with the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
"The Los Angeles Auto Show ranks No. 2 in terms of industry significance after the Detroit show," said Jesse Toprak, an auto industry consultant who has attended the major U.S. shows for the last 15 years.
Location has a lot to do with it, Toprak said. The region is home to U.S. arms of the major Asian import brands, including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda. Most automakers also maintain design studios in California because the state is the largest auto market in the U.S. and a trendsetter. The state's environmental activism and concentration of "green" consumers also has distinguished the auto show.
This year, 42 auto brands are displaying hundreds of new models. About 50 are world or North American debuts.
"It's become a really important show and really is the way to see the electric and green cars that the automakers are bringing out," said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as he toured the Convention Center on Thursday.
In 2006, the show moved its opening date back to November. "The automakers really wanted us to move so that they could take advantage of the L.A. market because it was so important," Flynn said. "It was just too hard to take advantage of both shows at the same time."
About half of those in attendance, like Nolan, are actively in the market for a new car, Flynn said. More than two-thirds, he said, add a vehicle to their shopping list after coming to the show.
Strolling around the Convention Center in downtown L.A., it's easy to see why. Visitors can sit in, touch and compare a variety of vehicles that wouldn't be offered at any single dealership.
That's what brought Lanny Nelms to the show from San Pedro. He's looking to replace his 13-year-old Chrysler with a fuel-efficient hybrid and came to compare various models. Space is also important, Nelms said, as he admired a Jetta Hybrid at Volkswagen's sprawling display. "This is probably the most roomy."
Volkswagen was among several automakers offering buyers incentives at dealerships. With the U.S. auto market nearly recovered from its slump in 2008 and 2009, foot traffic from buyers like Nelms is driving up attendance at the show.
David and Penny Silvera from Long Beach are more in the window shopping phase. They came to lay eyes on cars from BMW and Porsche, which this week introduced a redesigned Cayman.
Why those two brands? "Their styling," David Silvera said. "We own BMWs now, and my goal is maybe someday to have a 911."