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AUTO ADVICE: Using an auto show to your best advantage

Given winter's cold temperatures, a new car auto show might seem like the ideal place to spend a gray day indoors, dreaming about that new set of wheels.

Given winter's cold temperatures, a new car auto show might seem like the ideal place to spend a gray day indoors, dreaming about that new set of wheels.

Such shows are more than your chance to see the latest and greatest in personal transportation. For car shoppers, it's a great place to research an ever-growing variety of vehicles.

For instance, this year, you might be surprised just how many crossover sport utility vehicles are available. What's more, they're designed for specific purposes, so they differ in size and specification. Some are even available as gas-electric hybrids. Seeing all of these different models side by side is an ideal opportunity to consider which vehicles will fit your needs. Better yet, you can compare similar products back to back.

But even if you have only a vague notion of what you're interested in, the show holds another advantage. You can scope out the vehicles at your leisure, without pressure from salespeople. Most car shows are non-selling events. Salespeople sign a form pledging they will not try to sell a vehicle, although they can provide information about it.

If you're using the show to help shape your car-buying decision, here are some tips to make the most of your visit:

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1. Keep an open mind

Free your brain from preconceptions. If it's been a year or more since you've been in the market, your notions about the car market may be outdated. Good choices abound from Japan, Korea, the United States and Europe. Look beyond the one nameplate or nationality you would naturally choose. It might convince you to try something different. Take a pen and paper to write down what you like and why.

2. Do the numbers add up?

Even though fuel prices have stabilized, you'll still want to consider a car or truck's fuel-economy data. Since the EPA revised its methodology for calculating fuel-economy numbers, the figures are much closer to what consumers actually experience. And since fuel cost varies widely from one model to another, this could be important down the road if fuel prices spike again.

3. Try them on; see how they fit

Sure it's a sexy vehicle, but is it comfortable? Adjust the seat. Is the steering wheel in the right position? Can you can reach all the controls on the dashboard? Can you see out? Have family members try out the vehicle to see if they can access the vehicle easily. Some SUVs have high step-in heights, which can be difficult for young children. Narrow rear-door openings can be challenging for seniors.

4. Consider your next step

The bright lights, the shapely sheet metal ... it's easy to fall in love with a car or truck at first glance. Stop. Put the vehicle on your list to test drive at a later date. This is a must. Some things that you may not like will only reveal themselves on the road. A car might have a ride that's too firm, or controls that are hard to reach while driving. Then again, it might confirm that you have found the perfect car or truck for you.

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