First off, it must be said that the Sacramento Auto Show is a charitable event, and proceeds from the 2017 show will benefit Make-A-Wish Northeastern California and Northern Nevada, Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, and the Ronald McDonald House. Additionally, the show’s sponsor (the Greater Sacramento New Car Dealer Association) has partnered with The Red Cross to help raise funds for the victims of the wildfires that have devastated Napa, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and surrounding communities.
Some auto shows are steeped in prestige and exclusivity. Others have the heir of a low pressure sales and marketing event. Make no bones about it, all car shows to some extent are about manufacturers showing off their newest vehicles and vying for your business, but if the event organizers can make it fun, who cares?
The vast swath of land and buildings known as the Cal Expo is home to the Sacramento Auto show. This tract provides plenty of opportunity for manufacturers and event hosts to create an immense labyrinth of activities and sales pitches. And boy did they! Themed displays are scattered about the expanse of real estate, both indoors and out.
The first activity was presented by the local utility in the form of an EV drive event. Just as you enter the main gate, the most popular (mundane) EVs on the market are lined up to test drive. Coincidentally, there was a line of people all waiting to drive the VW e-Golf while the Leaf, Volt, Focus, and i3 sat idle. The shock on the faces of the sales representatives, er-uh . . . “EV Experts” from Nissan was comical when I requested to take the Leaf for a spin. Upon interrupting the two young reps’ conversation, there was a brief pause. They stared blankly at one another, like they were flipping an imaginary coin to see which one would actually have to move from the bar-height table they were propped against.
The lap consisted of several hundred cones positioned to highlight the favorable attributes of a small EV: one quick straight for 40 yards, followed by 4 to 5 tight switchback U-turns. It was enjoyable, but these test runs are not a place to really get a feel for a car as much as whet your appetite enough to cajole you into a dealer, and sit you down in the finance manager’s office. The interesting thing, however, was the young man accompanying me made two bold statements:
“I own a Leaf and got it up to 90 on a highway on-ramp.”
Hmm? The Nissan leaf does 0 to 60 in roughly 10 seconds. That must have been one heck of a long on-ramp. The second audacious proclamation was prompted while I had my foot mashing the skinny pedal to the floor, while asking how the range would be affected if the Leaf was driven like this all the time:
“It gets about 100 miles of range when driven flat out.”
I would love to test this claim in the real world, driving “flat out” like I was. Keep in mind, while Nissan says the Leaf can do 107 miles on a single charge, they also say speed, topography, load, and accessory use can significantly affect the estimated range.
Having my fill of electrified fun, I set off to see the Manager of the well put together showcase inside the EV building to discuss some broad terms of the EV future. John from SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) was more than happy to answer my questions, and/or refer me to an authority for anything he couldn’t answer. Although the main attraction of the display was the Tesla Model S and BMW i8 lightshow (headlights flashing in sync to a rousing version of Carol of The Bells) the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid stole the show.
The notion that any minivan could be enticing is a strange and foreign concept, let alone a plug-in hybrid minivan. Nonetheless, my time spent in the “Euro Sunday” classic European car exhibit was hastened to see if the FCA Drive booth had a more spirited “test course” set up where I could get my hands on one of these plug-in dad vans.
They did indeed.
Without knowing what to expect, my first weapon of choice was the Fiat 500 Abarth. Before embarking, I was persuaded to select the sport mode to get the most out of the 1.4-liter turbocharged power plant. The Fiat rep also clearly stated it permissible to go full throttle. Upon seeing the familiar orange cones on their side indicating a turn ahead (much like an autocross course), I sent the Abarth shouting and popping down the straight. The idea that this course was designed as a road simulation was not abundantly clear until I exclaimed, “who puts speed bumps on an autocross course!?” At which point I was told, it isn’t supposed to be an autocross course.
The word must have gotten out about my intent as the rest of my drive hosts were quite persistent, each said no less than two times: “This is NOT a race track, it is intended to be a road simulation,” before allowing me to start the car. The Fiat 124 Spider was nonetheless fun, and the Charger and Challenger were no less brutish. What I really had my eye on was that big, silvery sparkling, leather-laden behemoth exuding elctro-tech across the lot; the well-appointed Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. On the tight little closed course, it handled like a minivan. No shock there. The appeal of this rig is largely due to having three kids, and family peppered throughout California. The idea of carrying a family of five with baggage for a weekend, and a dog, comfortably and luxuriously, at the rate of 35 mpg is highly alluring.
Meandering through the exhibits revealed many desirable and interesting cars, along with many new models that have been cover stories all year: Civic Type R, Aston Martin DB11, and the Acura NSX to name a few. By the time I finished sitting in every driver’s seat that caught my eye, be it a video game-based simulation or parked STI, and smudged my face on all that were locked, the sun was lowering and the drive events were winding down.
I hurried to the Toyota tent and asked to drive whatever was ready now, which happened to be a 2018 C-HR. This is where I met Charlie. The test drive started like any other, except Charlie did not seem to share the opinion that the closed course was a road simulation. He knew what the sideways cones were implying. Consequent to entering the Toyota course, Charlie asked me to stop and wait for his word.
“When I say go, put the pedal to the floor, and don’t let up until I say brake.”
Of course, I did what was asked, convinced that Charlie’s unabashed confidence was related to the whopping 144 horsepower and 139 lb-ft. of torque available. Having become accustomed to the apprehensive approach by other hosts throughout the day, I was almost startled when Charlie began rapidly barking driving instructions: “Tap the brakes here!” “Turn in now!” “Stay to the outside through this turn!” Three crushed cones and a cloud of smoke later, Charlie along with three spectators and I left the course smiling.
I tip my cap to the people of the Sacramento Auto Show. There were many unique cars along with the expected corporate representatives, and too many other things to fully absorb in a few hours. The exhibits were great, the extraordinary show pieces and activities kept you moving from one area to the next. What truly makes this a memorable event is the people who make it happen. If you missed it this year, mark October on your calendar next year and I’ll see you there.
Benjamin Caschera is a car nut in every sense of the word. His eclectic writings range from rants on traffic and wrenching on $500 cars, to adulation of the finest classic and/or latest hypercars. Follow and heckle him on Twitter and Instagram: @TheBoringCarGuy