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February 2, 2011

This year's Washington Auto Show is off to a much stronger start than last year's recession-tinged show. That according to AutoTrader associate manager of experiential marketing, Carla Scruggs. "The energy of the show is a lot better than it was last year," she observed. "I think it is a barometer of the industry."

Certainly there was plenty of excitement among the visitors to Auto Trader's exhibit, in which consumers could use the computer kiosks to either play a game called Driver's Choice to win an Apple iPad, or they could do some online shopping using the AutoTrader New Car Advisor.

The Driver's Choice game lets competitors drive through an ethereal maze, steering their car toward targets that let them configure it as they might during an AutoTrader.com search.

Steer down the right road to make the vehicle a convertible, sedan or SUV, then hit targets to add features like leather seats and anti-lock brakes. Run over colored stripes to set the car's color, hit the four listed features to get an extra bonus and get to the finish line faster than any other racer during the show and win an iPad.

Simple, right? "It is silly, but fun," concluded Jennifer Warren, of Alexandria, Va. Fun, but tough to do well, at least on the first try.

Some younger drivers didn't mind trying a few times. "I thought it was pretty easy," remarked George Hawkins, whose sweatshirt proudly announced his attendance at McLean (Va.) High School.

The game players also enjoyed the cars on exhibit at the show. "It is neat to see the new technology," said Warren, who confessed a soft spot for the sporty imports and classics on display, especially those equipped with manual transmissions. Her preference for the hard-to-find shift-it-yourself models makes AutoTrader the perfect way to locate the car of her dreams.

Hawkins might have a tougher time finding his favorite on AutoTrader because he liked the Inizio electric sports car displayed by the Automotive X-Prize-winning Li-Ion Motors team. But if the Inizio isn't available yet, Hawkins said he'd settle for a Corvette ZR1.

Darren Stone, from Gaitherburg, Md., was at the show with his girlfriend to celebrate her birthday, but he was looking at the trucks. "I'm a truck guy, so I liked the GMC truck," he said.

Of course the auto show is the time to indulge some fantasies and answer questions, so Stone took the opportunity. "I had to sit in the Smart car," he said. "I see people driving them around and had to see how they fit."

Of course some people are at the show for the purpose of picking out their next car, and the AutoTrader New Car Advisor is there to help with the choice. The computer asks for the budget, style, drivetrain and other factors and provides reviews on relevant models. Then the shopper can build and price their car and get connected to a dealer for delivery and financing.

You can save 50% off the price of admission on Friday, Feb. 4, by printing this coupon courtesy of AutoTrader.com.


DAN CARNEY is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, DC.

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