• What the SEMA show really means
  • Strength in diversity
  • Never underestimate the Ford Mustang.

If there's one thing we've learned from the 2012 SEMA Show, it's that there's more than one thing to learn. This annual trade-only bash, thrown by the Specialty Equipment Market Association at the Las Vegas Convention Center, has been its usual dizzying kaleidoscope of custom parts, enthusiastic attendees and big ideas.

If we were looking for an indication of how well (or otherwise) the economy is going--a kind of canary in the coal mine--this bird would be bright metallic yellow and turbocharged. And it isn't just a few aspects of the aftermarket scene that are thriving.

From an elevated 2013 Ford F-250 XLT Crew Cab pickup, to a zippy 2013 Chevrolet Spark subcompact, to the 2013 Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid and a supercharged Honda CR-Z concept, stopping briefly at the 2013 SRT Viper supercar and then wondering if that really was the 2013 Toyota Avalon we just saw...if something has an engine and four wheels, someone somewhere is going to modify it, and some company is going to make and sell the parts.

Although there is no single outright star of SEMA 2012, certain models have attracted more attention than most, as evidenced by the SEMA awards. These prizes are given out to vehicles considered to be the best foundation for customizing, accessorizing and generally tweaking. It's done by the numbers. The most of any particular model found in booths throughout the show becomes a winner. This year, the 2013 Ford Mustang was Hottest Car; the 2013 Scion FR-S won Hottest Sport Compact; the 2013 Jeep Wrangler took Hottest 4x4-SUV and the 2013 Ford F-Series won Hottest Truck. According to SEMA, "exhibitors are investing more" in these four than any of the other vehicles seen at the show.

Car buyers can assume, then, that each of the above SEMA award winners are accepted and respected by experts with keen specialist knowledge, that there will be a vast array of products should they wish to personalize their purchase and that residual values for used examples will be strong.

The broader picture is also positive. Big manufacturers and boutique suppliers alike are putting time, energy and money into the automotive industry, which can only be a good thing for consumers.

What it means to you: Let's be honest, many of us see our rides as more than mere transportation. The SEMA show demonstrates where those rides can go. But, either way, it's encouraging to see a part of the auto industry in a healthy state.

See more of our SEMA coverage

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Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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