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The LA Auto Show is underway, COVID-19 be damned.

It’s the first major international event since February of last year, unless you include September’s significantly scaled-back exhibition in Munich. And it’s a smaller, more muted affair than we’ve seen in years.

On press day, there were only a handful of new production vehicles revealed by major automakers, and there are fewer of those manufacturers in attendance. No presence from Mercedes, BMW or Audi. No Mazda or Honda. No Volkswagen, Volvo or Mitsubishi.

Is this the nail in the coffin for auto shows, with their thousands of preened vehicles and hundreds of thousands of attendees? Did Covid kill the radical cars?

There were only a few people at the Lexus booth on press day at the Los Angeles Auto Show.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“Honda and Acura are focusing on new and multiple avenues for customer engagement,” says John Bordignon, brand communications manager for Honda Canada. “While we understand that auto shows have been a long-standing industry tradition, we are reassessing all of our marketing and business activities to confirm what we can do better and differently to reach our customers, support our dealers and drive sales.”

Like the other absent brands, Honda knows it can sidestep the competition and considerable expense of auto shows with targeted online campaigns and exclusive events. Whether that will pay off is still to be determined.

The Canadian International Auto Show, which takes place in Toronto next February, has commitments from at least eight of the major manufacturers, but it will be missing at least another eight. General Motors, Ford, Stellantis, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Subaru have confirmed they will be there. Honda, Mazda, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mitsubishi and Volvo say they will not.

“We’ve got over 80 per cent of the new cars sold in Ontario represented at the show,” says CIAS General Manager Jason Campbell. “We’ve still got a very large collection of the major cars that the consumers are looking for. We are in discussion with several of the EV brands that are coming into the marketplace. There is certainly interest.”

Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker prepares to unveil the new Fisker Ocean SUV to a smaller-than-usual audience of automotive media.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There will also be the all-important cars that most consumers won’t buy, but many attendees want to see, such as Ferraris, McLarens and Aston Martins. Exotic vehicles with limited sales are normally exhibited by local dealers, not manufacturers.

“There will be elements that are different but it will still have the big-show buzz, and the big-show presence,” Campbell says. “It’s not like it’s going to be just cars on carpet; it’s still going to be lights, and cameras, and action.”

Here at the Los Angeles Auto Show, there are electric cars at the prominent booths of Fisker and the new Vietnamese maker, VinFast. Manufacturers such as Tesla, Rivian and Lucid are all the buzz. These electric vehicles are (or will be) sold online and at downtown showrooms, not through traditional dealerships, and an auto show is an ideal place to compare them all, says Mark Scheinberg, president of the New York International Auto Show.

“This whole movement toward electrification has obviously become more and more important to policymakers,” he says. “Manufacturers need to be there, and consumers want to understand what new technologies are out there. They’re not necessarily going into a retail dealer to try to learn about it, but they want to understand and experience it and the auto shows have always played that role.”

The big question is whether those consumers will attend, given the restrictions and continuing threat of COVID-19. Press day at the Los Angeles show was significantly quieter than in previous years, and it opened on its first public day to much smaller crowds. Attendees had to show proof of being fully vaccinated or recently testing negative. Other upcoming shows, including Toronto, will have similar requirements, with wider aisles and diligent sanitization.

The new Vietnamese automaker VinFast unveils its E35 electric sedan.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Mazda Canada says the pandemic played a big part in the decision to not attend next February’s auto show in Toronto.

“We initially were planning to participate in a few shows in 2022, including Toronto, but as the year played out and there continued to be uncertainty around COVID-19 waves/restrictions and the supply chain issues, we made the decision to not participate in any of the shows,” says Sandra Lemaitre, Mazda Canada’s director of public relations.

“We felt if COVID-19 waves continued, we honestly couldn’t envision how to safely manage these types of large gatherings while still delivering a positive experience for consumers. Mazda still sees value in physical auto shows, and we’re looking to return in 2023 when we can hopefully guarantee a positive experience for consumers.”

A quiet moment on press day for the electric vehicles at the Imperium Motor Co. booth.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Campbell in Toronto and Scheinberg in New York say the show must go on.

“As new technology and new products come out, consumers continue to come to a show to find out more about them. I don’t think there’s a huge change in that,” Scheinberg says.

“I think that when the New York auto show comes back in April, the pent-up demand will be huge, I think the attendance numbers will be fabulous, and I think they’re going to see products that are going to wow them to death.”

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