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Seeing it for the first time, Peter Cheney realized how big the Dodge Challenger really is. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)
Seeing it for the first time, Peter Cheney realized how big the Dodge Challenger really is. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Why visiting the auto show is like meeting Madonna Add to ...

Until I met Madonna, I didn't spend much time thinking about the gap between the virtual world and the real one. Then I walked into a room at Manhattan's St. Regis hotel and nearly mowed down one of the biggest stars in the world because I didn't see her.

The lights were dim, and I was expecting a normal-sized person. But Madonna barely came up to my shoulder. It was a light bulb moment. Like everyone else, I'd seen Madonna's image for years, yet the virtual world had failed to convey a fundamental bit of information: Madonna is tiny.

The same thing happened, but in reverse, when I saw the new Dodge Challenger live for the first time. In pictures, it looked a lot like its namesake, a muscle car I admired back in the 1970s. But live, the new Challenger delivered its defining surprise - it's huge, looming over the original.

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Which brings me to the Canadian International Auto Show, and why I haunt it day after day. Like most car buffs, I spend a fair bit of time on the web. I've built countless virtual GT3s on the Porsche website, and my digital Lotus Elise has been modified hundreds of times in Photoshop and Illustrator.

But there's nothing like genuine experience. That's why I love the car show and its halls of actual cars. Unlike the web, the car show puts things in perspective: The Cadillac Escalade looms before you like a landlocked battleship. A Ferrari 458 glints under spotlights. You come across a Lotus Exige and realize that it's the size of a child's toy, with a door that resembles a mail slot. Can you actually get inside? (Yes, but not if you're overweight.)

Call it the automotive reality check. But the gap between automotive illusion and reality didn't start with the invention of Google. As a little boy, I consumed car magazines and sales brochures, and I could recite the specifications of almost every car on the market. So I thought knew which cars were best. Only as a grown man and experienced driver did I realize how wrong I'd been. The sublime balance of a car like the second-generation Mazda Miata can't be quantified - you have to try it for yourself.

2011 Ford Edge
READ MORE: Click here for full coverage of the Canadian International Auto Show

Last year, one of my co-workers took me to task over my assessment of a high-priced German sports car, pointing out a Detroit muscle car that equalled it in acceleration, but cost less than half as much. He had a point. Or did he? Pulling out a single performance parameter (acceleration) and using it to conclude that this car was the other one's equal was like saying that a book by Danielle Steel was the equal of one by J.D. Salinger because they both have the same number of words.

A meaningful assessment of these two cars involves a lot more than price and a zero to 100 km/h reading. The Detroit muscle car has a live rear axle (also known as a "stick axle") and cast-iron brake discs. The expensive German sports car has four-wheel independent suspension and composite-ceramic discs that reduce the unsprung weight of each wheel by about eight pounds.

On paper, this might not seem like much, but in the real world, it's night and day. Try holding an eight-pound weight at arm's-length, and you'll appreciate what unsprung weight means to a suspension system that has to control it. Or you could just drive both cars and see the difference in action. That's what I did, and that's why I would spring for the German sports car (assuming that my lottery ticket pays off). In the abstract, the differences are hard to see. In the real world, they smack you in the face.

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My colleague, who has never driven either car, remains convinced that the Detroit ride is superior on the basis of its price to acceleration ratio. I don't want to argue with him, but I know that he's dead wrong. It's not because he's stupid (he isn't). It's because he's dealing in abstractions. Going to car shows (and anywhere else that lets you look at real cars instead of digital ones) is part of a journey that connects us with automotive reality.

The process could be compared to online dating, where there can be vast disparity between representation and actual product. (I learned this first-hand when an aging, well-worn journalism colleague with multiple substance-abuse issues hired a makeup artist and a photographer to prepare her profile for a site called millionairematch.com.) Similar deceptions have been perpetrated in the car world.

Back in the 1970s, a friend of mine bought a kit car called a Devin, which, in the sales brochure, resembled a Shelby Cobra that could be snapped together in a couple of weekends. But when the giant wooden crate arrived, the actual Devin was a collection of crudely made parts that would probably take an expert mechanic a year to assemble, assuming it could be done at all. My friend sold the un-built Devin a few months later.

The gap between myth and reality had been driven home once again. It's all part of the journey. And so is the car show. We go, we ponder. We compare. We arrange some test drives. And maybe we change our minds.

The Toyota Prius is a case in point. Since I'm a performance buff, I never really paid much attention to it when it first hit the market. I looked at the ads, listened to the green hype, and forgot about it. Then, about 10 years ago, I saw a Prius at a car show, and realized that I was in the presence of something new. Most cars are designed to convey performance or social status. The Prius looked like an alien landing craft. It tested my assumptions. And when I finally got to drive it, I was impressed. The Prius was efficient, quiet, and it encouraged a responsible driving style - instead of focusing on acceleration and cornering speeds, I became obsessed with keeping the fuel-consumption gauge in the bottom of its range.

I learned something new. And at this year's show I hope to learn something new again. See you there.

Globe Drive's intrepid auto reporter loves cars (and planes, and hang gliders - and almost anything that moves fast) and he'll prove it to you on Facebook (No login required!)

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