Showtime

Tim Marrs

I don't go to many auto shows, mainly because the Internet has killed the suspense that once enlivened the show circuit. This year, for instance, the 2014 Corvette is the big deal at the Detroit show, but the major points of intrigue were dispelled months before the official unveiling. I write this several weeks ahead of the C7 debut, and I can already tell you the bore spacing on the new V-8. Bore spacing, indeed.

But when I got an invitation to check out the newly revamped Miami International Auto Show, I decided to investigate. This event might just rewrite the rules for everything you know about auto shows. Not that they're claiming that, per se. But I smell a story down there in Miami Beach and I intend to find it. I don't care how many mojitos it takes. It's my duty as a journalist.

The Miami International Auto Show is the event formerly known as the South Florida International Auto Show. Like the Miami Marlins, the show organizers realized that "Miami" conjures images of bikinis and fleets of Cigarette boats, while "Florida" brings to mind swamp people, hurricanes, and Jerry Seinfeld's parents in Del Boca Vista. It's all about branding, people. And somehow I suspect that the show's exhibit of convertibles, called "Topless in Miami," wouldn't pack the same zing if its geographic purview included Homestead and the Everglades.

Whenever I visit Miami, I typically try to scheme my way behind the wheel of a hot car and pretend I'm a local. But the two great ironies of driving a fancy car in Miami are that (a) the roads are horrible and (b) the overwhelming mass of exotic machinery means that nobody cares about your Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG. So this time, I embraced my tourist status and drove a car that any weekend visitor would be glad to nab at the rental counter: a Dodge Journey R/T. Nobody in Miami will mistake me for a local, but I suppose my pallid, Victorian-barrister complexion already takes care of that.

As I mentioned, the streets of Miami are generally flat and gridlike. Thus I-95, with its on-ramps and overpasses, is the closest thing you can find to an exciting road. And boy, is it treated as such. I actually availed myself of the Journey's manual shift gate to keep the Pentastar V-6 on the boil to dice with traffic. The rudest moves are executed by convertible Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaros piloted by vacationing Bostonians and New Yorkers who are all hopped up on the vitamin D. In terms of aggression, I don't think Tony Stewart has anything on Miami rental-car drivers.

The convention center, by contrast, was serene on the day before the official public opening. I noted that the show preparations have, per custom, involved removing the shift knobs from most of the cars on display. When I mentioned the glaring lack of shift knobs to one manufacturer representative, she opined that New York is historically the show where people are most inclined to treat the cars as private souvenir shops. "People used to steal buttons out of the interior," she tells me. "It's like, 'What are you gonna do with that?' "

Potential Miami shift-knob burglars have at least two major diversions, in the Jeep off-road course just outside the convention center and the Eco Experience test track on the show floor. These little carnival attractions address the static nature of car shows by letting attendees ride shotgun in, say, a Fisker Karma on the indoor track or a Wrangler outside. (You used to be able to drive the Jeeps yourself until one inept lout ruined that for everyone.) While I applaud the effort, I found myself content to just wander around looking at parked cars.

The Internet might kill all secrets, yet there are nonetheless plenty of machines here that I haven't yet encountered in the metal. There's the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, with its flat-black hood graphics and Kevlar-reinforced tires. The Cadillac XTS's interior appears to live up to its billing, while the Chevy Impala looks downright handsome up on its pedestal. This is the first place I've laid eyes on the new Mercedes-Benz GL550, the Aston Martin Vanquish, and the McLaren MP4-12C Spider. I contemplate the return of the duck-tail spoiler on the Porsche 911 and have a moment of sticker shock in front of a Silverado 2500HD.

I don't scrutinize the truck's equipment list, but I assume that with $29,130 worth of options, this pickup must have carbon-ceramic brakes and an ostrich-leather headliner.

Car shows may be marginalized from a news-making perspective, but there's a reason that nearly 700,000 people will pour through here over the next nine days. You can read about cars and watch videos (and please, keep doing that), but there's no substitute for the physical experience of climbing into the driver's seat, touching the steering wheel, and maybe running a bare-metal shift rod through the gates while a company rep watches to make sure you're not stealing the dashboard.

And I'd argue that certain automotive visual drama, like the light-swallowing evil of a matte-black Lamborghini Aventador, is best experienced live and in person. This is what differentiates Miami from other auto shows -- I spotted that particular car not at the convention center but parked outside my hotel. In this city, you walk out of one car show and into the other one that's happening on the streets, all the time, year-round.

In two days, the Aventador never moved from its prime parking spot. It was still there when the valet retrieved the Dodge for my return trip to reality. The humble Journey presents a stodgy juxtaposition to the brooding Lambo, but after two days of staring at cars, I'm hungry to actually drive one. I point the R/T toward I-95, bang the shifter into manual mode, and prepare to enjoy the most interactive exhibit of all.

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