The latest Philadelphia Auto Show puts attendees on the track

Grayden Minnich, 8, gets behind the wheel of a Fiat at the Philadelphia Auto Show, where 700 vehicles from 40 makers are on show next Sunday.
Grayden Minnich, 8, gets behind the wheel of a Fiat at the Philadelphia Auto Show, where 700 vehicles from 40 makers are on show next Sunday. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2013

The opening-day star of the Philadelphia Auto Show consisted largely of earth and metal: Camp Jeep.

It's a kind of indoor test track where visitors can climb into a Rubicon or Grand Cherokee and take off, bouncing across barrels, digging through dirt, and going straight up a hill that's way too steep to climb.

"Sweet!" exclaimed Nate Snyder of Pottstown, as he and his girlfriend, Kate Hetzel, of Reading, were happily pitched and pushed on their ride, chauffeured by Jeep specialist Kyle Huston.

Thousands of people cruised the floors of the Convention Center on Saturday, moving across carpets designed to look like highways. They saw more than 700 vehicles built by 40 manufacturers, among them concept, classic, and luxury models.

There were as many types of cars at the show as there are animals in the zoo - Kias and Cadillacs, Corvettes and Camaros, Tahoes, Malibus, and Tacomas.

"What better place to go?" asked Tim Kanoc, of Delanco, Burlington County, who brought his son, Tim, to celebrate his 17th birthday.

The auto show is a Philadelphia tradition, first staged in 1902 and produced by the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia since 1997. People come to check out the latest and greatest, but also to see what they might want to park in their driveway. About 91 percent of those surveyed on site by show organizers say they are in the market for a new car.

The show lets them go from display to display, gathering information and talking to representatives, without having to drive from dealer to dealer or face pressure from salespeople.

"Nobody at the end is going to say, 'Are you ready to buy it?' " said show chairman Michael Chapman. "They can comparison-shop in one place."

And do it inside, through next Sunday.

This year, the event has become more interactive, offering visitors the chance to do much more than sit in the cars and check out their written specs.

Outside the convention center, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Hyundai, and Subaru were among the makers offering test drives.

"We're getting the customer more engaged in the product," Chapman said.

Making its debut here was Camp Jeep, a 25,000-square-foot exhibit that has attendees experience extreme off-road conditions on an indoor oval course, showing off the cars' clearance, traction, and stability.

The high point? A 14-foot-tall, 35-degree hill. Other sections simulate traveling across fallen logs, and one turns the car sideways on a 30-degree angle.

The line for Camp Jeep was long Saturday.

"We've been busy since we opened," said track manager Steve Lorton, watching the laughing expressions of passengers who bounced like bobbleheads through the course. "It's smiling and carrying-on and talking about how cool the display is."

Snyder and Hetzel rode in a 2013 Rock Lobster Red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, equipped with a 285-horsepower engine and four-wheel drive. Retail price is $40,000.

Snyder already owns a Jeep, and traversing the track gave him the idea to test his own vehicle.

Hetzel said: "He was like, 'After this, we've got to go home and try it.' "

Contact Jeff Gammage

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