Auto show causes cases of new car fever

Ian Castaneda, 3, sits on the lap of his father, Aaron, as they check out a truck Thursday at the Houston Auto Show.  Photo: Mark Mulligan, Staff Photographer / 2017 Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle

Photo: Mark Mulligan, Staff Photographer

Jesse Randall often sprang for a new Dodge pickup in the boom years, when he drove more than 10,000 miles a month hauling drilling equipment to oil fields.

His odometer didn’t move much last year as he scrambled for work in the depths of the bust, giving him little reason to trade in his truck. But he ventured to the Houston Auto Show on Thursday to scope out new models, hoping he’ll soon be in the market to buy one as oil prices slowly climb.

“Things are looking brighter,” he said.

Randall was one of thousands of Houstonians who wandered through NRG Center this week to scope out more than 800 gleaming cars and trucks at the 34th annual show, organized by the Houston Automobile Dealers Association. About 40 manufacturers set up highly stylized displays to showcase their latest models.

The show, which runs through Sunday, opened amid a monthslong downturn in new vehicle sales throughout the Houston region due in part to the oil bust. Total retail sales last year dropped 20.7 percent from 2015, according to data from the TexAuto Facts Report, published by Sugar Land-based InfoNation.

National numbers have also ticked lower, but not to the same degree. Dealers across the country reported a 1.6 percent drop in sales last month.

Sales are expected to increase slightly this year if crude prices continue to hover above $50 a barrel.

Steve McDowell, owner of InfoNation, has forecast a modest recovery in the second half of the year.

“I think we’re going to have a slow year, but I expect it to pick up some from where it has been,” he said.

Organizers expect the show to pique the interest of prospective buyers and perhaps convince them to make an investment. RoShelle Salinas, spokeswoman for the dealers association, said more than half of attendees come with the intention to buy, and manufacturers in recent years have competed for customers with more impressive displays.

“They recognize the value of the show,” she said.

Some buyers most affected by the bust felt optimistic that the worst is long over. Mark Schneider, who works in the pipeline sector, ducked under the hood of a bright blue Ford F-150 just to look. He’d already bought one, early last year, when layoffs at his company at last slowed, and several of his coworkers soon followed suit.

“A lot of people weren’t vanishing from my office anymore,” he said.

Replacing two vehicles

Matthew Otto attended the show to check out a Ford pickup and a Subaru hatchback, both of which he plans to purchase this year. His truck needs replacing, and his wife, expecting a second baby this spring, wants to upgrade her Honda Civic to something more suited for a family of four.

“I came to see the nicest models, and they didn’t disappoint,” he said.

Bob Grace, a longtime Lexus driver, appreciated the manufacturer’s latest models for their solid suspension systems and roomy interiors. He hopes to lease a new one next year.

“I get new car fever every three years,” he said.

‘The nicest one’

Derek Ybarra didn’t come to the show with the intention to buy, but soon he might not have a choice. He received a $2,200 buyback offer for his diesel-powered Volkswagon Jetta after the manufacturer’s emissions scandal, and he plans to put the money toward an older version of some of the new models he liked most.

“If money was no object, I’d buy the nicest one,” he said.

Randall, a former Dodge mechanic, doesn’t expect to buy a new one for himself for another couple of years even if business picks up. But his wife, also a trucker, may need one sooner, he said.

“It has started to pick up a little,” he said. “When it gets busy, you’re waiting by the phone.”