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Connecticut's car dealers say things look rosier

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published November 13. 2011 4:00AM

Winter weather came early this year in Connecticut, with a strange fall snowstorm. And Hurricane Irene took the oomph out of fall colors.

But the Connecticut International Auto Show opened on schedule this weekend at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, a November tradition for car buffs.

And if you have been missing some of the usual autumn smells this year you can still get some good automotive smells - there's nothing like a whiff of new car. The show continues through today.

I went Friday to see Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and a couple of his commissioners officially open the annual show. I was drawn in by some of the press invitations celebrating what is being billed as the recovery of the state's auto industry.

Indeed, Art Schaller Jr., chairman of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, opened the show Friday by noting it's the biggest since the start of the recession. There are hundreds of cars on display, a wide selection from most all major manufacturers.

"The auto industry is back," Schaller said, noting that Connecticut car dealers are going to end the year up 25 percent from last year.

Car dealers, the association notes, account for close to 15 percent of all retail sales in the state, putting a lot of sales tax dollars in state coffers. There are 264 new car dealerships in the state, more this year than last, and they employ a total of more than 12,000 people.

The governor kept his time at the podium brief Friday before cutting the show ribbon, because, as he noted, everyone was there to see all the new cars.

Inside what has been turned into an enormous car showroom on the main convention floor, I quickly found what seems to be the queen of the show, a jet black 2012 Audi R8 MT6 Coupe. It has 430 horsepower and a sticker price of $131,675.

"Can you spell divorce court," one middle-aged gentleman said smiling, as he climbed out from behind the wheel of the two-seat sports car.

There was a gaggle of other middle-aged men and young boys waiting to give the Audi's driver's seat a try.

Nearby, two young men were taking turns behind the wheel of a V6 333-horsepower Porsche Panameras, with four doors. Who knew Porsche makes a sedan?

This one had a sticker price of $105,775, and because it's a hybrid, it gets a respectable 30 mpg on the highway.

"I don't think it will be my first car," said 16-year-old Matthew Duhaime of Hamden, who took advantage of the school holiday Friday to go to the show with his twin brother, Zachary. The two are scheduled to take their tests next week for driver's licenses.

With the exception of the sexy sports cars, show-goers seemed to be paying the most attention to cars that go easy on the gas.

I didn't see many oglers looking at the $66,000 Lincoln Navigator SUV, which gets 18 highway miles to the gallon.

It does seem obvious, though, if you study window stickers at the show, that the technology trends toward improved mileage in most models.

The Carriage House dealership of New London, for instance, was displaying a handsome 302-horsepower Mercedes sedan that gets 28 highway miles to the gallon.

New models, like the restyled, more manly Volkswagen bug, and the little Fiat 500, were also getting a lot of attention.

The other stars of the show were the new electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf.

The Volt, which has a backup gasoline engine that will charge the battery if you get too far from home, has pretty much an unlimited range since you can always add gas. The Leaf can only go about 100 miles before a new charge.

Gov. Malloy took a quick tour of all the gleaming new models before cutting the ribbon for the show. I am sure the reports of strengthening car sales are encouraging, enough to guarantee a turnout by the governor and a crew of commissioners and staff.

"It's a strong, vibrant and growing industry in the state of Connecticut," Malloy said, that new car smell surely still fresh on his mind.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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