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SEMA SINSATION

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, Nov 11, 2006

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

SEMA SINSATION

By JOHN GRAFMAN

SEMA is not about one story, but thousands. Each of the hundred thousand or so that attending the trade-only convention can spin unique tales of insanity in this automotive aftermarket show. If high speed thrills, endless miles of walking, and some of the most incredible automotive works on the face of the earth gets your heart going, this is the place to be. What follows is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

THE DRIVE

As with so many adventures, getting there is half the fun. With nearly three-hundred miles from The OC to Vegas, I opt for a high-speed transport capable of safely cruising at triple digit speeds if so desired, comfortable interior trim, and the ability stow a decent amount of cargo. The Audi RS4 is just what the doctor ordered.

The RS4, while being a derivative of the A4 sedan, is visually more striking with added excitement to the front and rear, as well as some extra accommodating fenders to hold the low-profile 255/35 rubber and nineteen-inch wheels. A stealth machine this isn't. It might be however if it wasn't for the arrest me red paint job. Subtle, this isn't.

The magic behind the Audi lies under the hood. A 4.2-liter, eight-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine is massaged to achieve an enormous 420 horsepower. At any speed, the Audi can erupt with forward surges that defies most sedans. Audi took their well-regarded sedan and added plenty of go-fast goodies to it. This factory effort is the preferred ride to this year's bash. After all, isn't this a perfect OEM counter-balance to the aftermarket business?

Highway 15 is a rather boring, curveless, two-lane roadway that stretches to what feels like nowhere. However, the smooth, freshly paved sections amount to an invitation to many looking for high-speed entertainment. Sadly, some expect more than their cars can deliver, which leads to problems. Audi's RS4 is as thoroughly competent on completing its mission as one could possibly hope for.

Only three aspects keep this from being perfect in everyway. First, the gas mileage sucks. Puttering about yields a scary 12-mpg or so, and highway use is at best in the low 20s. Secondly, additional driver information should be available. Lastly, the speed sensitive-power steering is way too over-boosted at low speed. It is so overly boosted, I thought the steering wheel had separated itself from the steering rack. It spins absolutely effortlessly, and without a means of connecting the driver's actions in a way that acknowledges this with some sort of sensory feedback.

At speeds the steering firms up nicely, as one would expect in any sport sedan. I would go so far to say the steering feels better at a buck-twenty than poking around at a measly twenty miles per hour.

My suspicions were confirmed regarding the Audi's over-the-top high-speed capabilities. One of the mandatory requirements in an auto of this type is a radar detector. Just the peace of mind is money well spent. Electronic components cover a wide range of ability, but why stake your driving privileges on a detector that is affordable, but doesn't offer the ability to sniff out radar and laser to the highest level possible?

The Beltronics RX65 radar/laser detector is a credit to the state of industry. While fairly easy to operate, the RX65 offers exceptionally high levels of detection and can discriminate between false signals with a good degree of accuracy. I notice the detector provides miles of warning on some occasions. The ability to simply dim down the display, mute it either on the unit itself, or on the mute switch conveniently located on the cord makes for a very user friendly component. The volume and distance setting are equally easy to adjust. The suction mounting is likewise an idiot-proof affair, and allows for quick removal and/or switching from one car to another on a moment's notice. With the optional wiring assembly one can avoid the bothersome-coiled cord that can interfere with other center console controls.

Between the Audi, the Beltronics added protection, and timing the hour of departure just right from a friend's ranch near Temecula allows for near-record travel time to Nevada. Door-to-door requires only minutes less than flying the less than friendly skies!

THE SHOW

Las Vegas has many dozens of hotels to stay at. Only one has the distinction of being adjacent to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Las Vegas Hilton towers above the SEMA convention like no other hotel. This landmark fixture in the desert doesn't really need to try very hard to garner hotel guests for this event, but you wouldn't know it by how pleasant and receptive the staff is even when they have to literally process tens of thousands of show-goers that will pass through the hotel and casino in the next few days. They go the extra mile.

While there isn't a more convenient place to call home during SEMA, the distance from point A to B is more than just a bit deceptive. Certainly, the closest parts of the show are but a short walk from the hotel, but the farthest reaches can take a good half an hour. A million square feet plus of showroom floor space is hard to condense, and this has that and more. Today's show is home to more than 10,000 booths, with 430 first-time exhibitors. What began in 1967 as a small gathering of 3,000 like-minded individuals in the automotive aftermarket industry has grown into a sprawling all-encompassing convention unlike almost anything else imaginable. Perhaps this is the greatest show on earth? If nothing else this does feel circus-like with different acts under different tents, err, roof tops.

The show is subdivided into several categories to help simplify the attendees' odyssey. Sections like Wheels and Tires can completely cover entire an entire floor in one of the halls of this massive convention complex. This does organize the layout. While it makes all the sense in the world to have a good idea what direction to head, the random approach can provide a unique perspective if you don't have a particular destination in mind. And I, I took the road less traveled. Besides, I would have been fooling myself to think I could really see more that just a fraction of all the people and products that saturate all three halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, let alone the additional displays at the Sands Convention Center. Even in the Tire and Wheel section there consists of more than 320 exhibitors! Too much is too much.

The only way to put this show into perspective is looking at it as a giant scavenger hunt. I'm looking for amazing cars, products and people. I figure this should be an attainable goal. As I only have a few key companies I'm keeping an eye out for, this really shouldn't be too tough.

There is a sort of luck that comes with Vegas that applies to the show. Both the nearly 2,000 cars that fill every possible space and nook in the halls, and the vendor booths that go on as far as the eye can see, are immoveable for the duration of the show. They are the constant at SEMA. Now the people on the other hand are quite another matter. The chances of stumbling on anyone in particular are far less than the ball of a roulette wheel coming to rest on your chosen number.

HIGHLIGHTS

To my surprise, I nearly bump into none other than the dapper and distinguished Barny Koehler, COO of Fisker Coachbuild. Fisker Coachbuild works are maybe the highest levels of expression in the art of customizing. Starting with a readily available vehicle, Fisker Coachbuild produces limited production custom bodies and interiors along with various performance enhancements. At SEMA, there is no higher level of what can be done in the aftermarket than the products coming from this new company. Don't get the wrong idea, new doesn't mean novice. Far from it. Both Henrik Fisker and Mr. Koehler have teamed up a number of times at the in-house design studios of the OEMs. Their collaborative efforts have produced some of the most outstanding designs in production for BMW and Aston Martin.

Our chance encounter is the by-product of being in the right place at the right time. Fisker Coachbuild has their 202-mph Tramonto limited-production car on display at the outstanding Michelin booth, alongside a number of super cars from Bugatti to Saleen, and everything in between.

Pirelli has its own distinct tactic to draw buyers to its booth. Consistently, the Pirelli girls inspire with their own form of raciness. All right, maybe I'm reaching a bit, but they capture the performance that Pirelli is so known for. I can't agree more with their marketing strategy.

In the same hall is the Continental Booth. The display it takes is more subdued; emphasizing its world-renowned tires as opposed to the cars they go on. Its latest evolutionary tire is the ContiSportContact 3, which is destined to become a staple on Europe's swiftest rides.

Nearly all of the OEMs are represented here, from the largest to the smallest. Anyone who has petroleum their veins, or grease under their nails, knows the state of the domestic manufacturers. Nevertheless, at the SEMA show one can't help think the Big Three are bigger and badder than ever. Not only do they capture the heritage of the industry with cars spanning back decades, they also capture forward thinking. This year's theme of "American Muscle" conjures up all sorts of memories, and sarcastic quips from naysayers.

The Ford booth that spans the width of the hall is a perfect example. I spot a Chip Foose custom that was only in the beginning stages back in summer at the Car Classic held at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The rod now gleams in raw metal and design that just can't be captured by today's cars, especially as most are formed from large expanses of plastic.

The new Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers, as well as the Lincoln MKZ are transformed into extra special variants by the now well-regarded body styling house of 3dCarbon. The applications they offer on primarily Ford products not only capture the attendees attention, they also garner a number of show awards including Ford's Special Achievement Design Award, and Mothers Wax Excellence In Auto Design.

Volvo is now taking on a much greater role at this year's show. A trio of C30 Coupes that are coming to market in Europe are essentially letting us Yanks aware of the sporting abilities of the brand. Heico Sportiv is one of the tuners that specialize in the brand. Their show car emphasizes the all-season fun the car can offer. Heico swapped out the standard motor with a bigger Volvo power plant, revised the electronic mapping, and addressed the suspension, and interior, and exterior of the car. From the full-leather trim inside to the radical custom exterior paint, this car captures admiring stares. Unlike other cars at the show, this is a well-screwed together vehicle that is destined, in part, to be produced by Heico for the aftermarket.

In the foyer between the North and Central Halls are several displays. One of which features a Ford Daytona Coupe and the polished metal body of the Shelby Daytona show car from just a couple years back. This now-and-then look reinforces the magic that the company possesses. Ford's display is both monumental and mesmerizing.

General Motors also takes this show very seriously. Turbine power might have faded from the lexicon of most manufacturers decades ago, but GM hasn't forgotten. A collaborative effort with Jay Leno has resulted in the completely custom EcoJet. With mid-engine and Bio-Diesel power, this is perhaps they most innovative vehicle in Las Vegas at the moment. While as a supercar this doesn't exactly get exemplarily mileage, this does however use a renewable energy source. Let the fun begin!

One of the smaller players that are making a larger splash is Suzuki. The BaseCamp concept vehicle started life as an all-new XL7. Suzuki, in conjunction with Car Lab Development, turned this attractive SUV into a purpose-built vehicle that's an outdoorsman's dream. Custom features are nearly endless, including a shelter via a passenger side gull wing door that melds both side doors into one, a custom tent extension, a custom fab top carrier for bikes, a stowable table and chairs. Custom lighting abounds in the go-anywhere concept. Additionally, BaseCamp has extra grab handles/attachment points, and retractable steps are finished off very convincingly. It is easy to pass-bye many of the features as there are so well integrated they could be confused as stock pieces. Like so many other cars at the show, one doesn't get the full understanding of what it took to make this happen. Sleepless nights, and working round the clock make the impossible time frames become possible. Of course, show-goers only appreciate and are wowed by the final product - little do they know what it took to get it here.

Honda, as always, has a bevy of modified vehicles. Sprouting up around the large Honda display is the new Fit. The compact and affordable four door will be a welcome addition as the Civic has been growing slowly over the years into a more sizable and pricey product. The effort spent on the several Fits deserves mention. Yet there is something odd about tricking out these cars that look like overgrown hi-top basketball shoes. Maybe if they didn't look so intent on being ready to race I would take them more seriously. Yes, looks can be deceiving. But, as with all the other cars on display at SEMA, these are (for the course of the next several days anyway) just static models.

Mazda is coming into its own with MazdaSpeed, their homegrown in-house department. Mazda now has numerous cars that consumers will fall in love with simply in their stock form. The upgrades to these can only stir consumer interest further. Not on the menu for Joe Public are the wild paint jobs by Troy Lee. Troy has now become a fixture at the annual Las Vegas ritual. His work can be seen on a number of Ford vehicles over the years. The latest CX-7 with stylized Spiders is another winner. The name MazdaSpeed isn't just a gimmick. For those who didn't already know, Mazda is heavily into motorsports. They can be seen participating in racing series covering SCCA, American Le Mans, Champ Car, and Grand-Am Rolex series to name a few. Mazda doesn't just compete, they race to win.

PLAYTIME

After-hour celebrations are also par for the course at SEMA. It provides an opportunity to schmooze a bit further with those in a more congenial atmosphere rather than on the hubbub that we experience at the convention itself. This also gives companies a chance to express who they are. When done right, the venue, food, drink, entertainment are all indicators as to whom and what the host is all about.

Gran Turismo's latest version for Sony PlayStation is available to explore by partygoers at their celebration in The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel . The new game provides a rather vivid lifelike visual for gamers. In addition to the numerous kiosks with the Sony PlayStation set up in the club, the award for Best SEMA Car is announced and will be featured in the next version of the game, whenever that that happens be released. This year year's winner is not what many would expect out of the SEMA show: The 1960 Corvette Convertible. I have to concur. The Vette isn't a blatant tour d' force of anything and everything one thinks of as aftermarket, however the aftermarket does bring life to classics such as this. To find any car here that is more appealing overall is borderline impossible. As this distinguished honor is chosen by members of the automotive media, the bias should be minimal. Punctuating the affair is a concert by Foreigner. Could this be for real? Not many companies have the courage to showcase anything not geared to twenty-year olds. Some brave executive at Gran Turismo is staking his or career on that one. But like the Corvette, rock n' roll never goes out of style.

CEC is sticking to its tried-and-true format that has served them so well over the years. The Bali Hai Golf Club adjacent to the Mandalay Bay hotel is taken over by this one night only affair. This fully encompassing event wines and dines VIPs and invited guests alike. Then the show kicks into overdrive with a fashion show of sorts. Not only are some of the best-dressed cars in the world are displayed like models on a catwalk, they feature some of the best accessories known to high-end automobiles. And certainly the Porsche Carrera GT that's massaged into something even more special (if that's even possible) captures the attention of all. Just to ensure we are not overwhelmed with these fantastically modified cars, dancers from Sirens have found their way from TI (Treasure Island) to entertain us with several numbers during brief intermissions between every three or four cars. CEC knows what their customers are looking for in cars and an evening out on the town.

EPILOGUE

You can't swing a dead chicken at SEMA without hitting something of interest. Extremely modified cars of all types, beautiful women, industry insiders and celebrities, and parts of all conceivable nature designed to improve our favorite form of transportation swamp this town. Literally thousands of parts from the most minute to entire car bodies are here for all to ponder, question, and pass or play.

It wasn't but a few years ago that if you wanted to trick-out, soup-up, pimp, tune, or modify your car, you had to turn to the aftermarket. Now, many companies have in-house tuning departments providing some great alternatives to doing it yourself. The Audi RS4 is one complete car for any auto enthusiast. Of course, many want to have it their own way, regardless of how well the OEMs mange to one up their own cars. So it comes down to just a few questions, how much money and time do you have, and how do you feel about getting your hands dirty?

After days of meandering through the convention and jumping from one event after another, my poor dogs are barking. This show can inspire and educate beyond any other event I know of, that is if it doesn't kill you first. Vegas is hardly the place to come and relax, and this weeklong event is no exception.

GM EcoJet

Ask anyone who attends and they'll have tales of desire or loathing in the desert. This is quickly becoming the biggest automotive event in the country, in spite of being trade only. The "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" ads are at odds with this show that radiates to all corners of the country, and the globe. If you want to keep a secret, don't come to SEMA!

Additional photos can be found at -

SEMA SHOTS

Find out more at -

www.sema.org

www.3dcarbon.com www.audiusa.com www.beltronics.com www.cecwheels.com www.conti-online.com www.fiskercb.com www.ford.com www.gm.com www.gran-turismo.com www.heicosportiv.com www.lvhilton.com www.honda.com www.mazdausa.com www.michelin.com www.us.pirelli.com www.suzukiauto.com www.volvocars.us

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