Washington is slowly emerging from the ennui that was to be expected in the aftermath of a particularly active month—Christmas, New Year, and an inauguration all within 30 days. But the pace is picking up, and the evidence was clear on Thursday night with two flashy, festive events. The annual Washington Auto Show hosted a “sneak peek” for special guests at the DC Convention Center, featuring open bars and dozens of buffets along with the four-wheeled porn, while over at the Washington Hilton the Louisiana State Society tossed its annual Mardi Gras party, a fete so packed it rivals Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. Wisely we chose the cars first and the zydeco second.
Seriously, if we’d gone first to the Mardi Gras party it would have meant showing up at the auto show draped in about 20 sets of beads—some with flashing, spinning lights—and at least three feather boas, plus a green, purple, and yellow umbrella. At the Auto Show, the shiny objects with wheels expect to be the center of attention.
If you’ve never been to an auto show, the Washington edition is a good one. It’s a manageable in scope, about two-thirds the size of the “big daddy” that happens in Detroit earlier in January and starts the car show season. That’s where Chevrolet unveiled its new Corvette Stingray. Alas, the C7, as it is known, did not make it to Washington, but there was plenty of other automobile eye candy. On two floors of the Convention Center, through Sunday evening, more than 42 domestic and foreign automakers are showing off 700 new cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs. There’s something for everyone—even children, who, depending on their age, get wide-eyed over all the shiny colors or the video games and specific activities for children.
The preview on Friday night was for special Washington friends of the auto industry, in particular people from the Hill and the lobbying firms that have expanded well beyond K Street. As we made our way across acres of wall-to-wall carpeting, inspecting super-hot sports cars as well as technologically advanced family vehicles, at every stop we were told we had just missed House minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. We met a number of friendly automaker reps who seemed to feel the bad times are over for the industry, which ended 2012 with sales rates for some manufacturers at their highest levels in four years.
Was there sticker shock? Of course—especially on the Convention Center’s lower floor, where the “luxury” cars were parked. Sheer “fantasy league” browsing options included the 2013 BMW 650i with a starting price of $91,095 and the nearby 2013 BMW M5 Sedan, for the same price. Even though it’s not very popular with Edmunds—which likes the “head-turning design” but doesn’t like the “uncomfortable” seats—the 2013 Cadillac CTS-V coupe is fun to slide into and admire. Its MSRP is $63,215.
Representatives from Mercedes-Benz were in high spirits, in part because of their new cars but also because a number of them were headed to the Super Bowl, where Mercedes has the naming rights to the Superdome. In particular they wanted to show off the new, redesigned S-Class model, with a 3D camera embedded in the top center of the windshield. “This camera allows us to detect movement in front of the car and to affect the braking and steering of the car,” said rep Jake Jones. “No one has done this before.” He said the camera, along with other sensors around the car, can detect any movement, car or human, in front and to the sides, adding to existing rearview capability. “You build this cone around the car where the car now has this ability to see ahead of it and around it, 360 degrees, so you can avoid accidents,” he explained. The sensors can steer or stop the car independent of human effort, but to work, the driver’s hands have to be on the wheel.
Depending on the model, the S-Class can cost from the low $90s up to more than $140,000. Thankfully, not every car at the auto show is priced for people with money to burn. There are plenty of makes and models with more earthbound pricing. There’s the classic Volkswagen Beetle, in a Turbo version for 2013, with an MSRP of $24,000. There’s the 2013 Scion xD at $16,500. We spent a few minutes inside a Dodge Ram pickup truck and realized one could live in it. Our favorite moment, though, was a toddler pulling at the handle of an acid-green 2013 Ford Mustang. His father would pull him away, and he’d go right back. Car fever, it seems, starts early.
We arrived at the Louisiana State Society’s Mardi Gras party ready for a party, and a party is what we got. The music, which buzzed out of the Hilton ballroom and up the stairs, never stopped, as one band handed off to another—from zydeco to blues to Dixieland. This meant people started dancing well before they inched into the room that felt near its capacity of about 4,000 people. The bandstand was in the middle, sponsor booths lined the perimeter, and food stations were scattered throughout. Wine, beer, and other booze flowed as guests lined up for freshly shucked Louisiana oysters, shrimp and grits, gumbo, étouffée, and other regional specialties. The fashion du jour was to wear as many elaborate beads as possible, plus boas, face paint (available in the lobby), and elaborate, bejeweled crowns (for those young ladies representing various parishes, festivals, and events).
The Louisiana State Society bills itself as a social and philanthropic organization for “native and adopted Louisianians” who live in the Washington area. Celebrating Mardi Gras is one of its principal events, starting with a king cake party this past Wednesday and the party Thursday, as well as a dinner Friday and a ball on Saturday. A native of New Orleans ( Washingtonian intern Travis Andrews) explained that the party we attended served as the “parade,” a version of what revelers experience leading up to Fat Tuesday. Which made us realize: Who needs NOLA when we have the LSS and the Washington Hilton right here?
Oh, that’s right: the Super Bowl. One organizer said she thought the crowd was actually smaller this year due to the Super Bowl. But honestly, between all the feathers, the beads, the blinking lights, the booze, and the fiddles, washboards, and accordions, who could even tell?