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Outdoors, it was 18 degrees and the cars were coated with salt and slush.

Inside the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, it was 68 degrees and all the cars were gleaming.

That is one reason area car dealers rely on the Buffalo Auto Show each year to kick-start sales: shoppers get enthusiastic about seeing so many brands in one place, looking their showroom best, and they use the event to help narrow their list of favorites. The four-day show, organized by the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association, opened Thursday.

Some visitors walk away from the show with brochures and names of contacts at dealerships, planting the seeds of future sales. Industry forecasts are calling for a robust year for new car and truck sales, perhaps reaching their best total since 2007.

The Buffalo show displays more than 250 vehicles on two levels of the convention center. Compact cars share floor space with six-figure sports cars. The visitors also span the spectrum: those content to simply browse mixed with those researching a purchase.

Gary Thibault of St. Catharines, Ont., was checking out General Motors’ products, including a blue Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. He works for GM and attends the show every year. “Toronto’s [show] is too big for me to walk, so I come here.”

Nicole Gatto and Marc Stefanski of Niagara Falls were on the hunt for a compact SUV, with their 3-year-old son, Harrison, tagging along. Acuras and Cadillacs were among the couple’s leading choices.

“My parents have taken me here every year since I can remember,” Stefanski said. “This year, we just happened to be in the market. Plus, my son loves cars, so this is big for him.”

Buffalo is not considered a top-tier auto show such as Detroit’s, which draws international media and where new products are unveiled. But Elizabeth Dwyer, who oversees the Buffalo region for Ford Motor Co., said shows such as Buffalo’s are integral to the automaker’s strategy.

“What we want to do is help generate interest, particularly at a time of year when people don’t want to be out kicking tires,” she said. “It’s an environment where it’s fun, it’s clean, it’s warm and there’s no pressure, and they can talk to people that know about the product.”

“Ford has put a lot of money and time and effort into auto shows because we think it is a way for us to get our brand in front of customers who may not have considered us in the past for one reason or another,” Dwyer said.

Ford also tracks how well a show produces sales, Dwyer said. Visitors who provide their email addresses to Ford representatives are sent an offer to visit a dealership and receive $50 for taking a test drive. Last year, 7 percent of the customers who provided their email information to a Ford rep at the Buffalo show bought a Ford product within 90 days of the show, exceeding the company’s national average of 2 or 3 percent, she said.

For the visitors, part of the show’s appeal is the chance to see up close – or even sit inside, if allowed – luxury cars they might only glimpse from driving by a dealership or watching a TV ad. Maserati, which has a dealership in Rochester, had two of its cars on site. A Lotus – which will be sold from a location in Amherst – was parked at the convention center entrance.

Moses Johnson of Cheektowaga was enjoying looking over the high-end vehicles, like a $124,000 Porsche. He said he was at the show only as a “spectator.”

Russ Monafo, who works for West Herr Jaguar in Getzville, said the show produces good sales leads for him.

“You can pretty much qualify people when you’re chatting with them whether they’re really interested or not,” Monafo said.

Parked nearby was the new F-Type coupe, which is set to go on sale in spring. Its sticker price: $77,000.

At that amount, not everybody stopping by to look and chat is going to be a prospective buyer. No matter, says Monafo.

“We’re more than happy to talk to everybody,” he said. “They say, ‘We’re dreaming,’ and I say, ‘Well, dream big dreams, they might come true.’”

The auto show continues today through Sunday.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com