By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor
After more than 18 months – and $5 million – Mel Grata Chevrolet and Mel Grata Toyota Scion can finally say all the construction work is done.
Operating as two separate franchises on East State Street in Hermitage, the dealership began celebrating its grand opening Friday. It continues through today.
“It’s a relief,’’ Michael Grata, vice president of the dealership, said of completing construction work. “It’s so good to have this done and be able to see customers enjoy this.’’
Both of the franchises underwent construction projects with each having a new showroom, service center and upgrades in amenities such as offering WiFi services that allow customers to research more about vehicles on their smart phones or tablets while shopping.
Showrooms at each franchise feature lots of glass and natural lighting and shopping room for customers to check out cars, SUVs and trucks.
Demolition of the former Toyota building at the site allows for a greater volume of vehicles to be available to customers, Grata noted.
A hit with customers are service waiting rooms in both franchises featuring big screen TVs and coffee bars.
“It makes waiting much more enjoyable,’’ Grata said.
The Internet trade continues to grow at the business, particularly for used cars. On Friday a customer was flying to Pittsburgh International Airport from Washington, D.C., and being picked up by the staff so he could drive a car back home he was buying at the dealership.
“It’s become a common thing,’’ Grata said.
When it comes to the vehicles themselves, Grata said consumers are clamoring for ever-more gadgets built into their driving experience.
“They want their apps,’’ he said.
Touch screens on the dashboard giving the look of a tablet are now the rage and built-in navigation systems are a frequent request. Every vehicle coming off the assembly line now has USB ports allowing people to connect consumer electronic devices from cell phones to MP3 players.
To capture the mood of technology and cars, the dealership brought in a NASCAR simulator. The 2012 Chevrolet Impala, driven by NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, was modified by Cordell Performance Inc. to house a computer system enabling people to get the feel of what it’s like to drive in a real NASCAR race.
Jeff Cordell, CEO of the Charlotte, N.C., company, said the simulator isn’t all show.
“It still has a NASCAR engine in it,’’ he said.
The experience is all simulated of course. Nobody gets to start the actual engine – the roar of the engine is created by the computer. But the driver gets to sit behind the steering wheel and the seat moves with the turns. The car never moves an inch.
The computer can generate any NASCAR racetrack and is able to create almost any driving condition with sun and changing winds and even allows the engine to blow up if the driver pushes the car too hard.
Drivers can take a turn behind the wheel for free and the simulator will be at the Chevrolet franchise until 2 p.m. today. The driver with the top performance over the two-day period wins two free tickets to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
“It’s about as close as you can get to a NASCAR experience,’’ said New Castle native Jeff Nene after taking a spin behind the wheel. “The way the car handled in and out of the curves – it was very realistic.’’