The Audi RS4
RS4: Audi
Audi customers take delivery of their cars at the company’s headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany. Special familiarization and performance training programs for RS 4 owners are given at that model’s factory in Neckarsulm.
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updated 7/6/2007 1:37:50 PM ET 2007-07-06T17:37:50

The European delivery programs offered by a handful of Continental carmakers are vacations that come with souvenirs bigger than a snow globe.

Yet these money-saving trips are often an insider’s secret, one of those things that you need to know about to ask about. That’s because this ultimate option often lurks below dealers’ radars despite the wildly enthusiastic responses from owners who participate.

“They love the program, they love going to the factory,” says Anne Doris Korallus who is the European delivery order administrator for Mercedes-Benz. “Even if they’re not a car enthusiast, they go on the factory tour, and it’s like an elves workshop; it’s so fascinating to watch how a car is built. They come out bubbling over.”

The European delivery programs are a chance for Americans to drive their cars as they were designed to be driven, flat-out on the Autobahn; or above the Arctic Circle. That’s where Saab takes some customers for snow and ice training, as well as quality time behind a team of sled dogs. Or it’s a way to celebrate an anniversary or do some mother-daughter bonding while getting what James Hope of Volvo Cars N.A. calls “friendly” rates at hotels the company recommends.

The hitch is that you forgo the instant gratification of driving home with your dream car the same day you go down to the dealership.

No matter which brand you prefer, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Saab or Volvo (more on the English absence in a bit), the procedure is pretty much the same. Here are the basics:

  • Go to your local dealer, select the model you want — it must be one regularly available in the United States — configure it to your specifications and order it. Prices are preset and usually slightly discounted from the MSRP. Payment and financing options are the same as for regular delivery. The dealer will tell you when your car will be ready at the factory.
  • Book flights. Plan your itinerary, coordinating with the manufacturer to ensure you take the best routes for some great drives. Pick up an international drivers license at the nearest AAA office.
  • Fly to Europe. Enjoy some hospitality from the manufacturer, usually a minimum of transportation from the airport, one night in a hotel near the factory, a meal and a factory visit.
  • Take delivery of your car. It will have temporary insurance that is often renewable so you can extend your stay, export registration and plates.
  • Explore Europe in your own car, being careful not to exceed the maximum time limit that you can use the car there without being taxed, usually three to six months. You must also pay attention to where you can go; the offered insurance coverage may have geographical restrictions.
  • Drop off your car at one of many predetermined locations for shipping to the United States. Be sure to read the fine print on this because there may be extra charges at certain locations.
  • Pick up your car at your dealership several weeks after you return from Europe.

Insider’s secret for 40 years
The biggest challenge may be finding a salesperson at your local dealership who knows about the program.

“If a retailer is supportive, you might see a poster” about the program, says Volvo’s Hope. “That’s why we get a lot of repeat customers, they’ve done it before. Or when they were buying a car in the past they saw the poster and then do it when they buy a new car.”

The programs, started between 30 and 40 years ago, were conceived as a sales enticement. At the time, European cars seemed exotic, if not downright odd, to most Americans. “The first Saab we bought was from a friend whose husband had died,” says Seth Bengelsdorf of Port Chester, N.Y. “My father felt bad for her because she had the snow tires on the wrong wheels, in front.”

That was in the late '60s when front-wheel-drive was unknown and theirs was the only Saab in town. By the summer of 1971, the family was in England, taking delivery of a new Saab for a driving vacation that included a ferry trip to Europe. Since then, it’s been all Saabs for all Bengelsdorfs almost all the time.

Such loyalty is not just a Saab quirk. At Mercedes-Benz, Korallus has tracked customers who’ve used the program 30 times since its inception. Audi revived its program in 2006, so great was customer demand, much of it from previous participants. And they want more, so Audi is expanding its post-pick-up touring offerings with the help of Abercrombie & Kent, a company known for arranging luxurious, individualized travel. Even Porsche, which doesn’t discount prices for European delivery, finds repeat customers are a significant percentage of program participants.

Mike Strada, of Kailua on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, has taken European delivery of a silver Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe every year since 2001. He takes delivery in May, having signed up for the Porsche Grand Tour program that puts him on the racetrack in a Porsche 911 Turbo, or a Boxster S with a professional driver who will “redline from zero to 160 mph, and slow down to 120 mph on the turns,” Strada says.

He started this routine after a divorce, figuring a month of Porsche-ing about Europe with his son would be a good 24/7 experience for them. Strada keeps the car at his home in Bellagio, Italy, on Lake Como through the summer, then returns to drive it for another month in Europe each fall before shipping it home. He manages to squeak out under the deadline for paying what amounts to a failure-to-export penalty.

Porsche handles all the details of getting the 911 Carrera Coupe to Hawaii, and each year, Strada sells last year’s model to make room for the new baby next to his daily driver, a Toyota Tacoma.

Mini Cooper not available
Perhaps only a Mini driver could be so loyal, which brings us to the lack of an English delivery option for Mini Cooper owners. Judging by online howls, they want this option the way a pre-schooler wants a puppy — passionately and right now. Given Mini’s innovative marketing and owner programs, what gives?

Common sense.

For American drivers, “it’s a challenge to drive on the right-hand side even with a right-hand side drive car,” says Andrew Cutler of Mini USA. With a car designed for American roads, which would be left-hand drive “it’s kooky-crazy. The last thing we would want is for somebody to come pick up their brand new baby” … here, Cutler pauses, letting images of dented, crumpled Minis slouch through the imagination. The possibility of owner injury is too great a horror to contemplate.

Gamely, the company has tried a Mini-holiday program where owners would tour the factory, then rent a Mini for scooting about the landscape. It never achieved what Cutler calls “critical mass.” There have been discussions of installing mini-cams in the factory, so customers could watch their car being built from afar. So far, no go.

But Mini is not alone in not offering an English delivery option. Jaguar doesn’t. Neither does Land Rover. However, Land Rover compensates somewhat by welcoming American owners who want to "get their mud on" into its intensive driver training courses throughout the United Kingdom. Use of the vehicles is included in the enrollment fee. You can take much the same classes at home throughout North America.

If you want to buy a super luxury car or an exotic, check with your dealer. As a Ferrari spokesman said, “The simple answer is 'no,' but things can be arranged on an exceptional basis.”

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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