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That ‘new car smell’ on your European vacation

Fabulous European car, or fabulous European vacation? If these be the horns of your dilemma, well ... you're doing better than most these days. And you might even save money on each if you decide to choose both.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fabulous European car, or fabulous European vacation?

If these be the horns of your dilemma, well ... you're doing better than most these days. And you might even save money on each if you decide to choose both.

Through a well-established but little-known program casually known in the industry as overseas delivery, buyers of a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche, Volvo or Saab can pick up their new car at the plant where it was made, drop it off at a port city for shipping — and enjoy some serious road trip R&R along the way.

Autobahn, anyone?

The cost savings come in a variety of ways. With the exception of Porsche, these manufacturers offer roughly between 5 percent and 10 percent off the U.S. sticker price — Volvo's 7.5 percent discount would be $3,375 off a $45,000 car — because the dealer network, with its overhead, sales incentives and kickbacks, is largely bypassed.

(This is also why your local dealer, who still sets up the sale and processes the check, probably isn't going to great lengths to get the word out.)

Most programs include temporary registration and insurance setups, meaning customers are essentially obligated only to dust off their passports, fly to Europe, show up at the factory and drive away. And some carmakers throw in airline tickets for free (Volvo) or at a discount (BMW), as well as lodging and other accommodations — not to mention a long list of VIP concierge services.

"We pick you up at the airport," said Anders Robertson, manager of Volvo's overseas delivery program, "and the following day we'll come take you to the factory delivery center, right by the plant. Our people go through your car's features and benefits; you'll go on a tour of the factory; and our people are also very helpful with how to make the best of your sightseeing tour."

For Volvo, that tour begins in Gothenburg, Sweden, and can terminate at a long list of European destinations offered by the continent's automakers: from Scandinavia to Spain, the United Kingdom to Italy, and just about all points between. For those seeking an extended stay, the insurance and registration programs are easily extended, too.

The downside is that once you drop the car off, delivery to the U.S.-based dealer can take a few months.

"At the end, I had to say goodbye to the nice new car," laughed Peter Deutsch, vice president of tool and design for a marine parts company. The Novata, Calif., resident picked up his BMW 328i in August at the plant in Munich, Germany, and was still waiting for it to arrive.

But the experience, he said, made the wait worthwhile.

"It's a first-class facility, let me tell you," Deutsch said of BMW's factory "storefront," which starts customers off in a dining room for breakfast, then offers plant tours, museum access and other activities before sending them to the simulator. There, a technician loads the awaiting car's specs and puts the driver through his or her paces — including a demonstration of the difference between going hard through a turn with and without traction control.

"Turn it off," Deutsch said, "and you go slamming into the guardrail."

But there's nothing quite like the thing that Deutsch calls "the moment." As you're led down a staircase, your guide stops, and a bank of spotlights illuminates a dazzling new vehicle — yours — gleaming and glinting as it rotates on a giant turntable below.

"A girl comes over, and she's taking pictures of you and the car," Deutsch said. "You get in, she explains everything. They don't rush you — they're very polite."

Deutsch and his wife dropped the car off near Frankfurt, a "well-organized" process that he said took about 10 minutes. Total cost savings: about $2,500, not including BMW's two-for-one airline tickets on Lufthansa and other perks.

"And to this," he said, "you can add what a rental car would have cost me, which in this case would've been about $1,000."

(With Porsche, there are no price concessions — but who needs a discount when you're buying a six-figure sports car? Still, Ron Coxsum, a salesman at Ruznick Porsche in Pasadena, Calif., says the experience is a big deal. "It's a really big ceremony at the plant," he said. "It's red-carpet.")

There are other benefits: Anders said at Volvo, there's no haggling — the cost of overseas delivery (which in almost all cases includes all shipping costs and arrangements) is fixed. And because you're buying directly from the factory, you can custom-order the car from the ground up.

"We offer every color, every interior, every wheel-type that the factory builds," Robertson said.

The sagging U.S. economy has taken a heavy toll on both auto sales and European travel — and the overseas delivery programs have not been immune. Swedish automaker Saab has temporarily suspended its program while waiting for the dollar to firm up against the Euro.

"We hope to reinstate it later this year," said Jan-Willen Vester, spokesman for Saab USA, who estimates that in a normal climate about 100 cars per month are direct-delivered to American buyers.

And Saab, like the others, has good reason to lure buyers to its plant, Vester said: A customer who comes all the way to Trollhattan, Sweden, to pick up her car is — by virtue of the experience — probably going to be a customer for life.

"Typically people who do that, they remember," he said.

And the trip isn't necessarily limited to Sweden. Some might pilot their new Saab over to Germany for a little, shall we say — extra velocity?

"Swedes really like to observe their speed limits," he said, "but you can go full bore on the Autobahn, maybe drop it off in Paris, or Amsterdam."