Spoil yourself with a car-buying vacation — in the European style

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Call it an excellent European adventure.

You can pick up a freshly finished Porsche (or Beemer or Benz or Saab or Volvo) right where it was made, drive the car on vacation through the Black Forest or over the Blue Danube, then leave it at a harbor and fly back to America. After its ship docks stateside, simply retrieve the car and drive it home.

And save money on the car to boot. Enough to pay for the vacation even.

Heck, sometimes the carmaker even pays your air fare and a night or two in a hotel.

It’s called a European delivery program — and five carmakers offer it:
Saab and

Under the programs, you order the car at a U.S. dealer, usually paying less than you would for a car on the lot. A few months later you fly to Europe and take delivery at the factory or a dealer. You drop the car off to be loaded onto a ship (each maker offers numerous drop-off points), and three to eight weeks later your car arrives home with no duty to pay at the wharf.

When you buy a vehicle this way, it is made for the U.S. market, with items such as a third brake light, appropriate emissions controls and dashboard controls intended for Americans — that is, words are in English and speed is measured in good ol’ American miles per hour, not kilometers.

A European rally car
When you get the car at the factory, it sports an export license plate and usually two to four weeks of driving insurance are paid for. You can speed down the Autobahns of Germany, snake around the sinuous curves of the Alps or streak through Stockholm before returning home.

Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volkswagen are among the carmakers that don’t offer European delivery programs. You’re also out of luck if you want to combine a car purchase with a trip to Japan or South Korea because carmakers on the other side of the Pacific don’t offer Asian delivery programs.

But if you’re in the market for a car made by one of the five luxury carmakers that offer the programs, you can save a substantial amount, usually anywhere from 3 percent to 7 percent. Banks and credit unions are reluctant to lend money for a European-delivery car because they don’t have control over the title while it’s overseas, so you almost always have to finance the purchase through the dealer.

You have to pick up the car in Europe. You can’t appoint a friend or relative to do it.

But the savings can be substantial.

Before the wedding
Ralph della Cava of New York bought a forest green, all-wheel-drive Volvo V70 Cross Country station wagon for about $4,000 less than he would have paid for a car on a dealership lot, flew to Sweden and back home at Volvo’s expense, and picked up his vehicle three weeks later at a port in New Jersey.

Della Cava, a university professor, initially intended to pick up and drop off his car en route to a research trip in Moscow. But his daughter’s impending wedding spurred him to change his plan. He arrived in the factory town of G?teborg, Sweden, on a Thursday, picked up and dropped off the car, then took a train to Stockholm, where he stayed over for the required Saturday night, then flew back home on Sunday.

The experience at the Volvo factory was pleasant, considering that he was suffering from the travel.

“The morning that I arrived in G?teborg I was feeling the exhaustion of the trip, the time change, jet lag,” he says. “I was sort of hungry and they said, ‘Here’s a ticket to go to our cafeteria. Have yourself a meal.’ It was Swedish meatballs.”

Then he visited the sales agent at the factory. “I signed the papers and said, ‘Ship it.’ He said, ‘Don’t you want to drive it? Don’t you want to see it?’ “

What della Cava most wanted to do was take a nap at the hotel. But he took the car for a spin around Volvo’s test track, then handed off the keys and pleaded with a Volvo employee to try to get the car shipped to New York before his daughter’s wedding less than a month later. Indeed, he was able to get the car a couple of days before the wedding and he drove some guests to the nuptials in his new car.

When he picked up the car at the Jersey shore, he discovered the price of not taking the time for an orientation session at the factory. When he jumped in the car he rolled down the windows. It started to rain as he approached the port’s guarded gate. That’s when he found out that he didn’t know how to roll up the windows. Finally, he figured out that on this model car, you have to pull up on a switch to raise the windows.

Visiting owners love various options
Michael Reichstein, the new car and European delivery manager for South Bay BMW in Pleasanton, Calif., classifies customers into three categories, and he would put della Cava in his “value conscious” category — people who buy cars via European delivery primarily to save money.

But most people who can afford these sorts of cars generally aren’t going to wing over to Europe just to save a mere 3 percent to 7 percent.

Reichstein has sold more than 200 cars through European delivery, and he says most people either buy this way as part of a European vacation (saving money they would have paid for a car rental) or a European work assignment, or because the car they want is unavailable when they want it.

Some customers enjoy the experience because the pickup point at BMW’s plant in Munich is close to the Autobahn and the BMW museum. Reichstein can arrange factory tours, too, to the occasional bemusement of spouses.

“The guy will say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I want to tour the factory,’ and the spouse just rolls her eyes and says, ‘Why would I want to go to a car plant?’ ” So Reichstein, who lived in Munich for four years, will recommend things to do and places to go while spouses are apart during the factory tour.

BMW, like the other German car companies with European delivery programs, doesn’t offer the free air fare or hotel accommodations that Volvo offered della Cava.

Sales aren’t allocation breakers
Why would a dealer sell a car this way?

“It’s a sale for us that we normally would not get,” Reichstein says. He explains that BMW allocates a specific number of each model that it sells to the dealer. If the dealer receives orders for more than its allocation, it has to make customers wait or it can send those customers overseas to pick up their cars. The sale doesn’t count against the dealer’s allocation, and the dealer gets a cut of the sale.

If you want to buy something exotic that’s hard to find in the United States, you probably won’t find a delivery program. All sorts of car brands aren’t sold in the United States, such as the French
Citro?n; the Italian
Fiat; the Indian
Mahindra and
Maruti; the Australian
Holden; and the Russian
Lada. They don’t have home-country delivery programs.

That’s kind of a shame. The
Mahindra Classic, a Jeep knockoff with a huge chrome front bumper, looks really cool.