European Car Makers Sweeten Vacation Deals for U.S. Drivers Who Travel Abroad to Buy
Europe's luxury auto makers are taking an unusual tack to lure American drivers: offering them incentives to travel abroad to buy a car and merging the experience with a high-end driving vacation.
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European-delivery programs, which are offered by such auto makers as BMW AG, Daimler-Benz AG's Mercedes-Benz unit, Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo unit and Porsche AG, allow U.S. customers to take ownership of a new car overseas before shipping it home. While the programs have been around for years on a limited scale, targeted to military personnel and diplomats posted overseas, they're now being sweetened with extra perks -- and, for an additional fee, packaged with guided tours as all-inclusive luxury driving vacations.
Buyers in these little-advertised programs often benefit from significant discounts. Savings typically range between 3% and 9% off the sticker price, depending on the brand and vehicle, and the price includes shipping.
In some cases, the markdowns can be even higher. Billy Brown, an engineer in Mobile, Ala., bought an S40 sedan through Volvo's program, paying about $27,000, $4,500 less than the $31,500 a similarly equipped model would have cost at home. A Volvo owner since 1968, Mr. Brown also took advantage of free round-trip tickets to Sweden and a two-night hotel stay in the harbor city of Gothenburg. "I don't think I'd buy any other way now," says Mr. Brown.
Many customers are taking advantage of the more-extensive travel packages offered at additional cost. "The idea is to wrap the purchase of a vehicle in a memorable travel experience," says Ron Hennel, a department manager with Mercedes-Benz's program.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche offer touring vacations that play off the companies' German heritage, such as rally trips through the Black Forest and the Alps. Prices start around $1,300 per person.
Buyers of General Motor Corp.'s Saab vehicles can opt into the "Ice Experience," in which participants travel 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle to spend three days in frozen territory. Highlights of the trip include helicopter, dogsled and snowmobile rides, as well as a test drive on a frozen lake. The option costs $3,500 per couple, but the company includes a $2,000 stipend in its European-delivery package.
Taking to the Race Track
To promote its R line of high-performance vehicles, Volvo -- known in the U.S. as a purveyor of safe, if slightly dull, family vehicles -- offers entry to the famous Nürburgring grand-prix race track in Germany, which many auto enthusiasts consider one of the most demanding courses in the world.
Volvo has race instructors on hand to guide participants through the course's many treacherous curves. The program, which includes round-trip tickets to Europe and ferry travel to and from Germany, costs $3,495 for two, though the company says it's worth more than $10,000.
Porsche offers a variety of trips, including a wine-themed voyage through Burgundy and Alsace. The four-day tour costs about $3,000 per person. Other Porsche-branded driving vacations through the Alps or Black Forest and Bavaria range from $2,419 for three days to over $6,000 for a weeklong sojourn.
Participants in the programs buy new vehicles through their local dealers, who also help make travel arrangements to Europe. In some cases, the packages include the cost of airfare to delivery centers scattered throughout the Continent. Vehicles can also be insured and driven for weeks or months abroad before eventually being shipped back to the original U.S. local dealer by the manufacturer.
Some U.S. customers use the programs as a platform for much-longer vacations. Erik Strom, a 33-year-old currency trader in New York, bought a new BMW 325i sedan for $29,000, which he picked up in Munich as an opening act to a three-month honeymoon spent driving through Eastern Europe.
"This is likely the best-kept secret in the auto industry, even though it's been around for years," says Irv Robinson, who runs a BMW European-delivery Web site http://www.edBMW.com and is a salesman at Motor Werks, a dealership in Barrington, Ill., that specializes in luxury brands.
It may also be a good way to get built-to-order or hard-to-find models. Mr. Robinson recently sold Irina Maron, a Northbrook, Ill., real estate agent, a new, hard-to-find 328 convertible through BMW's program. According to Mr. Robinson, Ms. Maron, 47 years old, saved 10%.
Eight weeks after ordering her new model, Ms. Maron flew to Germany overnight, picked up her car the next day, drove 11 miles to the drop-off center and took the plane home the following day. She took delivery of the car at home less than a month later. In the U.S., she would have had to wait months to get the car.
"This is a first for me, driving a car that nobody else has," says Ms. Maron, who adds that she plans to buy another car this way -- but next time, she and her husband plan on taking a vacation-package option.
Delivery Time Can Vary
Yet European-delivery programs may not be for everybody. The time it takes for a vehicle to make it home can vary drastically, depending on everything from its final destination to the demand for that particular model. Not all models may be available, either, such as vehicles assembled in the U.S., including some Mercedes SUVs and BMW roadsters. And financing and leasing can be complicated if not gotten through the car companies' operations.
Another obstacle may lurk in the manufacturers' own dealerships. Motor Werks' Mr. Robinson says many salespeople are reluctant or simply misinformed about the programs. "The manufacturers need a better training program, because some salesmen are more interested in instant gratification and don't want to deal with it," he says.
Still, with Asian manufacturers making concerted efforts to encroach on European luxury sales, and with some American brands following suit, these programs could become an increasingly important selling point.
Some auto makers say that rising interest has caused some program managers to shun publicity until new delivery centers come online and capacity for European deliveries increases.
BMW will open a new facility to handle overseas deliveries in Welt, Germany, later this year, partly to meet growing demand. Audi, long the lone holdout among major European brands, had so many clients requesting a similar service that it launched its own program late last year, making initial deliveries in December.
BMW has the most popular program by far; it expects about 3,000 participants from the U.S. in 2007, triple the number of a decade ago, a majority of whom are participating in the vacation packages. Volvo and Mercedes-Benz delivered just over 1,900 and 1,300 cars, respectively, in 2006. Saab, which offers the most significant discounts, and Porsche, which offers none at all, report annual participation rates in the hundreds.
Despite the relatively low volumes, manufacturers say the programs are worth the effort because they help create loyal customers. "They become brand ambassadors, talking us up to their friends," says Mercedes-Benz's Mr. Hennel.
The mechanics of buying a new vehicle through a European-delivery program are much the same as any domestic purchase. All transactions take place in U.S. dollars, and trim lines, options and final prices are hashed out at a home dealership long before the trip begins. All the vehicles come equipped to U.S. crash and emissions specifications and are packaged with standard domestic warranties, at no extra cost.
Those hoping to get their hands on models, engines, or technology options not offered in the U.S. are out of luck, though. European delivery is exactly that: delivery in Europe of otherwise U.S.-bound cars. Vehicles not already sold in America aren't available through such programs.
Write to Matt Vella at email@example.com.