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LIFE ON WHEELS

Here's a Thrifty Travel Tip: Take a European Vacation to Your New Car

February 16, 1989|JAN HOFMANN

You've heard of going out of town to find a good deal on a new car? Phil and Jean Lansdale of Corona del Mar take it a step further. They leave the country.

Seven times in the last 20 years, the Lansdales have traveled to Europe to pick up their new vehicles: four Mercedes-Benzes, an Audi, a BMW and a Volkswagen. Each time, they saved enough to pay for the vacation.

"I would recommend it to anyone who's buying a European import," Jean Lansdale says.

Although a handful of import dealers promote the concept with modest ads or incentives such as air fare or accommodations, European delivery remains for the most part a well-kept secret. Some import manufacturers would like more people to know about it, while others do not encourage it.

But reluctantly or enthusiastically, nearly all offer the option.

Each plan is a little different, but in general, you can save about 10% off the list price of a European import if you're willing to pick it up there. Because you can drive the car during your visit to the Continent, you save the cost of car rental or other transportation as well.

And if your schedule allows a long, leisurely trip, you can save even more. "If you use the car in Europe for more than 90 days, you can save the 6% California sales tax," says Harry Taylor, European delivery specialist for McLaren's BMW in Fullerton.

But there are disadvantages. If you want to dicker over the price, you might be better off buying from a dealer's stock. With that 10% already lopped off the top, there's much less room for negotiation, and some companies simply won't budge even a penny.

Specifics vary, but here's an overview of how European delivery works:

You go to a U.S. dealer, order the car and pay a deposit of $250 to $2,000, depending on the car.

That first step must take place several months in advance so the car can be built to specifications, although less choosy buyers can be accommodated in as few as 3 weeks if they are willing to take a vehicle that is not made to order.

The balance is due about a month before the pickup date. That means the whole transaction is handled in this country, in U.S. dollars.

Then, passport and invoice in hand, you fly to Europe, go to the factory and pick up the car.

When you're ready to return home, you take the car to one of many drop-off points and get back on the plane. Four to 6 weeks later, you pick up the car from the same dealer with whom you started.

With a few exceptions, you don't have to worry about such details as European registration and insurance or getting the car through U.S. Customs. Nor will you have to get the vehicle retrofitted to meet U.S. standards; the manufacturer will take care of installing the catalytic converter and whatever else is required here. In all cases, the cars available for pickup in Europe through dealers here are exactly the same as those sold in the United States, right down to the warranty.

Some dealers have specialists who handle all their European deliveries, which can make the process smoother yet.

Some manufacturers, such as Saab, subsidize European delivery so dealers don't lose on the deal. "It's mostly a marketing thing," says Jim Vickers of Beach Imports in Newport Beach.

But other manufacturers will not subsidize. Taylor says his dealership makes less money on a European delivery, "although we don't have to purchase the car and pay interest expense, which we do on a car that sits on the lot."

And with Peugeot, "the dealer does not make a dime," according to Jeff Greco of Anaheim Stadium Peugeot. "But if someone buys a car through us, they're probably going to have it serviced at our center. It goes beyond the initial sale."

The few European car manufacturers that don't offer European delivery tend to be at the high end of the scale: Ferrari, Maserati, Aston-Martin and Alfa Romeo, for example. The same goes for the low end: Nobody goes to Yugoslavia to pick up a custom-made Yugo.

But if you're interested in something between those two extremes and your passport's in order, keep reading for a brief brand-by-brand rundown:

* Mercedes-Benz: Orders must be placed about 3 months in advance, according to Jack Stinson, European delivery specialist at the House of Imports in Buena Park. A $2,000 deposit is required, with the balance due 35 days before delivery. You pick up your car at the factory in Sindelfingen, West Germany, just outside Stuttgart. You'll get a free night at a hotel in either Stuttgart or Sindelfingen, and Mercedes-Benz also pays your cab fare from the airport. The next morning you'll get a tour of the factory, including a movie on how the cars are made, and a free breakfast and lunch. Stinson will help with travel plans.

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