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The World | COLUMN ONE

German Car Buyers' Favorite Pickup

Taking possession of a new vehicle is a ceremonial occasion in the land of the Beetle and the BMW. Volkswagen has built an entire theme park for the purpose.

April 16, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOLFSBURG, Germany — Granted, climbing into a ride that replicates a rollover accident is probably not every buyer's idea of what to do while waiting for a new car to be delivered.

But don't tell that to the people in line for the simulator, or the kids buzzing around in the miniature Volkswagen Beetles, or the technology buffs glued to the video display about fuel injection engines.

Here, Germans' nationally revered act of going to the factory to pick up a new car has been transformed into a deluxe celebration that can last a day or weekend, a la an American trip to Disneyland.

"For Germans, buying a new car is a big event," says Maria Schneider, creative director of the VW Autostadt theme park, the second most popular amusement park in the country. "The car is part of the family, like the children."

Traveling to the factory to receive the car rather than going to the local dealership where it was ordered is a tradition here. Other major manufacturers, such as DaimlerChrysler, BMW and Porsche, offer their car-fetching visitors guided tours of their assembly plants and one-on-one customer service at the time of collection.

But VW has elevated a practical undertaking into a life experience. An hour by train from Berlin and a pleasant five-minute walk from the station is the $450-million Autostadt, German for Auto City. Amid a Disney-like panoply of exhibits, rides and restaurants, Autostadt's 6,000 daily visitors each spend an average of 4 1/2 hours absorbing the latest motor trends, strolling among man-made lakes and landscaped pavilions and taking virtual-reality test drives.

Though Autostadt is proving popular with VW buyers, the bulk of its patrons are Germans simply out for a jaunt. From school field trips to the annual office outings that are another unique national habit, the theme park draws three times as many visitors on average as Berlin's historic, glass-domed Reichstag.

"We read about it when it opened but only got around to visiting now," said Cindy Woop, a 23-year-old tax advisor from Cologne who tried out the rollover accident simulator, which demonstrates how seat belts and head rests protect a driver. "It's interesting. It gets you thinking about things you take for granted."

The centerpiece of the theme park is the car pickup center, a cavernous hall combining the light and space of an airport terminal with the atmosphere of a celebrity hangout. Car buyers are summoned to one of three runways by an elevated futuristic signboard that flashes their names, dealerships,license-plate numbers and collection appointments in luminous lime-green letters. In a rare moment for Germans when the customer is truly king, the buyer's entourage is then escorted down a broad staircase to the collection level and encouraged to go over the shiny new purchase with a fine-toothed comb.

Nearby, a uniformed delivery specialist with nearly three years' training stands with an electronic clipboard, ready, able and willing to answer any and all questions the buyers might have for as long as they want to prolong the occasion.

Delivery specialist Tatiana Vanella says that most customers' questions are covered in the thick owner's manuals provided with each new car but that many want a personal demonstration of how the air-conditioning system works or tips on how to best protect the finish.

"We have to know everything about the cars. That's why we train so long," said Vanella, a Wolfsburg native who just graduated from the post-sales school in January.

Each proud new automotive parent spends an average of 70 minutes in the delivery room, says Autostadt spokesman Nicholas Batten. By contrast, it is rare in Germany for soon-to-be fathers to spend any time at all in the room while their wives are delivering babies.

On a recent day, retired machinist Wolfgang Lechner stepped up to the receiving stage to take possession of his poppy-red Golf diesel. He and son Stefan had spent a few hours puttering around the antique car museum and new technology exhibits before their appointment with delivery specialist Enrico Behrens.

"I think I'll be happier with this hatchback now that I'm retired," said the elder Lechner while his son poked under the hood as they got ready for the five-hour drive home to Kempten. "I had a BMW sedan until now, but it's getting to be too much of a struggle to get a case of beer into the trunk. With this car, I can slide it in and out more easily."

Dirk and Monika Pilarski, collecting their Golf station wagon on the same day, lauded the attention lavished on 6-year-old son Simon, who even after five hours was protesting his parents' entreaties that they head home.

"There's a lot for kids to do with their hands and a lot of stuff that gives them a sense of being a grown-up," Monika said. "The whole child-care center is designed to keep the kids busy so the adults can enjoy and inform themselves."

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