The Ultimate Souvenir: A New BMW

By Donna Payne
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 8, 2003

When it was time for us to replace our elderly automobile with a new model at the same time that my husband and I were planning a family trip to Europe, it hit us: We could engineer our vacation to net the ultimate souvenir. We would order a car from a European factory before we left the United States, pick it up in Europe, use it to tour the countryside and, we hoped, save money in the bargain.

We started with plenty of questions: How do we order a car? Isn't it expensive? How do we get it back to the States after our trip?

There were plenty of options. Saab (headquartered in Trollhattan, Sweden), Volvo (Goteborg, Sweden), Porsche (Stuttgart, Germany), Mercedes-Benz (Sindelfingen, Germany) and BMW (Munich) all offer European delivery programs with various combinations of incentives. These may include discounts off the U.S. base price of the car; free lodging, meals or airline tickets; free European auto insurance; and free shipping of the car home.

Since we've owned BMWs for almost 30 years, there was never any question that we would get a new version of our old favorite. The company offers about 7 percent off the suggested base U.S. retail price on its entire line of automobiles. That worked out to $2,020 in savings on our low-end model 325xi -- just enough to cover the $1,009 European airfares for our son and daughter. BMW does not discount the cost of optional equipment (another $5,195 for us), and the standard U.S. charge for destination and handling is extra, as are taxes. But it does include auto insurance coverage and roadside assistance for 30 days of travel in Europe. And all the arrangements and costs for shipping the car to the owner's home dealership are handled by the company.

We also saved money on transportation costs within Europe. A car rental for our three-week trip would have run about $1,000 for an economy car, and in the range of $6,000 to $17,000 for a Mercedes, BMW or Porsche.

Test-Drive Europe

Buying here and picking up there, it turns out, is relatively easy: The customer's local dealership takes care of all the ordering details, and pickup and shipping are handled by the factories overseas.

In our case, our Maryland dealer helped us order a car exactly to our specifications. He also arranged payment for local taxes and tags, just as he would have had we not taken European delivery. The Munich factory mailed us an information packet with directions to the factory, a driving atlas, a classy pen and a family meal voucher for the cafe at the delivery site.

We arrived in Munich a day early, choosing a hotel on the subway line. The BMW corporation is a significant presence in the heart of Munich. The company's tall, ultramodern headquarters is shaped like four upright silver engine cylinders, its museum forming a gargantuan gearshift knob (complete with BMW insignia on top). The offices and large manufacturing plant are next to the city's Olympic Park and only a few miles from the delivery center to the north and the historic city center to the south.

While we ate our free breakfast in the stylish in-house cafe, our agent, Michael, joined us at the table to explain the insurance and German registration documents, hand over our key and offer advice about the rules of the road. Then he brought us into the immaculate garage where our pristine white car awaited, with two options that aren't standard in the United States but required by German law: a large first-aid kit beneath the front passenger seat and a triangular road warning signal in the trunk.

Then came the fun part: We set out on a 1,500-mile loop through the Bavarian Alps into Italy and back again to Munich, from where BMW would then ship our car to the States.

Driving our new car in southern Germany, northern Italy and, briefly, Austria, was a delight. From Munich, it's only about an hour's drive south to the Bavarian Alps, with the spectacular Dolomite region of northeast Italy a few hours beyond. The autobahn, with no posted speed limits, provided not only an excuse for driving fast (at least 90 mph) but also gosh-did-you-see-that mountain scenery. And having our own wheels gave us the flexibility to change our plans at whim.

Heading into Italy, we left the superhighway at Bolzano to travel the great Dolomite road that links Bolzano with the smart-set ski town of Cortina d'Ampezzo. The road, with its multiple hairpin turns through moorlike meadows and bizarre, mountainous rock formations, was a satisfying test of the car's handling capabilities.

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