Get A Free Ride With Your New Car: European Delivery Programs

Vintage Volvo ad - European Delivery programsLike many longtime New Yorkers, I don’t own a car and know little about the finer points of purchasing or owning a vehicle. A recent Volvo ad caught my eye in an airline in-flight magazine: If you purchase your car and pick it up in Sweden, they’ll pick up the tab on your trip. A new car and free travel? This was something I could get behind! Doing some research, I discovered quite a few of the top European car makers offer an overseas delivery program.

While you’ll have to plan in advance (generally 3-4 months) to get your car and your trip, you’ll save on the vehicle cost, plus get to pick it up hot off the presses and drive it around European roads. Once you have it shipped to the U.S., you will wait another 8-10 weeks or so to be reunited stateside. Some programs include free airfare and hotel nights, most include factory tours, European road insurance and import/export fees.

Here’s a look at the most popular programs, including travel costs and savings.Audi (Germany)
Travel perks: European Delivery customers get 5-15 percent off airfares on Lufthansa, chauffeured pick up from the Munich airport and a free night at a 4- or 5-star hotel near the factory. On the day you get your keys, you’ll visit the Audi museum and factory, with free meals and snacks all day. You then have two weeks to tool around Europe, with free drop off (by advance arrangement) at any one of 16 locations in Germany and western Europe.
Extra options: Serious Audi fans might consider an additional driving or race “experience” in summer or early fall (many of the winter events require special experience like driving in Scandinavia), where you can learn to drive like a pro, take on a racing circuit, or tour Europe in a luxury vehicle. It’ll cost extra, of course, from a few hundred euro per person. Note that all vehicles ready between November 1-April 15 must have winter tires installed at the factory, but that may be included in the cost of the car.
Car pricing: Audis are priced from $33,800, before the discount up to 5 percent off MSRP, except for the highest end models such as the R8 Spyder.

BMW (Germany)
Travel perks: You can get to Bavaria with 5-15 percent off airfares on Lufthansa. At the BMW Welt facility, you’ll get free museum and factory tours, and refreshments at the cafe. They’ll cover European road insurance for up to 14 days, then you can drop off your vehicle at one of 12 locations free, except Italy which has a supplement of up to 850 euro (must be those Italian drivers!).
Extra options: In addition to airfare, you’ll pay to get to the factory from Munich airport, as well as any hotels on your trip. As befitting a luxury automobile, BMW offers a range of luxury add-on trips designed to make the most of driving the Autobahn in the ultimate driving machine. (The “optional” note indicates they aren’t included free in the deal, but they are specially designed for BMW customers.) Winter deliveries will also require seasonal tires in Germany; it is possible to rent the winter tires if you don’t have them factory-installed.
U.S. pick up: Another option entirely is the Performance Center Delivery Program in Spartanburg, South Carolina. If you travel down south for your car, BMW will pay for your hotel and meals, plus a tour of its U.S. factory and museum, and best of all, professional driving instruction. You won’t get the savings you’d get on a European delivery, but the travel costs are much lower.
Car pricing: From $29,065 with savings, up to 7 percent on MSRP. See all models here.

Mercedes-Benz (Germany)
Travel perks: While airfare discounts aren’t included, you’ll get Mercedes’ travel assistance for booking your trip, airport transfers and one night hotel accommodations. When you pick up your car, you’ll have a tour of the factory and museums, meals at the delivery center, 15 days road insurance and a tank of gas to get you on your way.
Extra options: You can add a self-guided tour of the Black Forest or Alps at additional cost. Drop offs in Italy, England or Spain are additional (Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands are covered at no cost), and you’ll have to arrange for winter tires as with the other programs.
Car pricing: Vehicles from $35,800, with a 7 percent discount on MSRP.

Volvo (Sweden)
Travel perks: The best “deal” of the European Delivery programs, Volvo will include two round-trip plane tickets from the U.S. to Scandinavia (we’d assume Stockholm, but it’s 4-5 hours from the Volvo factory), one night in a hotel in Gothenburg, as well as the usual factory tour and road insurance.
Extra options: You will have to pay if you drop off or pick up anywhere other than the factory location, several hundred dollars or more, but it makes sense given the location of Volvo in Sweden as opposed to more central Germany. You may also see some seasonal charges: $150 per passenger supplement for summer flights, and the rental costs of snow tires between December and April. Volvo offers a variety of trips for more Scandinavian travel if you’d like to extend your trip.
Car pricing: Eligible Volvo models are from $31,420 after savings up to 7 percent on MSRP. See available models.

Bottom line: If you’re buying a new luxury vehicle, you likely aren’t a budget traveler. The savings even with free airfare, road insurance and a night at a nice hotel won’t likely offset what you’ll spend on the rest of your trip, let alone a car. However, if you are in the market for a slick new ride, driving it home on the Autobahn after seeing how it’s made is likely to be an unforgettable trip.

The Southern Road: 6 Tips For A Car Plant Tour

I just love visiting factories. After finishing my Southern Road trip, I’ve now been to 99. I went on my first plant tour when I was 8 years old, and my family went to visit Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Like me, you can visit many of the car plants that have been built in the South over the past 20 years. (See here for a list – and companies are adding tours all the time.) But, what are you actually going to see?

Here are some tips to help you understand what to look for.

1) Robots. Hands down, people who go on plant tours want to see robots. And you’ll see plenty at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Pretty soon, it will have 1,000 robots in its body shop. It has some of the most interesting uses for robots of any plant in the South. It actually hands them upside down, so they’re easier to repair and maintain. Robots do a variety of things on the assembly line, but they’re primarily used to weld things together. Don’t let the sparks scare you.

2) Organization. Felix Unger of the Odd Couple would love going on a plant tour. It’s the primary example of how things are organized to reach an outcome. When you’re on a plant tour, look at how parts are arranged on the side the assembly line – and also look to see whether there are many parts at all. In some plants, big pieces of a car, like the dashboard, are now delivered to workers in one module.

3) Atmosphere. Is the plant well lit? Is it hot, or cool and does it smell? Odor is a problem in engine plants, like Toyota’s factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The women who work there don’t bring their purses inside, because the smell gets into leather. (That odor is coolant, which is used because there is so much metal being processed.) On the flip side, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner plants than Toyota in Tupelo, Mississippi, BMW in Greenville, South Carolina, or Mercedes.

4) Flow. Car plants have a particular flow. The biggest ones, like Hyundai, in Montgomery, Alabama, start with stamping plants, where they make the hoods and sides and trunks from big coils of steel. All the metal pieces get put together before they go through the paint shop. Then, car companies take the doors off so that workers can get inside and underneath to add parts, without damaging the hinges (or themselves). You’ll always see a “wet test” at the end where the car gets sprayed with water to test for leaks.

5) Staging yards. Outside the factory, you may notice a huge lot filled with vehicles – rows and rows of them. This doesn’t mean the cars aren’t selling. These are called staging yards, where the cars are lined up to be put on rail cars and transport trucks. They’re busy places, with cars zooming out of the factory and into the yard. It’s fun to see how many different colors are being made and which models are the most popular.

Finally, one last piece of advice FOR you, not about what you’ll see.

6) Don’t touch anything. You’re not in danger of having anything fall on you, but please keep your hands out of the assembly line and don’t push any buttons. Also, don’t feel like you can help yourself to a free Mercedes emblem or a BMW hubcap. These things are expensive. And, many parts are lined up in sequence. If you somehow walked off with a rear-view mirror, you might wind up delaying the assembly line, and that would be some plant tour to remember.

The Southern Road: Visiting The Luxury South

Chris Hastings has beaten Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. This year, he won a James Beard Award. On any weeknight, his restaurant is packed with diners who look over the shoulders of his kitchen crew as they cook right in front of their eyes. But Hastings isn’t cooking in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco.

He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.

The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.

The evidence is most visible in two places – Greenville, S.C., near BMW’s only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.

Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you’ll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.

Among the team’s long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.BMW owners from across the country can take delivery of their vehicles in Greenville, and get lessons in how to drive them. They can dine in BMW’s cafe, buy souvenir shot glasses and water bottles in the BMW gift shop, and take a tour of the factory, which has become famous from BMW’s ads.

A number of those BMW customers have found their way to the collection of restaurants owned by Carl Sobocinski, the unquestioned king of the local food scene, who is a chief beneficiary of the Luxury South.

His stable ranges from his white table cloth restaurant, Devereaux’s, to Soby’s, a bustling bar and grill, to The Lazy Goat, his attempt at a Mediterranean restaurant.

Sobocinski, who opened his first restaurant at age 25 in 1992, is one of those restaurant owners who his patrons greet by name and in many cases thank for investing in their town. “It was dead down here,” John Bauka, a Soby’s patron declared, unasked, when he came up to shake Sobocinski’s hand after a meal. In those days, only two blocks near the city’s Hyatt Hotel were at all lively.

“Everything down here was kind of boarded up,” Sobocinski said. “It was huge, in how fast it went” after BMW arrived. “We had Michelin, we had General Electric, we had Fluor, but they didn’t bring the suppliers that we have here now.”

More than 100 other companies have opened up since BMW arrived, bringing a flood of newcomers to the area. “They were bringing people in, I’d meet them, and all of a sudden they’re calling and saying, we’re bringing in some important people, we need a quiet place,’ he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good.”

The growth has bothered some locals: “You’ll have people say, why are we giving away the farm? And others who say this is the way to go,” Sobocinski says.

In Birmingham, it would be difficult to find anyone who thinks Mercedes-Benz has been anything but a plus to the community, although the investment didn’t come without risks. In 1993, the state put together a then-staggering $253 million incentive package to land the plant, but then was in danger of not being able to come up with the money. Help arrived from the state’s pension fund, and the Mercedes project was able to go forward.

Now, Mercedes is the centerpiece of aggressive growth for Birmingham and a further enhancement for Tuscaloosa, which already boasts the University of Alabama’s lavish campus. In the years since Mercedes arrived, Birmingham has become a smaller version of Atlanta, minus the crippling traffic. It was already the financial capital of Montgomery, but now it has become a bustling, medium sized city that is the center of the southern auto industry.

In another era, it might seem ludicrous that a chef like Hastings would beat out four competitors from New Orleans to win the Beard Award as the best chef in the South. Not any more.

It only takes a few minutes in his restaurant to understand why. Hot and Hot opens at 5:30 p.m., and on many nights, it is packed by 6 p.m. Hastings is often at the door, in his chef’s coat, to say hello to guests, sign his cookbook, and deal with special requests. There’s no camouflaging what’s happening in the kitchen, because the restaurant is essentially built around an open kitchen.

Dinners who sit at the chef’s counter have an up close view of their meals being prepared, as well as all the other steps that go into each dish. They can watch cooks using blow torches and painstakingly sautéing peaches. None of this is frenetic: in fact, there is a sense of politeness, camaraderie and calm to the proceedings that put lie to the tension of “Kitchen Nightmares.”

After directing a nine-course, small bites dinner for me that included three desserts, home made rye bread and biscuits, an amazing gazpacho and the best soft-shelled crab I’d ever eaten, Hastings took me on a tour.

It didn’t take long, because the restaurant has just one tiny area where the locally grown fruits and vegetables are prepared, as well as the walk-in refrigerators where meat and fish are stored. The quality is outstanding from the minute produce arrives, as I discovered when I ate one of the heirloom tomatoes he gave me to take home.

Although he has just this one restaurant, Hastings’ influence spreads out in the food world well beyond Birmingham. And, he’s not the only chef in town who’s transcended the local scene. One of the city’s other standout chefs, Frank Stitt, has won similar praise for his Highlands Bar and Grill. Like Sobocinski in Greenville, Stitt has his own collection, ranging from French bistro to Italian cafe.

The flourishing Birmingham restaurant scene right in sync with the atmosphere at the Mercedes plant, with its vast, sparkling clean aisles.

As in Greenville, Mercedes has gone all out to court its customers, who can visit a museum, take a tour, and shop for souvenirs, from picnic baskets to golf shirts and tennis balls with the Mercedes logo. It’s truly a luxury experience, unlike anything imaginable before the auto industry got here. And the impact is being shared throughout the community, as well.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court South, Birmingham, AL 205-933-5474 for reservations (it does not accept them online)

Soby’s, 207 S. Main Street, Greenville, S.C., 864-232-7007 (the restaurant accepts reservations online)

Daily Pampering: The Mercedes-Benz AIRCAP

Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet
Having a gorgeous convertible is certainly a blessing, but owners know that it’s sometimes a curse. You can’t ride with the top down all the time — it will mess up your hair on the way to work or a party, and if you’re traveling fast, the rushing air gets so loud it’s hard to have a conversation.

I know, I know, these are problems we’d all be lucky to have, especially with a car like the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet (pictured). I had the pleasure of climbing into this car in the tents at Bryant Park yesterday (it’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week) to check out the new AIRCAP Technology, which actually solves all the problems I mentioned. You could take a road trip in this car with the top down and your hair would never know it.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class CabrioletLook closely at the top photo — the AIRCAP is raised. Just a couple inches of mesh atop the windshield and a correlated panel at the back actually keep the car quiet and your hair unfettered at up to 125 mph. It’s controlled by a button hidden in the center console; totally unobtrusive.

AIRCAP is the first technology of its kind in the industry, but copycats will surely follow soon. I would say that AIRCAP Technology alone makes this the ultimate road trip car — but it doesn’t hurt that the top only takes 20 seconds to raise and can be activated while the car is moving up to 25 mph, the seats can actually cool as well as heat, and see the vents by the neck? That’s Mercedes AIRSCARF; it actually blows warm air on your neck, with the fan speed controlled by the vehicle speed. Saucy car gets fresh with you. The results: sexy.

AIRCAP comes standard on the entire E-Class Cabriolet line, which is expected to be priced in the mid 50s.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

Amsterdam becoming the car tipping capital of the world?

Ever seen one of those little Smart cars? They may be pretty rare in the US, but in Europe you’ll have a hard time not being able to find the little buggers. Especially in the major cities of Europe, the small cars are extremely popular, as they are a breeze to park. In fact, they are so easy to park, that many owners can fit two of them in a single parking spot.

Smart car owners in Amsterdam may be starting to have second thoughts about their little cars, because of an alarming new trend.

“Smart Smijten” is the Dutch name for it, and it translates to “Smart Tipping” – the “sport” of tipping the vehicle into a canal. If there is one thing Amsterdam has no shortage of, it is canals. And since many owners park their car with the rear facing the water, it is easy for a couple of drunk hooligans to pick the car up from the front, and dump it into the canal.

Of course, the cars are a total loss when they have been in the filthy water, and the crane required to lift them out probably doesn’t do them much good either.

Apparently, the Dutch police have known about he phenomenon for some time, but tried to keep it quiet, to prevent copy-cat criminals. It is probably only a matter of time till other cities try to compete. So, if you own or rent a Smart (or other small vehicle), keep it away from any canals when you park!