Buying An Import Over There

Although the rising dollar means imported-car prices should eventually drop, there's no need to wait for bargains on Mercedes, BMWs, Volvos, and the like. Europe already has them. The only catch is you have to show up at the factory to seal the deal.

Even on entry-level U.S. models, the savings can be enough to finance most or all of your trip. On big-ticket cars, you can knock $10,000 off the price. Some manufacturers, such as Mercedes and BMW, even toss in free or cut-rate air tickets and hotels.

THINK AHEAD. The simplest, though usually not the biggest, discount is on new models ordered through a U.S. dealer. It's best to make arrangements a month or two in advance to get the color and options you want. You'll have to make a deposit (typically $2,000 to $2,500) and pay in full 30 days before pickup. Bank financing is the same as for any new car.

Another benefit: If you're thinking of touring Europe, you can forget those killer rentals and use your new car instead. The factory can provide local insurance and license plates. When you're done, deliver it back to the factory or its agents across Europe for shipment home. Factory-delivery prices include shipment and customs duties. There's a modest add-on of $300 to $1,000 for pickup or shipment from nonfactory sites. And if your state has one, you'll have to pay sales tax where you register the car, plus any luxury or gas-guzzler tax.

European car brokers offer even better deals, closer to wholesale. Merv Calder, owner of European Automotive Compliance in the Hague,

Netherlands (011 31 70 355-9245), has a factory-pickup price of $22,900 for a Volvo 850GLT. That's $3,185 less than factory delivery through Washington (D.C.) dealers and $6,085 less than suggested U.S. retail.

For fanatic bargain hunters, European-specification cars that are sold through local showrooms or by European residents can be dirt cheap. But you'll need to get the car converted to U.S. environmental and safety specs. That can run $6,000 if you have to install a $1,500 catalytic converter, an item not required on most Eurocars until this year, says Jonathan Weisheit, owner of J.K. Motors of Baltimore, one of seven U.S. companies the Environmental Protection Agency authorizes to make conversions. For a list of the companies, call 202 233-9660.

Even with conversion, customs duty, and delivery fees, savings can be substantial, particularly on used cars. European models tend not to have leather seats or all the other luxury options larded on U.S. versions. And in high-tax countries, such as Denmark and Portugal, manufacturers typically reduce the wholesale price to dealers so the overall retail cost will still be affordable. Since nonresidents don't pay local taxes, it's a much lower base price.

If you're into style but low on cash, some Euromodels look like costlier U.S. versions but have smaller, cheaper engines. "Most people won't notice the power difference," says Weisheit. "But they'll notice the lower price and maintenance costs and higher gas mileage." Mercedes' 230 sedan has a 2.3-liter engine instead of the 3.2-liter one in the 300E, the U.S. model. Says Weisheit: "1989 and 1990 230s are available for as little as $5,000." He also recommends Mercedes' two-seat convertible, the 300SL--with a less powerful 300E motor in pre-1993 models. "When new, it was $40,000 less than the [more powerful] 500SL but it looks the same."

CALL MY AGENT. You say you can't read French classifieds? Pas de probl me. English-speaking new-car brokers such as Calder also locate used cars, including demos.

Caution: European warranties are void in the U.S. Also, it's prohibitively expensive to import a car whose body style isn't safety approved in the U.S., such as BMW's snazzy Z-1 roadster. "It needs crash-testing to be legally imported," says Weisheit. "And that means you have to buy at least two."

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