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Southern California – Car Buff Capital of the World

April 5, 2011

There are many opinions people have about Southern California, whether or not they live here or have even visited.  When thinking of “SoCal” many conjure up images of sunny weather, palm trees, surfing, and the Hollywood sign.  Some may think of the Lakers, Disneyland, San Diego, or Palm Springs.  Still others mark this region with thoughts of earthquakes, bad traffic, OJ Simpson, and plastic surgery.  The truth is Southern California is all of these things, and a lot more.  But when I think of this great land I have called home for the better part of the last decade I also think of cars.  In fact, I from this day forward will unofficially crown Southern California the Car Buff Capital of the World.  There I said it.  Now, I would probably get some arguments from those who live in and around Motor City (Detroit), where the American car dream was born in the 20th century.  Others could make a case for heavy enthusiast states in the South and Southeast, where motorsports are a big part of the culture.  Or even those in the Midwest, where I grew up and witnessed my fair share of classic car shows, world-class racing, and a passionate base of automobile lovers.  However, after living here and witnessing just how much the automobile is engrained in the culture and the culture engrained in the automobile, I have realized this place is a true candy store for car fanatics, no matter what their preference. 

Eye Candy

Now I live in Newport Beach, which may give me an unfair advantage given the fact I get to see some pretty amazing cars on the road as I just drive to the grocery store.  Ferraris old and new, mint-condition muscle cars from the 60’s, Tesla roadsters, Aston Martins, Ford Model A’s from the 1930’s, and a half-dozen camouflaged test mules of upcoming, yet-to-be-released models have been witnessed by yours truly in just the past month.  And the beauty of it is these sightings are commonplace for coastal Orange County locals. 

Prime Conditions

It’s no secret Southern California has by and large the best climate for drivers of any place in the U.S. and possibly the world.  With few days of rain, limited excessive heat (for LA, Orange, and San Diego Counties at least), solid roads (anyone who refutes this hasn’t lived in the pothole-ridden Midwest or East Coast), and no snow, the climate gives enthusiasts simply more nice days to enjoy their rides.  As a non-native it was amazing to me after moving here to see so many old cars, and I mean ’65 Mustangs to old VW Beetles, still on the road being used as daily drivers.  Rust is virtually non-existent in such a dry climate and these weathered workhorses only have paint-fade from the sun to show their age.  A properly kept will looks years newer having grown up in Southern California than virtually any other place in the nation, and is yet another reason the area is so great for car lovers. 

Local Passion

What I perhaps love most about Southern California car culture is that it truly does have something for everyone.  Car clubs run rampant in these parts and have very strong followings, whether they are British sports cars from the 60’s or modern Japanese technology, the forum for camaraderie is ever-present.  Big name custom shops are also in great supply.  From German car powerhouses such as Brabus to hot rod style-influencers like Chip Foose and the legendary West Coast Customs, influencers of the industry are widespread.  The lowrider revolution even started here in the ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles and continues to have a strong following to this day.  Perhaps because of this culture of trend-setting individuality visitors will find residents who, by and large, take more pride in their cars than most.  Some may say it is more of a “status” issue where John Doe is trying to keep up with the Joneses, but in my opinion it runs much deeper than that.  Culture such as clothing, music, and television has been exported from California for decades, and the culture of the automobile is simply an extension of this.

Industry Influence

What would a Car Buff Capital be without some official industry presence?  While our state’s unfavorable tax rates have driven the likes of Nissan and others out, many big players still have influential operations here.  Ford, Toyota, Hyundai-Kia, Honda, Fisker Automotive and others all have offices here.  Publications such as Road & Track (Newport Beach), Kelley Blue Book (Irvine), and Edmunds (Los Angeles), each have headquarter operations in Southern California.  What’s significant is this is not just a haven for those who drive, it’s also a nesting ground for those who design, build, innovate, and report. 

Motorsports

As mentioned before there is certainly something for everyone here, including motorsports fans.  Autoclub Speedway in Fontana is home to big NASCAR races among other events, and open-wheel fans can get a front-row seat in the Long Beach Grand Prix, held every year on the streets of Long Beach.  There are also such gems as Buttonwillow and Willow Springs near Bakersfield, along with a score of Baja-style off-road races in the legendary Mojave Desert.  What better environment for a car enthusiast than one that fosters some great racing as well?

Daydreaming on the Road

At the end of the day Southern California, to me as a car nut, provides my fix of automotive Zoloft every time I get out on the road.  As a frequent business traveler I find myself in awe at just how many simply beautiful cars there are in just the parking garage at John Wayne Airport.  This place is a bona-fide Mecca for the car guy, and one that puts a smile on my face every time I hear the burble of an Italian-built V12 off in the distance as I sit in my living room.  More often than not it’s probably some lucky guy fulfilling a childhood dream by exercising his Lamborghini down Newport Coast drive on the way to a dentist appointment.  This scene is one that many Americans will never even witness in a lifetime, but to me it is just another day in the life around here, and why Southern California is so worthy of being dubbed the Car Buff Capital of the World.

Tesla Newport Beach

Brabus USA

Willow Springs Raceway

 

Toyota’s New Sports Car Coming in 2012

March 14, 2011

This year’s Geneva Motor Show gave the car buying public yet another tease of what is yet to come from Toyota in terms of a true sports car for the road.  Dubbed the FT-86 II, this rear-drive machine, set to hit production in 2012, will finally give Japanese sports car fans a taste of what they have been missing for many years.  According to the manufacturer, the new car will be lightweight and powered by most likely a high-revving four-cylinder Boxer engine mated to a manual gearbox.  I will be curious to see the power output and performance numbers for this machine given its very aggressive looks. 

The FT-86 will bring Toyota back to the sports car game after a long hiatus.  The automaker has made fans of many enthusiasts over the years with its rear wheel drive Corollas (not to be confused with the modern economy car interpretation), Celicas, Supras, and MR-2’s.  Throughout the late 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s these varied models all gained cult followings for their balanced performance and excellent value versus much more expensive machines.

It is nice to finally see something exciting and passionate coming from Toyota in the sports car department and it is my hope that the production model’s looks match this show car and the performance lives up to those striking looks. 

A modified AE86 Corolla from the early 80's

Print advertisement for the 1989 Supra Turbo

A mid-engine MR2 from 1992

Has Jaguar Lost its Way?

February 23, 2011

To many in the automotive world the name Jaguar has, for generations, stirred up images of graceful styling, handcrafted interiors, and exhilarating performance.  The brand, which in the 1950’s and 60’s represented some of the most beautiful (and collectible) sports cars of all time, has also survived fiscal crisis, several changes of ownership, and a fluctuating reputation for reliability.  Through it all, the character of these cars has made them modern legends.  As a car junkie myself I have always had a very soft spot in my heart for Jaguars both old and new.  To me it seemed these cars were always a little different from the rest of the pack, whether it is a warm, inviting interior or simply the timeless, work-of-art styling, Jaguar represented something filled with emotion every time I saw one on the road.  Among the cars I have always wanted in my garage, even since I was 15 years old, has been the mid 1980’s Jaguar XJ6 Series III.  This model, which is arguably the most successful in the company’s history, evoked the charm, class, and timeless styling that made the “leaping cat” hood ornament so recognizable to the average citizen. 

During the 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the technological advances of the German and Japanese automakers were starting to leave Jaguar behind, Ford ownership of the company improved the cars to a point where rankings in the highly respected JD Power quality surveys were reaching all-time records.  While BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and the like would still nearly always beat out Jaguar in comparison tests, the British cars for the most part still had their own draw that kept buyers coming back, and now with a newfound reliability.  However, as time wore on and designers kept re-hashing old styling cues from those iconic models from the past, it became apparent a new design focus was needed to take Jaguar into the 21st century.  That focus is now here with the second new model in recent years to hit showrooms, the totally new XJ. 

I have had my chance to see the newest iteration of the Jaguar XJ both at auto shows as well as on the street here in Orange County, and I must say I am disappointed in the result of the company’s new styling direction.  It is no secret that the latest model from this manufacturer, now under the ownership of Tata Motors of India, is a “make or break” for the brand.  Years of declining sales and some “bunts” such as the ill-fated X-Type (a poorly built and executed answer to the C-Class and 3-Series), has put Jaguar in a “must-win” position to regain market share.  The problem I see with the new styling is that the designers have simply worked too hard at developing something daring, fresh and modern, without respect for creating something timeless.  When I see this car on the road I ask myself “if you took the badges off would anyone know it is a Jaguar?”  I also ask myself if anyone really thinks these cars are truly beautiful, in the way a collector looks at a piece of art.  As silly as that may sound to some, this is how many who have loved the cars for years have viewed their styling.  Now, I would be the first to say Jaguar had to move in a new direction, step forward in a way that was groundbreaking for the brand.  However, in the process the designers have, in my opinion, moved too far away from the mark.  Stumbling has certainly happened before, as the updated XJ6 from 1988-1994 was criticized by many for being a bit too slab-sided.  But even those cars had retained much of the low-roof, sleek, graceful packaging that made them look lighter on the road and more romantic in print than any of their competitors. 

What is ironic today is that the German manufacturers, long seen as very cold and technical in their styling, have ”out-Jaguared” Jaguar in many respects in recent years.  Two fine examples of this are the original Mercedes-Benz CLS sedan, which launched here in 2006, and the 2012 Audi A7.  Dubbed a “four-door coupe,” the CLS embodied the emotion, flair, and downright instant-classic styling that should have been coming from the drawing board at Jaguar.  Both it and the A7 possess the sleek, slender lines, athletic stance on the road, and sure to be timeless styling that represents what should be described as Jaguar design virtues.  At the same time, these two models bring groundbreaking elements to the table, and are modern without having to be “retro” in their looks.  Make no mistake; I am not in the camp of keeping Jaguars old-fashioned looking.  However, I’m a firm believer that a brand can move into a new styling direction while still keeping the virtues that made them successful in the first place.  Just look at the designs that have come from Audi over the past several years, and then look at their sales numbers.  The results speak for themselves.    When it comes to world-class car companies these days styling home runs are a must, and with their latest flagship sedan it appears Jaguar is wearing flashy new team colors yet aiming for a base hit.

The new 2011 Jaguar XJ

Unflattering rear view of the 2011 Jaguar XJ

The 2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 55 AMG

The 2012 Audi A7

The 1987 Jaguar XJ6 represents timeless classic styling

The Jaguar XK120 is highly sought-after by collectors today

A 1974 ad for the famed E-Type demonstrated the brand's sex appeal

Dream Garage – Land Rover Defender 90

February 7, 2011

Land Rover D90When thinking of used, perhaps collectible cars I’d like to have in my garage I find myself dreaming of vehicles that have come from all parts of the world, built with all sorts of different purposes.  For the first go-around many, when asked, would probably look straight to sports cars from their youth or the latest technology they saw advertised during the Super Bowl.  For me, right now, I’d like to start the first installment of “Dream Garage” with a storied player from across the Atlantic.  One who had a brief stint here stateside but has been satisfying enthusiasts overseas for decades. 

The Land Rover Defender 90, to me, has the perfect blend of rugged off-road prowess, storied pedigree, North American rarity, and utter class all rolled into one.  These trucks aren’t the grocery-getter, soccer mom Land Rovers currently dotting the suburban landscape.  Drivers of the Defender 90 often have real adventure in mind, and enjoy getting a little dirty while doing it. 

Having been used for decades in the British military (and still to this day), the Defender has been available to consumers worldwide since the early 1980’s, having first come to the U.S. in 1994 alongside the more family-friendly Discovery and the famed Range Rover models.  Originally imported with only an open back with soft top, it was seen as an expensive alternative to the perennial Jeep Wrangler.  By the end of its brief time in the U.S. we also saw a fully enclosed Wagon model join the ranks.  Offered with both manual and automatic transmissions and V8 power plants, these trucks were the epitome of a no-frills, purpose-built off-road vehicle.  Air-conditioning was optional and the interior was as spartan as one would expect in a truck derived from military use.  However, the stuff for adventure seekers was (and still is) all there:  A capable V8 engine with just enough power, full-time four-wheel drive, a locking differential, a suspension built for the outback, and enough ground clearance to ford a few low, rocky stream beds.  If this description sounds like I’m starting to think of my next camping adventure then you know exactly why this model stirs up emotion in drivers to this day.

All this is exactly why my first pick for Dream Garage Car of the Month is the Defender 90.  This truck, if parked in my garage, would make me sleepwalk into it at night and find myself waking up in the parking lot of REI, ready to buy some camping gear and head out for an adventure into the wilderness.  Sure, it doesn’t have a lot of the creature comforts most SUV’s had even back then, but I guess that’s the point.  I’ll take a little more road noise, a lot more character, and a few more maintenance quirks in exchange for a unique and genuine motoring experience.  I see these Defenders here around Newport Beach, shiny and clean, loaded with surfboards and ready for a day in the sun.  I applaud those owners and the others who use them for whatever their passion is…because passion is what it’s all about.

Years Sold in U.S.             1994, 1995, 1997

Total Production #’s        6,442 (U.S. spec)

Specifications                    3.9 liter V8 (’94-’95) and 4.0 liter V8 (’97)

List Cost New                     $27,900-$40,000

Value Now                          $20,000-$50,000

Why Buy?                            Unique, pedigreed, capable, street-cred

Best For…                            outback adventures, off-roading, surf and ski patrol

My pick                                 A hardtop wagon in blue, green, or white

A yellow Defender 90 Soft Top

The Defender's no-frills interior

A white Hard Top

A Land Rover ad circa 1994, depicting the Defender's adventurous capabilities

Shift for Yourself

January 31, 2011

I was talking with a colleague the other day and he began to tell me how he had arrived at choosing the car he recently bought his wife.  To set some background on this story I will start out by saying these folks live in Massachusetts, where the snow drifts I witnessed on a recent trip can grow so large as to require their own zip code.  In addition to this they are both quite active skiers and spend many of their winters in Vermont.  So given these factors it was easy to see why an Audi A4 Quattro, featuring the make’s famous all-wheel-drive setup, was a logical choice.  Comfort, performance, and all-weather traction were big selling points.  However, one feature that was quite important for his wife was that the car had a manual transmission.  Outside of being wowed that this guy’s wife was so cool she preferred manual transmissions, I was also reminded of how hard it is these days for automobile shoppers to find a car with three pedals on the floor.

The topic hits close to home not only because I’m a “car guy” (and most car guys like to row their own gears) but also because I learned how to drive in a 1987 Honda Accord, with a stick shift.  Those memories of my dad coaching me in the Eden Prairie High School parking lot as I crunched the gears, smoked the clutch, and got more than a few raised eyebrows from the old man, remind me of how fun it really was to learn to drive.  It is also, in my humble opinion, a better way to learn to drive.  And an art.  And an exhilarating experience (in the right car).  While I would never call a 98 horsepower Accord from the late ‘80’s “exhilarating,” it certainly gave me a better connection to the vehicle I was coaxing down the road.  With a stick-shift you can’t just mindlessly drive with one finger on the wheel, your left foot out the window, and a 40-ounce 7-Eleven Big Gulp in your right hand.  In these vehicles you have to actually engage with the engine, and transmission, in order to tell it exactly what you want it to do.  Swift driving equals some racing to the higher end of the tachometer (a gauge on the dash most 80’s American sedans never had, and one a majority of drivers these days never find need to notice), quick shifts, proper timing of clutch, lever, and accelerator.  If economical driving is what you’re after you can shift early, drive smoothly, and perhaps drop it into neutral on slow downhill grades.  It’s all up to you. 

Or is it?  A recent EPA report shows less than 7% of all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. in 2010 were equipped with manual transmissions.  When I got my driver’s license in 1996 that figure was more than 15%.  When that hand-me-down Accord rolled into our family’s garage brand new in 1987 the number was nearly 30%.  So how did we get here?  In Europe the breakdown is overwhelmingly different, where automatic transmissions have historically been considered a luxury.  But as drivers, here in the States at least, are increasingly fighting traffic-laden commutes, seeking more convenience in their lives, and have added so much more “multi-tasking” behind the wheel it seems to make sense that automatics are ruling out. 

So is the stick-shift dead?  Perhaps someday.  What with the continuing emergence of hybrid and electric cars, in conjunction with the ever-presence of paddle-shifted automatic transmissions, it seems the day of shifting for ourselves is surely doomed.  But the good news is it appears, in 2010 at least, that the trend may be turning around.  The aforementioned sales statistic for manuals of 6.7% is actually the highest number the EPA recorded in the past seven years, and a full 2% jump over 2009 alone.

Could it be that drivers are longing for simpler times, much like the way vinyl records are making a quiet, powerful comeback among music lovers?  Maybe.  But I’d like to think it’s because there are still plenty of people out there who love the art of driving and are sharing it with others, like I hope to do with my future kids some day.  The art of driving is not dead, and there are plenty of patrons of that art in the world to keep it that way.  I just hope the automobile manufacturers who do business in the U.S. recognize this and keep providing the manual transmission option on the options checklist for years to come.

2011 Porsche Cayenne Paddle Shifter

2010 BMW M3 Dual-Clutch Semi-Automatic Transmission

A 1987 Honda Accord similar to the one used to teach the author the joys of manual shifting

Picking up a new BMW in Germany – Part 2

January 17, 2011

Arrival into Munich

 Our nonstop flight from LAX to Munich was smooth and Lufthansa lived up to its top-notch service reputation I had recalled from my European travels in college.  Jen and I arrived late afternoon on Thursday quite refreshed and energized, ready to take on the two weeks ahead that would take us to five cities in as many countries, over 1,400 miles of roads and finishing with more than 3,000 photos to capture it all.  Upon arrival at the airport we were met by a most courteous driver who was referred to me by members of the Bimmerfest forum.  A man who would become our new friend, Rolf is a retired BMW Engineer who takes joy in assisting those who are making the journey from the U.S. to pick up their vehicles.  For less than the cost of a taxi and just a bit more than the train, Rolf acted not only as a driver but a pre-trip tour guide and pseudo “father figure” as well.  A distinguished older gentleman with a tweed jacket but a youthful demeanor, he first guided us to a table at the airport where he sat us down and provided a nice rundown of the do’s and don’ts while visiting Munich.  Highlighted on a map were specific points of interest we should see close to our hotel as well as elsewhere in the city.  He also gave us a nice day-trip destination to visit upon picking up the car the next day, along with specific tips on navigating the BMW complex.  For a young couple in a foreign country it gave us the warm feeling that we instantly had a “friend in town.”  He gave us his mobile number and said in very good English “Give me a call if you have any trouble with anything, I’m here to help.”  We answered with our best-practiced “Danke shön.”

After the briefing he led us outside to his personal 3-series wagon, where we loaded our luggage and were off to the hotel. 

 Our first night in Munich consisted of a nice walk around Marienplatz, the city center plaza, followed by a wonderful dinner and beer at the Augistiner Beer Hall.  Having last been to Munich more than seven years prior I had forgotten how good the hearty food and drink had tasted!  That night we did our best to go to bed at a reasonable hour to stave off jet-lag and prepare for our subway trip to Olympiapark, the home of the 1972 Olympics as well as the BMW corporate complex in which we would take delivery of our new car. 

The BMW Welt

“Welt” is the German word for “world,” and the BMW Welt certainly is a world of BMW paraphernalia to be sure. Being the company’s face to consumers in Munich, it is a sort of a gallery/gift shop that is free to the public, showcasing exhibits of automotive technology and a series of the latest BMW cars and motorcycles.  Located across the street from BMW’s world headquarters, museum, and a 3-series manufacturing plant, it also serves as a delivery space for customers from both the U.S. and in Germany. 

Upon checking in at the front desk we were sent to the second floor customer area, where we met with a representative who helped us sign some insurance paperwork and review all materials pertinent to our driving the car in Europe.  She then led us to a customer waiting lounge where we could enjoy some food and drink, use the internet, or read a magazine while we wait for our name to be called.  It was a very upscale, relaxing environment that certainly made one feel special while there.  There were a small handful of other customers there as well, to include a man and his college-aged son from Irvine who were on their second European Delivery experience in as many years.  About ten minutes later another representative came and asked if we were ready to see our new car.  Jen had selected to also participate in an introductory session prior to delivery, which turned out to be an amusing demonstration of the latest features of the car, as presented on an LCD screen, followed by a humorous driving simulator that got us all laughing a bit.  Watching Jen try to keep the virtual car on the road was a pleasure all in itself.  But alas, it was finally time to see the real car in person.

BMW does a good job of displaying customer cars around a nice, winding track on the upper deck of the Welt, and the walk down the stairs is led in a dramatic, if overdone, fashion as to enhance the experience.  At the end of the day it was all very impressive and one could tell the company takes great care in the image it projects to its customers. 

The car was beautiful and spotless, and we were excited to finally see it just a week or so after being built.  After a “victory lap” around the track we drove down to a valet who would handle our car while we visited the BMW Museum across the street, followed by an impressive factory tour of the same facility in which our car had been made.  The museum is a must-see for any automotive buff who visits Munich, as it showcases some of the most important street and race cars in BMW’s history.  Having recently been remodeled, it is a very modern yet comfortable place to wander and get caught up in childhood dreams.  The factory tour was very good as well, despite having a guide who was neither impressive nor enthusiastic about being there.

The First Drive

Our first drive in the new 335d came later that day, where we took a trip to Andechs, just outside of Munich.  A tip from our new friend Rolf, the town was in a nice picturesque Bavarian setting that provided much in the way of photo ops and gave us a chance to get to know the car a bit more.  Sometimes I forget why all the automotive journalists gush over BMW’s so much.  That is, until I drive one.  Despite having the Sport package, which has high performance tires and a stiffer suspension among other additions, this car rode remarkably well on all types of road surfaces. Handling, braking, and acceleration were all superb, and the aforementioned torque came quite in handy while passing on the Autobahn. 

While on the topic of the Autobahn, our first experience on it gave us a new sense of respect for the way Germans treat driving.  I had never seen such an orderly conveyance of vehicles in my life, at any speed.  What I had read prior to the trip was true for the most part; slower vehicles do indeed stay to the right, and if someone is tailgating you and you’re in the left lane it is because you are going too slow, which is considered rude, so it is customary to move to the right.  I think a lot of people who asked about our Autobahn experience expected stories mass chaos and drivers flying down the road at unsafe speeds.  Quite the contrary, the Germans handle speed limits in a very logical manner:  In major metro areas speed limits are controlled via overhead digital signs that change with traffic and weather conditions.  During low to moderate traffic there will often be a “No Restrictions” symbol displayed that essentially provides no speed limit.  In areas surrounding interchanges and elsewhere you will see posted speed limits in the 100 to 130km/h (62 to 80mph) range.  It was all quite orderly and the roads were superbly maintained for the most part. 

In the end it felt like this car was designed for these kinds of roads.  High speed driving was effortless and it truly felt like the car was not working very hard as the speedometer leapt past the 100mph mark.  The engine has a menacing roar at full throttle, which happens in conjunction with pinning passengers to the backrests of their seats.  At the same time this vehicle is quiet and comfortable at cruising speed.  The car’s behavior strikes the balance between comfort and speed; it is poised and easy to drive smoothly around town, yet power is always at the ready should you need to get somewhere fast. 

Parked Safely

As anyone who travels in major cities knows, driving and parking can oftentimes be a hassle that is gladly skipped if possible.  The nice thing about the folks at the BMW Welt is that they allow customers to park, free of charge, in their secure garage for up to several days following delivery.  This gave Jen and I the peace of mind that we could leave the vehicle safely with the people we got it from, while also allowing us to use Munich’s excellent public transportation system during the remainder of our time in the city. 

That remainder of time provided us more opportunity to soak up some additional beer hall culture, witness Oktoberfest’s chaotic first day of opening on its 200th anniversary, visit some breathtaking churches, do a bit of shopping, and return on Sunday to pick up the car.  That day a sunny morning gave way to a stroll around Olympiapark itself, which was undergoing a facelift in hopes of securing yet another Olympic bid in the future.  From there we retrieved the car once again and were off to Dachau Concentration Camp to take in some somber but perspective-giving history while on our way to Prague. 

Road Trip Highlights

The remainder of our trip was bountiful with experiences that made our journey one that, what I often tell friends, was the first vacation I had ever had that felt as long as it was.  You know how most people always say “that trip was great but the week went by fast”?  Our two weeks certainly weren’t long enough, but at the end of the day it felt like a full 14 days of adventure. 

Prague ranked #1 on our list for crazy cities to drive in, especially upon arriving into town during rush hour traffic only to find our GPS trying to take us down the same road that is closed each time we pass it.  Having almost gotten run off the road by a streetcar that shares the same lane also made me appreciate checking over both shoulders when squeezing into traffic!  The city also captured our hearts and imaginations as we found an incredible mix of old architecture, history, and more good beer, coupled with an obvious injection of newfound wealth, development, and Westernization.  We were also grateful to have the company of two great friends from the States who had made Prague theirs over the past several years.

Driving to Budapest, and along all other legs of our trip, we were reminded of how recent the European Union had been formed.  Former border crossings were no more than empty structures that once divided countries for decades.  The only official stops we made between countries were for temporary toll stickers that would later become treasured souvenirs of our journey. 

From Budapest to Vienna, we witnessed a sea change in culture and development that was a stark reminder of how different countries fared following two World Wars.  After a few days in Austria’s largest city, we ventured back into the Czech Republic to visit Cesky Krumlov, a town that is a step back in time to simpler days and well-preserved medieval architecture.  Winding cobblestone streets, a celebration in the town square, and a flea market welcomed us and other visitors to this newly “discovered” gem.  Talk to anyone in Prague about must-sees in the area and Cesky Krumlov will be toward the top of the list.  Visit soon, however, because you never know how long it will be before a Starbucks shows up in that town as well.

Salzburg ranked #1 on our list for exceeding expectations, as we arrived into town in time to celebrate the name day of the city’s founder, which in conjunction with their own Oktoberfest, is cause for a giant celebration of food, drink, music, dancing, and fireworks in the town square.  It was Sunday night and it seemed that just about everyone from Salzburg was there. 

A drive the following day to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest provided some of the best vistas and photo ops we had all week and is a must-visit for any road-tripper in the region. 

Before returning back to Munich we spent a night in Füssen, a Bavarian town that serves as the launching point for the scores of travelers seeking castles from the King Ludwig era.  Some beautiful driving was ahead of us as we found the landscape and weather (light rain and clouds on and off) to be just right for a mystic, romantic drive.  Our last night in Munich, while unloading our car in front of the Airport Marriott, a new 550i pulled up behind us to check-in.  I noticed the European tourist plate on the front and asked the gentlemen if he too was in the European Delivery program.  He smiled and said he had just picked up his car from the Welt.  As happy as I was that we were going home I was a bit jealous that he and his wife’s journey was just beginning. 

Different Cars

As a lifetime car guy who has that annoying ability to name the make, model, and year of random autos on the road in traffic, I was like the proverbial kid at a candy store in Europe, spotting a plethora of brands and models we never see stateside.  From the Italians like Fiat and Alfa Romeo (which will end up here after all thanks to the Chrysler merger) to the French like Renault, Citröen, and Peugeot, to Czech Skodas, there was a lot to gawk at.  Euro-spec only models were also abound, and remind one that oftentimes Americans get only the upper end of the model range.  An obvious result of both a differing marketing strategy as well as a much higher cost of fuel, it was interesting to see so many German models who wore nameplates that signified their lesser-sized engines within.  Go to a Mercedes-Benz dealer in the U.S. and ask for an E-class sedan and he will sell you an E350, E550, or E63 AMG with a large V-6 or V-8 engine.  Take a quick look around the streets of Europe and you will encounter models such as the E200 and E270 CDI (diesel) in very high supply.  Even our own BMW had a much larger engine that most 3-series cars we saw.  316i, 320d, 330d and 325i were the most common sightings as we made our trip.  Much of this, no doubt, is a result of U.S. emissions regulations that require costly federalization processes and can limit which motors foreign manufacturers send overseas.  The case of our car is a prime example.  BMW wished to sell diesel cars in America back in 2009 and wanted something they could offer in both the heavy X5 SUV as well as in a sedan.  The motor they chose would have to satisfy the power needs of an SUV buyer but also fit into the 3-series.  Thus we have the mighty twin-turbocharged monster that is the 335d. 

Final Driving Impressions

As mentioned before the car was fantastic in the city, on the motorways and through the Autobahns, and provided a comfortable and entertaining way to travel.  We averaged over 30 mpg during our 1,400 mile journey that included our fair share of city traffic, economic cruising, and long jaunts averaging 90 to 110 mph.  Our top speed on the trip was 140mph, which again was quite comfortable and limited only to traffic on the road.  Jen’s big problem now is trying to keep the car within the speed limits on our local Southern California freeways, where all of a sudden 75mph feels slow. 

A Brilliant Brand

Having a day-job in the consumer products industry myself I know how important it is for a brand to connect not only logically with a consumer but also emotionally.  It is here where BMW has scored a homerun with its European Delivery program.  For evidence of this you need look no further than the pages of Bimmerfest’s online forum, where scores of drivers wear with pride having completed two, three, or more European Deliveries since the program’s inception in 2007.  The opportunity to combine the purchase of a new car, one that is an emotional experience for many already, with the joy of a vacation to a faraway land is certainly a recipe for success.  Add in first-class treatment and discounted pricing and it’s no surprise that even before our trip was over we were discussing how we would plan the itinerary for our next European Delivery.  After all there is much of Germany we haven’t seen yet, and neither of us has been to Switzerland, or Southern France, or Spain…

Inside the BMW Welt

Inside the BMW Museum

Motorsports exhibit at the BMW Museum

Jen with her new car in Southern Bavaria

Picking up a new BMW in Germany – Part 1

January 10, 2011

Have you ever had two goals in life that, after spending a little time working on, you somehow found a way of combining into one big accomplishment?  It may be as simple as finding a way to do all your Christmas shopping at Walgreens in one day while picking up your prescriptions, or as incredible as scheduling a business trip to visit a sister in another state the week she is having her baby.  Whatever it may be, these “combined accomplishments” always taste a bit sweeter because they make us feel like we somehow made one effort great enough to conquer many, and have “tricked” the system that is our ever-so-scheduled lives. 

In March of 2010 my fiancé Jen and I had two big things on our calendar for the upcoming year that, six months later, would result in one of those magnificent combined accomplishments.  The first of these priorities was a much anticipated vacation in Europe.  Oktoberfest was high on our respective bucket lists as we both had a serious thirst for both culture and good beer, the latter perhaps fueled by the myriad options given us at our local Yard House.  So starting with Munich, we had hoped to follow the path led by a good friend of ours, Joe, who had done a similar trip several years back that led him and some buddies to Prague, Budapest, and Vienna.  The stories, photos, and anticipation of new adventure got us in planning mode as spring was upon us. 

At this same time Jen was beginning the process of looking for her next new car.  The lease on her ‘07 BMW Z4 would be up in just a couple of months and time was running out on finding a suitable replacement.  Having recently started her own public relations business, and adding a second dog to our growing pet family, she had a newfound need for a usable backseat.  She also loved the way her Z4 looked and handled, so we naturally started looking at another BMW first.  After a short investigation I discovered a way to fulfill our desire for a new car while incorporating it into what would become our first European Adventure together, all while saving a bit of money to boot.    

The thought process

An easy sell for any car nut (or fiancé thereof): 

 -Order a new, U.S.-spec BMW from your local dealer at a discount of over 10%

-Pick up the vehicle in Germany several months later and tour the factory in which it was built

-Drive your new car in Europe for two weeks, fully insured

-Drop off the car in Munich (or one of several other points in Western Europe) and fly home

-BMW ships the car back to your dealer within 6-8 weeks for free

-Go back to your dealer, pick up your car, and drive on your merry way

I had already budgeted to spend upwards of $1,000US to rent a car for two weeks in Europe and would love the thought of putting that money elsewhere.  Meanwhile Jen had narrowed her decision on a new car down to the BMW 1-series convertible (still top-town fun but a semi-usable backseat) and a BMW 3-series sedan (more practical for clients, dogs, and potential future children).  So once a specific model was chosen it was Manifest Destiny…we were to get her new car in Europe! 

The Research

 Having learned how to perform high-performance engine swaps on Hondas in college through the internet, my first instinct was to scan Google to find some websites to brush up on the BMW European Delivery subject.  BMW USA has some excellent starting point information on their site, but soon I would find a plethora of message boards on Bimmerfest.com, a very tight community of serious enthusiasts, with scores of members swapping stories on the European Delivery process.  After reading up on the ins and outs and do’s and don’ts, I felt comfortable enough to start calling around to my local Southern California dealers to feel out the process for real.  Lucky for us we live in a part of the country where, to visitors, it appears they hand out BMW’s at the DMV when you get your driver’s license.  There are no fewer than 21 authorized dealers in So Cal and three within 15 miles of our home. 

The Deal

After a few days of phone interviewing among local dealers I found the most confidence in South Bay BMW.  Their Euro Delivery guru, Phillipe Kahn, struck a deal over the phone that was crystal clear and the most competitive.  The pricing on BMW USA’s website for Euro Delivery is already quite good, but I can say in all confidence that Phillipe will do better. 

The Car

It was now May and after much deliberation and some thinking on business, dog, and future family practicality, the 3-series sedan won out over the little 1 convertible.  BMW had some excellent incentives on the recently-introduced 335d, a diesel-powered car that provided the best of both worlds:  fun to drive combined with excellent fuel-mileage.  Fun to drive as in 425lb-ft of torque.  For those not familiar with torque ratings, torque is basically the “oomph” that pushes you back in your seat, helps you climb hills, and makes trucks so good at towing boats.  The torque rating on this car is more than double that of a comparable gasoline 328i and 41% greater than a 335i.  This results in outstanding acceleration and freeway passing performance, all in a package that gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway, which is the same as the eco-minded 4-cylinder Honda Civic.

The Order

So there it was.  We had a decision made.  Jen was initially leery on the idea of owning a diesel, but one test drive in the 335d and she was sold.  The car was quiet, powerful, and comfortable at any speed, and provided better fuel economy than anything close in comparison.  Our ordering process was as simple as emailing our dealer with our specified options and colors, signing a few papers, and waiting a week or two to determine our exact delivery date at the BMW Welt in Munich.  Another added bonus for doing European Delivery is that the customer is not limited to what dealerships have on hand.  We were able to choose the exact specifications of the car we wanted, no more and no less.  Jen once again went with the car wash owner’s dream of “Jet Black” with a black leather interior, aluminum trim (instead of wood), and the Sport package.  Heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity rounded out the order.    

The Waiting Game

By May 13th we had placed our order and it was time to continue planning our trip.  In anticipation of early sell-outs for Oktoberfest I had booked our hotel in Munich the previous November (which I later found out was sound planning).  By June we had fully confirmed the pick-up date of our car in Munich to be September 17th, the day before Oktoberfest would begin.  In the ensuing months we would slowly begin planning the remainder of our trip.  Another perk of the European Delivery program is that BMW has a partnership with Lufthansa Airlines that gives European Delivery customers a 2 for 1 deal on tickets to Munich.  After much research on the typical discount websites I could not find a deal better than this anywhere.  Our research was also aided through help from some friends who had been to our target cities before, along with some of our own investigation.  It was a long, fun summer in Orange County, but in the back of our minds we could not stop thinking about our upcoming adventure to Europe in September.

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