Should You Rent, Buy, Lease Car in Europe? Weigh the Costs

Times Staff Writer

You're going to Europe and you want to see the Continent California-style: by car.

Should you rent, buy or lease? Should you make arrangements before you leave or after you arrive? What's the best deal for the money? What can go wrong and who gets the blame?

"Rent it here--Leave it there," says Europe by Car. Make your reservations in advance, before you leave the States, by calling (800) 252-9401 from California or New York, or (800) 223-1516 from the rest of the nation.

"National's the way to go one-way; special low rate and no strings attached," says National Car Rental, phone (800) CAR-RENT, with connections in Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe.

Then there's Auto Europe, "Your key to car rental and lease," phone (800) 223-5555. They say that for three weeks or longer, leasing may be the most economical way to go.

Besides its Renaults, Fords, BMWs and other cars, Auto Europe maintains a fleet of motor homes, such as a GM Excalibur that sleeps five and has a kitchen and bath ($439 a week to rent this job, and unlimited mileage).

Campers, Motor Homes

The Cortell Group, long a favorite on the regular tour group routes, also rents out campers and motor homes. Cortell's rental cars can be connected to a reserve-as-you-go hotel plan good for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. Guaranteed rates in U.S. dollars. Arrangements with Cortell are made through travel agents.

Foremost Euro-Car, based in Van Nuys, specializes in lease arrangements. Call them toll-free in California at (800) 272-3299 or elsewhere in the nation at (800) 423-3111. Leases are on new cars, include full insurance and are tax-free, which can save plenty of money in certain European countries.

All car-leasing firms offer unlimited mileage, but there may be additional charges for insurance and VAT (value added tax) ranging from 4% to 33%. And some firms charge an additional drop-off fee if you pick up the car in one country and return it in another. Check on these extra charges at the time you make your reservations. Plan to pay a deposit; it's generally $50 to $100.

Here's how Foremost works out its "lease." The customer signs a "financed purchase-repurchase agreement," paying for the use of the car before going to Europe. Then the car is registered in the customer's name. He or she signs a promissory note for the balance of the car's value on the lease contract. The note is returned to you at the end of the lease period. The longer you lease, the more you save, over the cost of a comparable car rental.

With the strength of the dollar, some Americans are leaning toward the idea of buying a car in Europe and shipping it home after they've toured the Continent.

Word of Caution

A caution: U.S. Customs warns that you must buy a car that conforms to U.S. safety and emissions standards; otherwise the car will need to be modified (often expensive) or even destroyed or returned overseas at your expense. So if buying the car is your heart's desire, contact a reputable sales representative for foreign cars in the United States, before going overseas.

Europe by Car can handle any of the above--buying, leasing or renting cars or campers. Factory service, warranty and factory-installed U.S. specifications are part of the deal; you pick up your new car at the factory where it's made, or, depending on the make and model you choose, at a variety of European cities. They also arrange insurance, shipment and European Customs clearance.

The same firm started the leasing program in Europe in 1954.

In France and Belgium all leased cars are factory-new and are exempt from government taxes. In France, that can amount to 33% when renting a car; in other European countries it ranges between 12% and 25%, lower in Spain and Portugal. Switzerland is the only European country without such a tax. In France there is another advantage to leasing: You must be 21 to rent a standard-size car but you can lease one at 18.

Rentals still provide the most flexibility, says Europe by Car, with more than 15,000 cars available, free delivery and drop-off facilities between many cities, as well as unlimited mileage.

Remember that renting a car (as opposed to using Europe's efficient public transportation systems) makes more sense as the number of people in your group increases.

In France and Great Britain, if you use either country's rail passes, you can arrange for rental cars for local sightseeing between your train rides from one area to another. In Great Britain this is BritRail's Rail-Drive Package. In France it's the French National Railroads France Vacances Pass. Make arrangements before you leave the States.

Fly-Drive Plans

Fly-drive plans are also available through some airlines. For example, Air France passengers traveling to Paris or Nice can save up to $30 weekly on the rental of a car from the Kemwel Group (the cheapest car under this offer costs $79 a week). Phone Kemwel at (800) 468-0468 for particulars.

Renault Overseas advises clients to make lease reservations (with $50 deposit) a minimum of 30 days before you want the car if you plan to pick it up in Paris, or 45 days before if delivery is outside Paris--or there's a rush delivery service for a small added charge. Renault's Los Angeles corporate office number is (213) 641-5941.

Europe Car Hire of Ventura offers one-way car rentals in Europe between major cities without extra drop-off charges: Amsterdam to Rome or Berlin to Innsbruck, for example. The firm also offers motor-home rentals, car leases, purchases of European-made cars as well as chauffer-driven arrangements. The toll-free number is (800) 962-6565.

The Cortell Group doesn't get involved in leasing. "It's not worthwhile unless you're in a high VAT country or you're planning a long-term deal," said Bern Marcowitz, vice president.

Cortell, then known as Europacar Tours, popularized fly/drive Europe tours back in 1966. Marcowitz cited a price example: Rent a Volkswagen Beetle in Germany for $75 a week with unlimited mileage, or for $49 a week if you fly via Lufthansa Airlines.

Auto Europe has fly/drive programs, too. One is an arrangement with Aer Lingus, going directly to Ireland or stopping in that country after a stay in England. Hotel rooms are part of the bargain. The car rental starts at $89 a week and rooms at $28.

European automobiles that are built to U.S. requirements and are available to American tourists on an overseas delivery program are the various models of Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Renault, Saab, Volkswagen and Volvo. The net saving after paying for shipping and import duty ranges from about $600 on a little three-door Saab to $5,700 on a top-line BMW, according to Europe Auto Travels of Beverly Hills, phone (213) 272-4477, which arranges the purchases.

Volkswagen of America--in Los Angeles phone (213) 390-8011--also handles European car purchases and they include free or low-cost shipping home, says Larry Cosand, distribution coordinator, who estimates a saving of $1,500 over the cost of buying the car in the States.

Buyers Cautioned

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as U.S. Customs, cautions buyers to be sure that their new car will win approval. The state has strict smog and safety standards and the DMV refuses to register new imported vehicles unless they meet California's clean air laws as well as U.S. safety standards. Used imported vehicles also need to be upgraded to clean-air and safety standards, the DMV warns, and this can be expensive.

If you need a car in Europe for less than three weeks, you might as well rent, the experts say. For three weeks or longer, a lease might save you money, although a rental may still be more convenient or give you a wider variety of options and prices.

Buying, renting or leasing, make your arrangements before you leave home.

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