A trip to Sweden becomes something more: a bona fide mission to pick up a new set of wheels


I was making plans to buy a new car when word came that a seat belt in my father's 1995 Saab 9-5 had been chewed off by his dog. A pop quiz was soon circulating among my family: "How much do you have to pay a Saab dealer to replace a seat belt?" Most guesses were between $200 and $300. The answer: $635. Added to this outrage was the fact that, not so many years before, I myself had owned a Saab whose trunk inexplicably caught fire—a freak incident, yes, but long memories run in my family.

So when I announced that I was acquiring a new Saab 9-3, the reaction was less than positive. The car is a comfortable, smooth ride, I pointed out, does great on crash tests, and the seat belts come with a five-year warranty. That cool Scandinavian design doesn't hurt, either. These arguments earned me nary an encouraging smile. But then I mentioned that I was getting the car in Sweden, where it would cost at least 5 percent less than in the United States—a saving that would more than pay for a weeklong vacation. To top it off, two round-trip plane tickets would be courtesy of Saab (and I'd heard Scandinavian Airlines actually serves fresh fruit and espresso), as well as a night in a hotel, dinner, and breakfast. Suddenly, Saabs weren't sounding so bad.

Buying a car overseas—a Saab or Volvo in Sweden, a BMW, Porsche, or Mercedes in Germany—is nothing new. But it has never been common practice for Americans, except among diplomats. Few people realize that it's an ingenious way to see Europe: a vacation with a mission is always more fun, and driving your own car saves money that would otherwise be sucked into the rental void. You can pick up the car and drop it off in different cities, with dozens of options: start in Paris, drive to Rome, and fly home from there. There's no catch. The company ships the car to the dealer closest to your home at its own expense.

My husband, Terry, and I chose to catch a direct flight from New York to the port city of Göteborg, on Sweden's southwest coast, and collect our Saab at the factory in Trollhättan, a bucolic town an hour inland on the Göta €lv. We'd drive up the coast toward Norway, cross Sweden—passing the country's largest lake, Vänern—and drop the car off in Stockholm.

A gaggle of taxis—all Saabs and Volvos—met us outside the Göteborg airport. To our dismay, the cab sent by Saab to take us to our hotel was a Volvo—we ourselves had struggled to choose between the two makes, since the car we were replacing was an old Volvo that had been good to us. We also had our two-year-old son, Aidan, in tow and a baby on the way: What were we doing picking up a sporty Saab sedan instead of the ultimate family car?

But the taxi driver was charming, and the ride pleasant (and prepaid by Saab). Monday through Saturday, the company puts guests up near Trollhättan in the rambling 18th- century Ronnums Herrgård manor hotel, with meals at its restaurant, one of the most celebrated in Sweden. Sunday night stays are in the very center of Göteborg, at the Hôtel Eggers, and it was to the latter's small, cobblestoned entrance that we were delivered.

Built in 1859, the 67-room Eggers is typical of that era's European urban hotels: it has a grand limestone façade marred by a red neon sign; a lobby with cascading crystal chandeliers and leather furniture; and guest rooms with wide white-pine floors softened by age, along with eight-foot shuttered windows looking out over a plaza and canal.

The next morning at nine, a taxi driver—this one driving a Saab, thank goodness—was waiting to take us and our luggage (including Aidan's car seat, which we'd brought from home) to the Saab Museum and factory. Tucked into a pretty hillside, the former airplane hangar in Trollhättan was filled with examples of every Saab model made since 1947. Marie-Louise Rudh, then the European sales coordinator, greeted us in a prim blue suit. Since kids under 12 aren't allowed on the factory tour, we decided I would take the tour while Terry and Aidan looked around the museum. When I returned, we'd get our car.

The factory was a triumph of Scandinavian orderliness: robots and machinery in shades of yellow, blue, red, orange, and purple moving with perfect synchronicity to the whir of engines; workers riding between zones on bikes with baskets in front. My favorite part: the huge, two-armed robot that clamped rectangular windows onto each car's front and back ends simultaneously, in a motion that resembled boxing someone's ears.

Back at the museum, Terry, Aidan, and I eagerly anticipated meeting our new car. Marie-Louise led us down a hallway of shining white linoleum tiles to an enormous, equally shiny, white room. Wearing a pleasant smile, she walked over to a brand-new silver Saab 9-3 and stood next to it, arm extended, like a game-show hostess presenting us with our prize. We approached tentatively. Gray leather seats. Sunroof. Stick shift. Swedish plates. Everything was in order. Aidan climbed in, grabbed the wheel, and dropped his snack of raisins onto the floor. The car was really ours now.

There was a brief exchange of papers (no money—that had been taken care of back home) and manuals, including information on where to get the car serviced free of charge if it should, perish the thought, break down during our vacation. Marie-Louise handed us the traditional Swedish good-luck gift of a small, painted wooden horse. Then a huge automatic garage door opened on the far end of the room. We loaded up and drove away.

Feeling footloose and fancy-free, we headed west. Soon we were speeding along the coastal highway, forest giving way to craggy cliffs and serpentine promontories. Occasionally, we detoured onto unpaved roads that wound into the woods past white farmhouses. The world was our oyster, we joked—or, more specifically, the car was our car, and though we'd never been to Sweden before, driving our own Saab made us feel like regulars, savvy travelers, people in the know. No one looked upon us as tourists when we slid into the parking lot by a ferry that would take us to the island village of Marstrand. We stayed overnight at the Hotell Nautic, toured the island's medieval fortress, and ate a fabulous meal of beef and lingonberries at the Grand Hotell's restaurant. But during it all, we missed our car.

Reunited back on the mainland, we cut through the gentle hills, small farms, and woodlands that surround Lake Vänern. When we reached Stockholm, we checked into the stylish Berns Hotel for a few days and valeted the Saab. Whenever possible, we chose to navigate the city's web of streets and peninsulas with our new wheels. We stopped for drinks at the infamously trendy and smoky Lydmar Hotel lobby, checked out the Moderna Museet, shopped in the Götgatan neighborhood. Throughout, we basked in the aura of ownership. For all the pride it gave us, you would have thought the Saab was our own tiny bit of Swedish real estate.

Where to Stay and Eat

Ronnums Herrgård 468-30 Vargön; 46-521/22-32-70, fax 46-521/26-00-09; www.softwarehotels.se/ronnum; doubles from $130. Saab buyers often stay here, in one of the 60 simple guest rooms scattered in the estate gardens. The restaurant, Restaurang, serves grilled fillet of moose with cranberry gravy and potatoes flavored with Swedish Västerbotten cheese (dinner for two from $80).
Hôtel Eggers Drottningtorget, Göteborg; 46-31/806-070, fax 46-31/ 154-243; doubles from $91.
Hotell Nautic 6 Långgatan, Marstrand; 46-30/361-030, fax 46-30/ 361-200; www.hotellnautic.com; doubles from $93.
Grand Hotell Marstrand; 46-30/360-322, fax 46-30/360-053; www.grandmarstrand.se; doubles from $154. The restaurant's food is both hearty and delicate—tender meats and fruit sauces, cream soups—served in a candlelit room (dinner for two from $90).
Lingatan Hotel 80 Brastad; 46-8/5234-4200, fax 46-8/5234-4459; doubles from $110.
Berns Hotel Berzelii Park, 8 Näckströmsgatan, Stockholm; 46-8/ 5663-2000, fax 46-8/5663-2201; www.berns.se; doubles from $246.
Lydmar Hotel 10 Sturegatan, Stockholm; 46-8/5661-1300, fax 46-8/ 5661- 1301; doubles from $217. There's an excellent restaurant (try the salmon with bacon and red wine risotto) and a lobby that doubles as a bar and lounge by night, with live jazz.