Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New German Wheels: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Nicki posted a bit back about having to register our new vehicle, but didn't go much into details about the how, what, where, and when.

First, as a DOD employee, I am eligible (as are my dependents of legal age) to obtain a drivers license here in Germany, after taking a 3-hour "Driver's Orientation" course and then passing a 100 question test. The test is comprised of 75 multiple choice questions followed by a section entirely comprised of German road signs. It's not an easy test. Passing score is an 85, and many of the questions are worded in a manner to confuse and frustrate the test taker. And some of the German signs are strictly in German, so the test does require some preparation and studying for us non-German speakers. I took the past in mid-November, and fortunately passed it (barely) on my first go. This helped us tremendously, because it took the burden off of my sponsor, who until then was driving us pretty much everywhere. After getting the license, I rented a sporty little BMW, which was fun to drive and a good test of my road skills in Europe. Anyway, back to the car buying story...

Must have been around late November, we bought a 2006 Volvo V70 station wagon. It all started when my sponsor was helping me navigate the entire Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) through dozens of used car lots to find a reasonably decent vehicle at a good price. Typical of any military community, there are all kinds of car dealerships around the KMC, selling Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and the rest of your typical German made autos. They carry new or used, German-specs or US-specs, manual or automatic transmission... anything you could possibly want.

After looking at a few vehicles around the local area, my sponsor offered to research some comps online and brought in the resulting matches the next day. One of the comps was the Volvo we ended up buying. It only had one prior owner, a doctor. And the car is fully loaded - GPS (programed for all of Western Europe), heated seats, sensor windshield wipers that automatically turn on when the windshield gets wet enough, a timer that heats the car at a specified time so that you don't have to warm it up in the morning while you wait, etc. It's also automatic transmission - a necessity for Nicki - and a diesel, which will be good for fuel efficiency when we're cruising the autobahn.

Once we bought the vehicle, I had to get it inspected (for free) on nearby Kapaun Air Station and then registered as a KMC military community personnel vehicle - registration is different than the typical German registration process. Seems like a simple matter... and it should be, except that Mother Nature had her own plans. The week that we bought the car was filled with snow, which at times closed the Kapaun Inspection Office, making it difficult for me to get the vehicle over to them. On my third try, they finally were open for business. Great news, until they found a few problems with the car; two dead light bulbs and a component needing replacement in the steering column. Then I had to coordinate with the seller to get the repairs done at his Volvo dealership, which he did rather quickly (during my lunch break the following day). Then, I ran the vehicle back to the inspection office, where the car passed the inspection with flying colors. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and I had to pick Josh up at school. So I had to wait to register the vehicle until the following day. The line at the registration office was similar to a California DMV - I must have been in there for an hour before reaching the first of three service desks. First they had to verify my eligibility status, vehicle history, insurance info, etc. and confirm that I filled the form in correctly. At the second window, I was issued plates for the car. At the third window, I paid the registration fee before finally becoming official registered vehicle owners in Germany.

One tip for future PCS'ers to Germany, if you have access to USAA and are eligible for car insurance through them, BUY IT. I'll be honest, I didn't search around for the best prices on auto insurance here in Germany, but the insurance we got through USAA is top notch. It covers us not only throughout Germany, but within a long list of other countries over here. And if we run into trouble on the road, there's an international toll free number we can call and USAA will send a driver out to tow our vehicle - all covered. Best of all, when I set up the insurance, USAA automatically sent our new insurance info directly to the registration office on base. So when I went in to register my vehicle, they didn't even have to ask me for my insurance card. It was already in the system on their computers.

Another tip for PCS'ers to Germany, if you happen to move here during one of the snowiest winters in a decade. Make sure your vehicle has winter windshield wiper fluid, and not the diluted stuff. Make sure it's the concentrate (good until -60 degrees C). For the first few days in our new ride, I thought the wiper fluid pump was bad, until I figured out that the fluid was just frozen. After pouring in a few rounds of concentrate, it melted and now is working like a champ. And the fluid is worth its weight in gold while driving in winter conditions, as the windshield dirties up in a hurry on the autobahn with all the wetness, salt, and dirt being thrown around.

In recent news, Nicki just passed the drivers test, so she has started to drive a bit also. With all the snow we're facing, and her general lack of driving experience in these conditions, she hasn't really been able to practice as much as she'd like. But she's doing great nonetheless.

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to go with my sponsor over to the German city hall in Kaiserslautern to request my International Drivers License. We're within about 3-hours of several other European countries from our spot here in Germany, so it's a must. I think we can get to France in under an hour, so maybe we'll celebrate my obtaining the Int'l license by going to one of the French border cities.

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