I've decided to devote today's column to a serious automotive industry topic. The topic is: why can't you buy a new luxury SUV without submitting to a background check? And not just any background check, but a serious background check? The kind of background check they give you when you're coming back from an Ebola-stricken country and you're bleeding from the eyeballs?
Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen: most new luxury SUV purchases are now accompanied by a background check and an interrogation from the dealership sales manager. And now I'm going to explain why this is, for those of you who aren't accustomed to spending enormous portions of your income on large, leather-trimmed vehicles that tip over like a bowling pin.
To begin, we must address the current situation in countries like China, Russia, and Brazil. What has happened in these countries, over the last few years, is: they got rich. You'd know this if you followed the news, because there are always these reports of people in China buying all sorts of luxury goods, and people in Russia buying all sorts of luxury goods, and people in Brazil buying all sorts of luxury goods, and then murdering one another.
So the people in these countries have all sorts of newfound wealth, and now they want to spend it. More specifically: they want to spend it on SUVs! People from these countries see athletes, and musicians, and celebrities driving around in shiny, new luxury SUVs, and they think: I must have this! Even though the primary form of personal transportation in my country is a scooter with an engine the size of a tomato!
But there's a problem: most of these countries levy massive taxes on imported goods, and luxury goods, and pretty much any goods, to the point where a Chinese guy pays the same amount of money for a blender as you or I might spend on a riding lawnmower.
For those of you who think I'm kidding, I now direct you over to the Land Rover China website, which lists the starting price of a new Range Rover at approximately 2.8 million Yuan, or roughly $460,000. That's right: nearly half a million dollars for one stinkin' SUV. Take this same amount of money to, say, Fresno, and you could buy a nice, big mansion with five bedrooms, and four bathrooms, and recessed lighting, and only a faint smell of meth from the prior owner.
And it's the same situation in Brazil: thanks to tariffs, and taxes, and what I assume to be a wide range of backroom deals with government officials named Felipe, a brand-new Porsche Cayenne starts around $200,000 down there. Two hundred grand! For an SUV with no navigation system and about as much power as a new Altima.
So what happens, when you live in these countries, is you start to think: Wait a second! Wouldn't it be cheaper to just buy the car in America and ship it over here? And the answer is: yes, of course it would be. And that's exactly what's going on in enormous numbers with a wide variety of new luxury SUVs.
As an example, let's consider Land Rover. Land Rover has just two types of customers for its latest Range Rover, which came out two years ago today. On one hand, you have real customers, defined specifically as: people who believe that a toothpick is the proper instrument for consuming an olive. And on the other, you've got fake customers: people who are hired by "brokers" or "exporters" to pose as a real customer, purchase a Range Rover, and turn it over to the broker for overseas shipment.
Now, Land Rover desperately wants to court the first type of customer. So desperately, in fact, that I heard a rumor – and don't tell anyone this, because it may be complete conjecture – that they are considering actually making their products reliable. This demonstrates the great strides Land Rover is willing to take in order to capture a larger percentage of the lucrative "I sent my assistant to stand in line and buy me the newest iPhone" market.
But Land Rover desperately doesn't want the second type of customer. They want them gone, disappeared, destroyed, obliterated, removed from this earth. They don't ever want to sell a car to a broker, or an exporter, or two random college students hired by an exporter to pose as a happy couple from the suburbs, when really they're just two Greek life treasurers short on beer money.
Now, you might be wondering: why the hell do luxury SUV manufacturers care if their cars are exported? A sale's a sale, right?! They should be happy anyone is buying their products at all!
And I admit, you raise an excellent point here. But luxury automakers have two big reasons for trying to curtail this behavior. Number one is obvious: a guy in China who can't import a BMW X5 from the United States might actually go to his local Chinese dealer and plunk down the three hundred grand required to pick one up. But with a steady stream of cars coming from the U.S., why would he? Instead, he can spend way less money for a U.S. model, taking a car out of an American driver's hands and causing BMW to lose a global sale.
Of course, there's another big reason luxury automakers don't want their SUVs exported: because they'll lose tons of money in the future. This is especially true for automakers who build cars that are especially unreliable, and problematic, and likely to suffer from catastrophic faults resulting in massive expenses from customers. Now, I don't want to name names here, because I don't want to embarrass anyone, but I'm talking about Land Rover. If Land Rover loses 100 or 500 or 1,000 Range Rovers a year to exporters, that's 100 or 500 or 1,000 air suspension kits they'll never be able to sell to consumers five years from now.
Unfortunately, automakers have discovered that the actual act of exporting a vehicle from one country to another isn't illegal, so they can't get the government to stop these people. And this brings us back to the background checks.
You see, exporters have become such a problem for high-end SUV manufacturers that they've started checking out and interrogating their own customers just to make sure they won't be shipping the car overseas. I've spoken to several people who recently purchased new Range Rovers, and Porsche Cayennes, and Mercedes-Benz SUVs, and they all said the same thing: their dealer asked them a bunch of questions, and made them sign an agreement saying they wouldn't export the car, and ran a thorough credit check – even for buyers paying with cash.
To get more information on this situation, I recently visited my local Land Rover dealership, where I was quickly approached by a salesman as I perused the new Range Rover.
"Do you like it?" he asked me. "I can get you one in six months."
"I LOVE it!" I replied, keeping to myself that my automotive budget is much closer to Hot Wheels 5-Pack than New Range Rover. "Have you had much activity from exporters?"
"Oh, tons," he said. "They call us every day."
According to the salesman, however, you didn't have to jump through that many hoops. I mean, yeah, sure, new customers have to undergo a credit check. And of course, everyone must sign an agreement saying they won't export anything. And OK, fine, there are a few questions. And yes, so he had heard of some dealers running background checks. But serious buyers should be fine, the salesman assured me, provided that they don't walk in with a briefcase and open the conversation by asking: "Do you take yuans?"
So if you're interested in buying a new luxury SUV, prepare yourself for a bit of a circus. But don't worry: it won't be so bad. All you have to do is sign the non-export agreement, and submit to the credit check, and assure them, as firmly as you possibly can, that anyone who eats olives with their fingers is barbaric.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.