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- Car buyers who are afraid to commit to one vehicle might seek a car subscription service as a great alternative.
- For about the same cost as leasing a vehicle, drivers can “rent a brand” and trade in which cars they are driving on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis, depending on the dealer or service.
- Some major car companies offering subscription services are Volvo, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, and Cadillac, alongside third-party services such as Canvas, Flexdrive, and Borrow.
- But the services are still extremely limited and not available everywhere.
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Buying, leasing, and … subscribing?
It might be a surprise to learn that this third, modern mobility option has gained significant traction over the past year, with a host of premium automotive brands jumping on the pay-as-you-go bandwagon.
This comes alongside a growing number of third-party companies testing the waters in very specific regions of the country to see how keen new-car shoppers are to trade in their keys for an account that lets them drive a wide range of vehicles for a single monthly payment.
Is a car subscription service a worthy substitute for buying your own car? Here are three perks you could sign up for that could make “owning” a luxury car that much easier, plus one big drawback.
1. You’re driving a brand and can pick the right model car for any occasion
The primary party trick of each of these car subscription services is that membership allows you to select from a list of vehicles under a particular brand’s umbrella, rather than locking in a specific model.
This is perfect for commitment-phobic drivers, but more importantly, it allows you to match the car in your driveway with your needs for that particular moment.
Want to drive a sports car on the weekends, but need a practical SUV for the daily commute? You got it. Looking for something frugal and comfortable for a long road trip? No problem.
Of course, you’ll need to read the fine print. Not every brand allows for a la carte car swaps during the subscription period. Of the automakers currently in the subscription game, Care by Volvo restricts your car swaps to once every 12 months, while Audi Select caps you to two per month. On the other hand, Access by BMW, the Mercedes-Benz Collection, Porsche Passport, and Book by Cadillac (which is rebooting for 2020 after a one-year hiatus) don’t feature any restrictions.
But be aware of subscription services that are really lease deals in disguise. For example, Genesis Spectrum, which launched in March, positions itself as a subscription service when it’s really a standard lease with insurance and maintenance bundled in.
2. Pricing is similar to leasing a car, but without the fixed term
It’s important to note that all of the above subscriptions include insurance as part of the monthly payment, and regular maintenance and roadside assistance are also a common feature of these programs.
That makes their pricing a little easier to swallow, as luxury car companies are charging a higher premium for some subscription levels as compared to a standard lease deal. Most services are divided into tiers with entry-level options checking in as more affordable than high-performance or flagship vehicle choices.
BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi operate at least two membership levels that divide their offerings along prestige lines. Cadillac and Volvo operate a brand-wide single pricing strategy, and are gradually working all of their models into subscription offers.
What will it cost you to sign up? It can be as low as $600 per month (Volvo’s XC40 entry-level tier) to $3,595 per month (Mercedes-Benz’s AMG-Exclusive tier). Factoring in the option to swap, no insurance costs, and the care-free maintenance, and it’s not all that out of line with what you’d pay to be locked in on a single model lease — and with no fixed term, meaning there is an open-ended time period that you can decide to close at any time.
Keep in mind that just like with a lease, you’ll have to deal with things like mileage overages and any damage you may do to the car.
3. You get to try a variety of cars to see what fits best
Remember what we mentioned above about commitment? While not all luxury car fans are looking to swap cars every week, the ability to truly spend an extended period of time behind the wheel gives you a far more meaningful experience with a brand than any 10 minute ride with a dealership sales representative ever could.
It’s tempting to think of vehicle subscription services as months-long test drives that can help you decide if an automaker’s products are the right fit for you. It’s a rare opportunity to marinate in the features, technology, styling, and performance of multiple cars and trucks from a company without having to commit to buy or lease.
It’s also a chance to investigate whether an electric vehicle would fit into your lifestyle. Each of the third-party car subscription services out there (Canvas, Flexdrive) are restricted to recently-used vehicles, but one of them (Borrow) is aimed exclusively at EVs. Sure, they’re still used, but you can tag in a three- to nine-month subscription that will lend you the keys to a battery-powered automobile so you can do a reality check on the practicality of going gas-free before committing to buy, if you want to.
But availability is very, very limited
The major downside of car subscription services is availability. We’re still nowhere near car subscriptions being a universal offering. Out of all of the programs listed above, only Care by Volvo is offered across almost the entire country. Every other automaker limits their subscriber base to either one or a handful of cities, so unless you live in Nashville (BMW, Mercedes-Benz), Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz, Porsche), Dallas-Fort Worth (Audi), or Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Phoenix, or San Diego (Mercedes-Benz), you are out of luck.
Keep in mind, too, that several of these efforts are pilot programs subject to changes, or even early endings, as car companies discover more about the market. Automakers frequently shuffle priorities when it comes to new initiatives, as seen with Cadillac’s program pause, which means you might not be able to rely on a car subscription over the long run.
That being said, some of these pilot programs will expand once their parent company is satisfied with the response in a specific region, while other services are slowly adding more cities since they’ve launched.
Benjamin Hunting is a freelance writer with more than a decade deep in the auto industry. He contributes to a long list of print and online publications, is a friend to vinyl, and enjoys keeping the shiny side up on track days.