From the August 2018 issue
Blind dates can sometimes resemble Russian roulette but with more to lose. In the car world, paradoxically, blind dates are almost always fun. And that’s reason enough to check out subscription leasing, a generically formless name for a potentially inspired scheme to sample one cool car after another. It’s basically a short-term lease that includes insurance, registration, service, roadside assistance, and, often, unlimited mileage. Your lone role is to pump fuel. And here’s the cherry atop the cheesecake: You can swap cars month to month or, in many cases, day to day. Blind dating with no gunfire.
I studied subscriptions from BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln, Porsche, and Volvo. BMW’s version is called Access by BMW. It costs $2000 per month for the Legend package (and $575 to join), which makes available the M2, X5, 5-series sedan, and 4-series coupe and convertible. Move up to the $3700 BMW M tier and you’ll be driving the M4 cabriolet, M5, X5 M, and X6 M. Swap cars as often as underwear. But those prices, right? They make me queasy in the pants.
So move on, my friend, because the best subscriptions are not from manufacturers but from third parties like Mobiliti or megadealers like the Germain Automotive Group, the Warren Henry Auto Group, and Park Place Dealerships. Available in Texas, Park Place’s version is lightning in a bottle with extra fireflies, because you choose from seven luxury brands instead of one. Buy into its tier-one $895 monthly subscription (plus $750 to join) and your mobile world may include Benz C- and GLC-class vehicles, the Jaguar XE, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Range Rover Evoque, Lexus ES and IS, and Volvo S60. Its Plus package costs $1395 per month (again, $750 to join) and opens the door to the Benz E- and GLE-classes; Jag F-Pace and XF; Land Rover Range Rover Evoque cabriolet; Lexus GS, GX, and RC; Porsche Macan; and Volvo XC90. And Park Place’s Premium stratagem costs $1795 (again, same fee to join), advancing the Land Rover Range Rover Sport and Velar, Maserati Ghibli and Levante, Mercedes-AMG 43 models, and Porsche Boxster and Cayenne. I’ve never driven an Evoque cab. No one has. Well, maybe a guy named Nigel at the factory.
Park Place even delivers and retrieves your rides, details ’em between uses, programs the radio, positions the seat to suit your happy hinder, and tailors the cockpit temperature and possibly your shorts. Hey, deliver my Ghibli with a dozen roses for my wife and both my fat cats freshly back from delousing. If there’d been subscription leasing when I was dating, well, I’d still be broke and sitting in a booth with my date at Pizza Hut, but at least I’d have tomato sauce and a smile on my face.
Hesham Elgaghil, VP of strategic growth and business development at Park Place, told me the company just completed a 15-person subscription test with good results. His customers were swapping cars, on average, three times a month. “We expect to remove the cars from rotation at 10,000 miles or every 6 to 10 months,” Elgaghil said, and then they wind up as CPOs. Buy your favorite outright, if the spirit moves. Park Place’s contract runs for 31 days at a crack, so you can bail fast. As long as you pony up the monthly payment, there’s never again a fee to join.
The pachyderm in the room, of course, is that even the starter-kit Park Place subscription eats up $11,490 that first year, or about $31.50 per day. Spend that sum on owning a car, as your dad repeatedly lectured. But owning, say, a C-class sedan isn’t as fun as driving the whole Land Rover roster. I can’t think of any other way of cycling through that much awesome-osity without working at C/D, where I think they just demolished my old office to make room for a larger coffee maker.
Some dealers are keen on subscriptions because customers show up more frequently as targets to buy something a little more permanent. Other dealers fret that this is a sneaky end run allowing manufacturers to muck about at retail, leaving the dealer to fix bent wheels and offer a spiffy drinking fountain.
Right now, subscription programs are changing as fast as NCAA coaches, so don’t trust my figures. If these mini leases dig hard into new-car sales, it’s possible this little festival may cease. Then again, if subscriptions become more alluring than Uber, Lyft, automated dog sleds, and whatever the hell else comes next-with the “whatever the hell else” scaring the elbows off franchisees right now-then dealerships may well morph into ersatz U-Haul outlets, where customers grab a vehicle short-term and never consider owning. History swerves! But let me remind you, it was Johan “Ignition” de Nysschen who marketed Book by Cadillac, and he just got canned harder than spaceship Spam.
I wish subscriptions had been available prior to my blind date with a 1986 Merkur XR4Ti. When I tried to trade it in for an all-wheel-drive Honda Civic wagon, the salesman at Howard Cooper Honda in Ann Arbor said of the Merkur, “Buy a car like that, I bet you get a free bowl of soup.”