By Russ Heaps
If you ever rented a car, leased a car or belonged to a car-sharing service, such as Zipcar, you’ve likely encountered the basics of a vehicle subscription program. Leasing is really a form of long-term renting. Subscriptions are basically a new take on leasing in our app-driven world.
How does a car subscription service work?
Generally, a car subscription service involves a monthly fee that gives the subscriber the ability to drive several vehicles over the course of a year (or over multiple years). Most subscription programs also include insurance, normal maintenance and roadside assistance. The number of vehicle swaps varies from program to program — from one per year to unlimited swaps. Each program has some form of concierge service to aid with picking a new car. For most programs, particularly automaker subscriptions, there is also some sort of one-time application or activation fee before delivery of the initial vehicle.
To date, these services are limited to a few luxury brands and, for the most part, restricted to specific cities or states. Often, only certain models of a car maker’s lineup are available. There are also some third-party subscriptions we’ll discuss later offering “used” cars.
What should you expect from a subscription service?
We’ve all heard the old saw: Variety is the spice of life. Right? The upside to a subscription is the opportunity to swap out a vehicle with which you might be bored for a different model. It also means you can tailor your vehicle to your current needs. Swap out that sedan you’re now driving for a three-row crossover to take the family camping. The next vehicle arrives clean and ready to go.
And, because insurance is covered in the monthly subscription fee, you don’t need fret about that. Typically, the automaker (OEM) subscription monthly fees are pretty steep depending on the brand, the models included in the subscription and the frequency at which you swap vehicles.
Additionally, most subscriptions keep tabs on their cars with some form of tracking. In other words, they know where the vehicle is and, sometimes, how it’s being driven.
Why should I consider a subscription?
Obviously, a subscription program isn’t for everyone, but if you have deep pockets and yearn for more choices in your life, a subscription program may just be the way to go. Most subscriptions allow you the flexibility of switching vehicles every so often, and the service delivers to your door. For the most part, subscriptions are established and managed online through an app.
A set monthly fee means that you know what the entire monthly cost will be. That fee includes scheduled maintenance, upkeep and often detailing. Moreover, most subscriptions are set up on a month-to-month basis, relieving you of a long-term commitment.
Some subscriptions include other benefits with the monthly fee, such as satellite radio service, roadside assistance, tire-and-wheel allowance (if you damage a wheel or tire) and more.
Again, if you do like the idea of driving a different vehicle each week or month, subscriptions are a convenient way to do it.
What are the downsides to a subscription service?
Subscriptions, like leasing, mean that you never have any equity in a vehicle. You’ll never have a trade-in, and that monthly payment will always be there. Because the insurance is included in the monthly fee, the vehicles can’t be driven into Canada or Mexico, either. And though some subscription programs allow for customizing the insurance coverage (impacting the monthly fee), with others, it’s one size fits all.
Many subscriptions have some sort of mileage limit per month or per vehicle. Other possible restrictions include no smoking and assorted rules for transporting pets. Some subscriptions, such as Lexus Complete Lease ($1,000), make provisions for covering excessive wear and tear and mileage overages. The others will assess a penalty for any wear and mileage they consider above normal.
Although the vehicles offered in the OEM programs are relatively new (usually no more than three years old), don’t expect to be a subscription car’s first driver. The programs from Lexus and Volvo are exceptions, but they are really more of a lease than a subscription.
Which automakers offer subscriptions?
Allowing members to switch cars up to twice each month, Select offers two tiers of service. Included in both tiers are unlimited mileage, liability insurance maintenance, roadside assistance, full car detailing with each switch and complimentary two-day Silvercar rental per month when traveling. Although Audi promises Select is coming to other cities, membership is only available in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of TX currently.
Core Collection ($995/mo) includes the A4, Q5, S3 and TT
Premier Collection ($1,495/mo) includes the S5 Coupe, A6, Q7, A5 Cabriolet and the entire Core Collection
Access by BMW
Access is a three-tier program. Each tier includes roadside assistance, taxes, maintenance, full-detail washes, vehicle delivery, unlimited swaps and insurance with $1 million liability and a $1,000 deductible. Upper plans include the vehicles offered in the lower plans.
Icon ($998/mo) includes the 330i, 340i, X3, M240i and 440i Gran Coupe.
Legend ($1,300/mo) adds the 530e xDrive iPerformance, 540i, X5 xDrive35i, 440i and more
BMW M ($2,699/mo) adds the M5 Sedan, X5M, X6M, M4 Convertible and M6 Convertible
Book By Cadillac
This service is currently on hold, but Cadillac promises an updated program in 2020.
Lexus Complete Lease
Rather than a subscription program, Complete Lease is just that: a complete lease. These are two-year/20,000-mile leases available for the UX and UX hybrid models only in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The monthly payment includes scheduled maintenance, vehicle insurance (including gap insurance), tire-and-wheel protection, two years of connected services (satellite radio and Enform Remote Destination Assist on models with navigation) and $1,000 excess wear and use allowance. Complete Lease may spread to other regions and include more Lexus models in the future.
Like the Lexus Complete Lease, Spectrum is really a leasing program. It too includes liability insurance and 3 years/36,000 miles of scheduled maintenance in the monthly payment. It doesn’t allow for switching vehicles but is available for the G70, G80 and G90 models.
You must reside in Nashville, Tenn., Philadelphia, or Atlanta to qualify for membership in the Collection. Atlanta has a total of four plans, Nashville has three and Philadelphia has two. The monthly membership fee for each is based on the level of vehicles included in the plan. Monthly fees include roadside assistance, regular maintenance, free home or office delivery and $1 million liability insurance with $1,000 deductible. All vehicles are within three model years of age.
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Signature ($1,095/mo) Atlanta and Nashville includes the AMG C 43, A 220, GLC 300, C 300 Coupe and C 300 Cabriolet
Reserve ($1,595/mo) Atlanta, Nashville and Philadelphia includes the E 300, E 450 Wagon, CLS 450 Sedan, GLE 450, AMG GLC 43, GLE 450, GLS 450, GLC 43, E 450, AMG C 43 and C 43 Cabriolet
Premier ($2,995/mo) Atlanta, Nashville and Philadelphia includes the S 560, S 450, AMG CLS 53, GT 53, C 63, E 53, AMG GLC 63, GLC 63 S and G 550
AMG Exclusive ($3,595/mo) Atlanta includes 11 AMG models
Available in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego and Toronto, Passport offers two membership tiers. Both tiers include 2,000 miles per month limit (unused miles roll over), car detailing with delivery, home or office delivery, unlimited switches, $1 million liability insurance with $1,000 deductible, maintenance and taxes.
Launch ($2,100/mo) includes the Cayman, Boxster, Macan, Cayenne and Panamera
Accelerate ($3,100/mo) expands on the Launch vehicle offerings to include performance versions of those cars, as well as versions of the 911 Carrera
Care by Volvo
Care is a cross between leasing and subscriptions. Currently, the program includes three of its models: the XC90, the XC40 and the S60. The XC60 and the V60 Cross Country are expected to come online this year. Monthly fees look more like leasing payments. The XC40, for example is $700 per month. As with subscriptions, the monthly fee includes insurance coverage, factory-scheduled maintenance, road-hazard tire and wheel protection and a $1,000 excess-wear waiver. Also lease-like is the 15,000-mile annual mileage allowance, as well as members being responsible for taxes and registration. Members may switch models once each year. Care is available across the U.S.
What third-party subscription services are available?
There are several subscription programs offered by third-party providers and dealer groups. They are far too numerous to detail all of them here. For the most part, they are app-based, but many don’t offer the same level of service as the OEM subscriptions. Their monthly fees are usually less, too. Generally, they are more flexible than OEM programs that are for a specific brand. They usually offer multiple brands, and the monthly fees are tied to the car being driven or the segment to which the car belongs. As with most OEM services, third-party subscriptions are only available in certain geographical areas. Here are a few third-party programs:
As with most third-party services, this subscription functions through partnerships with member dealerships. Ground Zero for Flexdrive (which is partially owned by Autotrader’s parent company, Cox Automotive) is Atlanta, but the service also has participating dealers in various cities, such as Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, and Cherry Hill, N.J. Offering most of the benefits and operating much like an OEM subscription, Flexdrive allows for weekly vehicle switches.
Though it’s a Los Angeles-based subscription service, Fair also partners with dealers in multiple locations around the U.S. It recently acquired Ford’s (NYS:F) Canvas used-car subscription program. More or less, Fair lives in the space between renting and leasing. Think of it as a long-term (three months or more) rental. The monthly fee is based on the specific car you pick. Cars can be as old as six years. You may return a car within three days for a full refund, but go beyond that, and your nonrefundable start payment is roughly equal to three months of fees. After that, it’s month to month with a 5-day notice to return. Scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance are included. A warranty provides coverage for other repairs. Subscribers may provide their own insurance or fold Fair’s insurance package into the monthly fee.
A car subscription or leasing?
Is a subscription program cheaper than leasing? The simple answer is, probably not. However, there are a lot of variables, not the least of which is the particular subscription program you pick. Insurance rates fluctuate, too, depending on where you live, your driving record and so forth. A bundled monthly fee that includes the subscription’s insurance might be less than your lease payment, personal insurance coverage and other out-of-pocket costs combined.
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More often than not, an interest in subscriptions isn’t so much about the monthly fee versus a leasing payment—rather, it’s about flexibility and convenience. If driving a variety of vehicles each year, not worrying about keeping up with car insurance payments, and receiving free upkeep all appeal to you, subscription services check all the boxes.
This story originally ran on Autotrader.com .