Are Subscriptions the New Leasing?
Luxury marques experiment with the future of car ownership
What if the perfect luxury car or sport utility is one that requires no commitment, a vehicle you can easily swap out of when your needs change or when you simply grow tired of it and want the latest and greatest? Is luxury as much about the experience of a concierge delivering a new model to your driveway washed, fully fueled, and set to your favorite SiriusXM station as it is about heated and cooled massaging leather seats? We're about to find out.
Automakers, dealers, and others are experimenting with new ways to provide access to mobility," Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, says. "Now the hot topic is subscription services, many of them offered by luxury automakers."
Think of these emerging all-in-one services, which are paid for by a revolving charge on your credit or debit card, like Netflix or a gym membership. But instead of unlimited streaming or unfettered use of the StairMaster, you pay a set monthly fee for access to different vehicles, along with other benefits. Need a three-row crossover for a long trip? Want a convertible for the summer? These are some of the scenarios that subscription services are aiming to address.
Each of the automaker-specific programs we've detailed here varies in scope, from Care by Volvo's single-car, lease-style setup to Book by Cadillac, which offers access to every model in its lineup and up to 18 vehicle changes per year. Each of them will pick up and deliver the vehicle to your home or office, and each includes free maintenance, roadside assistance, and insurance (provided you have good credit and a good driving record). Most also allow you to cancel or pause your membership at any time. Five of the six services offer vehicles from the current model year, and all but Lincoln Canvas allow you to order or change a vehicle via a smartphone app.
Other than Care by Volvo, these are pilot programs available only in limited markets, and automakers are still experimenting with options and pricing as they learn what their subscribers want. But it appears as though these types of services are only going to expand as the traditional car ownership model continues to evolve.
Book by Cadillac
Cadillac began the industry's first subscription service, starting with its new hometown of New York in February 2017. Cadillac added Dallas and Los Angeles last November, and it's now testing in Munich. Subscribers order a change in model via the Book by Cadillac app.
"For us, Book is very much an experiment and a pilot in which we need to respond as quickly as possible to the member requests and demands that are coming in to us," says Melody Lee, global director of Book by Cadillac.
Vehicles in the Book fleet are equipped to premium trim levels and are administered by companies experienced in automotive events and media fleets. Book members must keep their car at home, so, for example, a subscriber cannot order a vehicle just for a weekend trip, though Lee says that Book might consider such a variation as Cadillac's service evolves.
"We definitely have more demand than we anticipated and more demand than we can easily satisfy at this time, which is a good problem to have," Lee says. "Interest continues to grow every day. We're operating in the lower hundreds at the moment, in terms of vehicles and members."
Lee also says that the average age of a Book member is 41, some 20 years younger than a traditional Cadillac buyer through a dealer. So far, although the sample size is still small, Book appears to be exceeding Cadillac's expectations.
Initiation Fee: $500
Monthly Fee: $1,800 (cancel at the end of any monthly cycle)
Vehicle Availability: Limit of 30 consecutive days with the same vehicle, up to 18 trades per year
Locations: New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Munich, Germany
Models: All, including ATS-V, CTS-V, and CT6 plug-in hybrid or with Super Cruise (the vintage CTS-V wagon is available in L.A.)
Access by BMW
Access by BMW is being spearheaded by BMW Financial Services, and the vehicles are handled, picked up, and delivered by local BMW dealerships. The program is limited to Nashville for the time being, but BMW envisions a national network of dealers handling the Access subscription service.
Users can switch into as many vehicles as they desire and can cancel the Access subscription at the end of any 32-day cycle, put the subscription on hold if they plan to be away for a length of time (for a $200 convenience fee), or switch between Legend and M tiers for a pro-rated monthly fee.
Initiation Fee: $575
Monthly Fee: $2,000 (Legend tier) $3,700 (M tier)
Vehicle Availability: Unlimited switches, no minimum or maximum time period with any single vehicle
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Models: M2, 440i coupe and convertible, 540i, 530e xDrive iPerformance, X5 xDrive35i (Legend tier); M4 convertible, M5, X5M, X6M, plus all Legend tier models (M tier)
Good news, sports car purists. Although the Macan and Cayenne have been the marque's best-sellers for years, Porsche says Passport's most popular model is the 911. Most members have ponied up for the more expensive Accelerate plan, are new to the brand, and are younger than its average customer, Porsche says.
Clutch Technologies, which administers Passport and develops the app for Apple and Android, is an emerging Atlanta-based company that sells its auto subscription software to individual dealerships as well, so you're likely to see similar subscription plans at megadealers at some point. (Clutch also builds the apps and handles some administrative functions for the BMW and Mercedes pilot programs.) Porsche says it will consider expanding to other markets after it evaluates the pilot program in Atlanta.
Initiation Fee: $500
Monthly Fee: $2,000 (Launch plan); $3,000 (Accelerate plan)
Vehicle Availability: On-demand access, unlimited mileage
Models: 718 Boxster S and Cayman S, Macan S, and Cayenne (Launch); 911 Carrera S, Panamera 4S, Macan GTS, Cayenne S E-Hybrid, plus all Launch plan models (Accelerate)
Mercedes-Benz Collection is the latest luxury marque subscription service, which was just introduced to the Nashville and Philadelphia areas as its U.S. pilot cities. It offers brand-new models, though the Signature level might eventually include vehicles up to two model years old. The automaker is experimenting with a similar program in Europe.
Once you're signed up, have been cleared, and pick a tier level, a Collection concierge calls you to determine which model best suits your needs.
After the first vehicle, you can "flip" into anything from a big three-row SUV such as the GLS-Class to an E-Class Cabriolet. The higher the tier level, the more expensive the range of vehicles, and you can move up to a higher tier level at any point. Nashville participants can flip as much as they like each month, but in Philadelphia flips are limited to four per month. Mercedes is testing different options and tier levels in each city.
Mercedes says Collection subscribers have the freedom to flip vehicles quickly. Requests will usually be filled within a day via the aid of the service's concierges. There's even a "feeling lucky" button on the app. But you will need to request certain models, such as a convertible for a warm summer weekend, well in advance.
Initiation Fee: $495
Monthly Fee: $1,095 to $2,995 (choice of Signature, Reserve, or Premier tier levels depending on city)
Vehicle Availability: Unlimited mileage, access to any model within subscriber tier level (varying level of vehicle changes depending on city)
Locations: Nashville, Tennessee, Philadelphia
Models: Range depends on tier (AMG models are available for each tier)
Care by Volvo
Volvos lease at a rate of less than 50 percent—low for a premium brand—in part because past models have gone 10 to 12 years between redesigns. So Care looks to be as much a short-term lease with insurance and other benefits rolled in as it is a subscription. The program is available at any U.S. Volvo dealership, which will administer Care directly. Winter and summer tire changes are included with the monthly fee.
"This is a solid setup," Anders Gustafsson, Volvo North America's CEO, says. "This is an approach to attract the customers who want freedom and also a way for us as a car manufacturer to bond in our costs. Care gets you [the vehicle] cheaper, but we want your loyalty and we need to fight for your loyalty. That is the whole approach."
Initiation Fee: $500
Monthly Fee: $600 plus registration and fees for a well-equipped XC40 Momentum T5 AWD; $700 plus registration and fees for a well-equipped XC40 R-Design T5 AWD
Vehicle Availability: 24-month subscription (trade available once per year, which sets the 24-month clock back to zero)
Locations: 50 states
Models: XC40 Momentum and R-Design; S60, V60, and S90 coming soon (Care will be incorporated into every subsequent new car launch)
The Canvas subscription pilot is part of a suite of premium concierge services Lincoln offers. It's a natural extension of the nationwide Lincoln Pickup & Delivery program and its San Diego, Miami, and Dallas Lincoln Personal Driver chauffeur service.
"Lincoln wants to be on the cutting edge of client services," Greg Wood, Lincoln's manager of sales and service, says.
Wood's team has a little more edge-cutting work to do, however, as Lincoln is the only marque that requires subscribers to order a new vehicle by phone or the Lincoln Subscriptions website instead of through an app.
Lincoln's service, which is administered by Ford Motors' finance subsidiary Canvas, began in March 2017 with off-lease and certified pre-owned 2015 models. Last November, the program extended to add service loaners from the previous model year.
The monthly fee covers a variety of models and various mileage packages, so a '17 MKZ on a low monthly mileage program is likely to be about $900 per month, whereas a '17 Navigator or Continental reserved for higher-mileage use might be $1,250. (Ford offers a similar subscription service in San Francisco and L.A. through Canvas, though only with 3-year-old off-lease vehicles starting at $329 per month, plus a $50 base membership.)
Although Lincoln Canvas puts the automaker's like-new loaners and off-lease vehicles to good use, Lincoln is weighing whether to make current model-year vehicles available in the future.
"That's the advantage of a pilot program," Wood says. "We have not ruled out any approaches."
Initiation Fee: $50
Monthly Fee: From $400 for 2015 models; $900-$1,250 for 2017 models (varies by vehicle and length of term)
Vehicle Availability: Different model can be accessed every month
Locations: Los Angeles, San Francisco
Models: Range of pre-owned 2015 and dealer-loaner 2017 Lincolns