Canceled: cars as a subscription service

Remember when car subscriptions were going to be the next big thing, about three years ago? Manufacturers like Audi, Cadillac, Mercedes, BMW, and Volvo offered plans, and subscribers could pay a monthly fee to drive a selection of models rather than having to commit to one car for several years. It seemed intriguing, and had a lot of people wondering, ‘are car subscriptions the new lease?

And the answer, at least for now, seems to be ‘probably not’.

Where are they now?

Most of the subscription programs have shuttered entirely, scaled back significantly, or haven’t expanded to additional geographical areas as initially anticipated.

Porsche’s Passport program (now called Porsche Drive) is only available in 5 U.S. cities. Audi Select was shut down in January of this year. Mercedes pulled the plug on its Collection program in 2020, after two years of low sales. It never expanded beyond its pilot cities of Nashville, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Book by Cadillac shut down in 2019, then announced that it would return in 2020, but as of this writing its website still says that.

Access by BMW is no more, as of 2021

Access by BMW also wound down at the beginning of 2021, saying that it ‘was always intended to be a pilot.’ But we have to imagine that if it had been successful they would have continued it without interruption.

Care by Volvo is still going, but is a lot more like a traditional car lease than the others.

Care by Volvo, after a rocky start, is still going, but it’s less flexible than most of the other concepts. Like most other subscription plans, it includes insurance, but it’s more like a traditional lease—you don’t have the option to switch cars as you could with most of the other programs. And you’re basically signing a two-year lease. (Though apparently you can get out after four months, with no termination fee, if you decide it’s not for you.)

What went wrong?

It’s hard to know exactly why most of the car leasing programs failed, but one theory is cost. Most of these programs were quite expensive. And often the very most desirable models.

Sure, you can drive a Cayenne one week, and a Cayman the next with Porsche’s Passport program, but you can’t get a flagship 911 unless you spring for the $3,100 per month tier. And even then you won’t get access to the most premium models like the Turbo, Targa, or GTS.

You might be paying $3,100 a month, but you still won’t get access to the Turbo

Several manufacturers found that many clients don’t like the inconvenience of switching personal items from car to car every time they change models. Even a fairly fastidious driver has things like phone chargers, sunglasses, change, gum, safety or sports gear in the trunk, etc. It’s a hassle to move all that, and there’s a good chance you’ll accidentally leave something in the last car.

We’re not sure if availability (or lack thereof) is an issue with these programs, but it seems plausible that you might not be able to get exactly the car you want when you want it. And in fact it’s probably likely that you’ll never get exactly the car you’d choose if you were buying—things like particular options, external and interior colors, wheels, etc. Which, even if you’re not buying the car, might be a little disappointing—especially if you’re paying a couple thousand dollars a month for the subscription.

Will they be back?

Maybe with some restructuring these programs will be more attractive to drivers. Or maybe this is an idea ahead of its time, that will eventually catch on. For now, it looks like most manufacturers will stick with the standard purchase and lease options.

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