Car rental companies ramp up exotic offerings

LAS VEGAS — There’s a chance now for the middle class to feel like movie stars. Or for a movie star to feel like a movie star away from home.

In the past few years, some of the biggest car rental companies have added the finest cars money can buy to their fleets. Alongside the practical Toyotas and Fords are Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Aston Martins and Teslas, to name a few.

They don’t come cheaply, of course. But, in some ways, that’s beside the point.

“We try to sell a lifestyle, not just an exotic vehicle,” said Vince Sample, location manager for Beverly Hills Rent A Car in Las Vegas. And it’s one that wows: “People stop and stare. They ask, ‘Can I take a picture?’ They want to see if it’s someone famous.”

Sample’s firm, which has worked with royals, famous singers and casino whales, will deliver a $900-per-day candy apple red Ferrari California or a $2,200-per-day Rolls-Royce Wraith directly to the customer. There’s no license plate frame to mark it as a rental. He will even take off the dealership’s keychain so customers feel it’s totally theirs.

As the recession fades to a memory, independent rental companies in flashy cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami Beach aren’t the only ones offering the high-end rides. The big firms are doing it, too, and in places less known for glamour.

Last summer, Hertz launched its Dream Cars line in 35 locations, including Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Enterprise’s Exotic Collection, which launched in Southern California, operates in 13 locations and is planning to open West Hollywood and Atlanta branches later this spring. Budget offers a range of BMWs and American sports cars in its Street Fleet and Avis has similar selection in its Signature Series, although the finest vehicles are found in the Avis Prestige collection in Europe.

Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association, said the growth in the upscale rental market differs from years past because it’s no longer limited to beach and tourist towns.

Enterprise’s move into the exotics market in 2006 came as customers started asking for more rarified vehicles — ones beyond the realm of the company’s existing luxury collection of Lincolns and Cadillacs. Last year, the number of rental days within the exotic collection jumped 50 percent, according to Steve Short, Enterprise’s vice president of leisure business development.

“There’s probably some demand that was out there that wasn’t being met,” he said.

When Hertz was scoping out the market for its Dream Cars, it analyzed registration data to determine which cars consumers were driving in different parts of the country, according to spokeswoman Paula Rivera.

The company stocked stores to reflect regional tastes: California customers are more likely to pick showy convertibles, whereas patrons in the heartland prefer more subtle indulgences. Hertz launched the program during a shaky recovery, calculating that demand among the wealthy would remain steady no matter the economic tide.

“The day-to-day consumer will mirror what’s going on in the economy,” Rivera said. “When you look at the really high-end luxury travel markets, it’s always tended to be fairly resilient, and that’s been one of the deciding factors.”

Customers for the high-end automobiles include Douglas Weil, a Southern California businessman who rents from Enterprise’s Exotic Collection about once a month and tends to choose Mercedes, Audis and BMWs.

He owns a two-door luxury sports car, but wants something roomier and more practical when he’s shuttling around out-of-town clients.

“It’s not so much to maintain an image, but to have the flexibility,” he said.

Manufacturers have been supportive of the exotic rentals, Short said, because they’re a chance to introduce new models to well-heeled potential buyers. Some customers view a high-end rental as an extended test drive — a small investment to make before sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into a car.

“When you get into a test drive, it’s short, you’re excited, it smells good, you’re not thinking of everything you need to be thinking about it,” Faulkner said. “If you can spend a weekend with it, you get a much better idea of if it’s the car for me.”

For rental companies, the exotics sector requires an extra level of care. Businesses do more extensive detailing on the vehicles, drop them off at the customer’s doorstep at odd hours and require large deposits or an insurance plan fit to replace a car the price of a house.

But what many dealers say hasn’t been a concern is customers taking their luxurious loaners on reckless joyrides.

“When their own insurance is on the hook, they treat these cars like they treat their own cars,” said Short. “We don’t see people drag racing.”

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