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Published: Sunday, 5/18/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

Car-rental companies ramp up exotic offerings

Flashy autos give customers chance to feel rich, famous

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A renter checks out a 2013 Dodge Viper at the Enterprise Exotic Car Collection showroom near Los Angeles. Enterprise moved into the exotics market in 2006 after customers started asking for rarer models. A renter checks out a 2013 Dodge Viper at the Enterprise Exotic Car Collection showroom near Los Angeles. Enterprise moved into the exotics market in 2006 after customers started asking for rarer models.
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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 last 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.”

Mr. Sample’s firm, which has worked with royals, singers, and casino high rollers, 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 even will take off the dealership’s keychain so customers feel as if it’s totally theirs.

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

Last summer, Hertz Global Holdings Inc. launched its Dream Cars line in 35 locations, including Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s Exotic Collection, which began in Southern California, operates in 13 sites and is plans to open branches in West Hollywood and Atlanta. Budget Rent a Car Sytem Inc. offers BMWs and American sports cars in its Street Fleet, and Avis Rent a Car System LLC 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 no longer is 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 existing luxury collection of Lincolns and Cadillacs. Last year, the number of rental days within the exotic collection jumped 50 percent, said 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 what parts of the country, spokesman Paula Rivera said.

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.

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

Steve Briscoe reacts after starting the motor of a 2014 Ferrari California displayed for rent at the Enterprise Exotic Car Collection showroom near Los Angeles International Airport. Steve Briscoe reacts after starting the motor of a 2014 Ferrari California displayed for rent at the Enterprise Exotic Car Collection showroom near Los Angeles International Airport.
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Customers for high-end autos 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 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, Mr. Short said, because they’re a chance to introduce new models to potential buyers.

Some customers view a high-end rental as 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,” Ms. Faulkner said.

For rental firms, 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 that costs as much as a house.

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

“When their own insurance is on the hook, they treat these cars like they treat their own cars,” Mr. Short said.

“We don’t see people drag racing.”



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