'Cars are becoming here-today, gone-tomorrow commodities'

Mike Rutherford sees the value in fully flexible leasing schemes as a means of giving motorists more freedom

Mike Rutherford opinion

We've all been there – desperately trying to be honest and realistic about our available motoring-related budgets and needs, before deciding which car to go for. Let’s admit it: failing to pick the correct one can be just as disastrous as choosing the wrong job, home, husband or wife.

And even if a customer makes a sound decision by leasing the right car, will it be right for the duration of the contract he or she signed? Possibly not.

Career, housing, personal finance, family, medical and other changes can and do happen. Sometimes they leave motorists locked into non-negotiable, pay-per-month (or else) lease deals that lumber them with inappropriate vehicles they’re contractually obliged to stick with for years to come. Not good. 

Even if the car you chose remains suitable, wouldn’t you just love to drive something else occasionally? Of course you would. At least one major manufacturer is seriously waking up to all of this and considering a game-changing leasing-cum-rental scheme. 

Here’s how it’ll likely work. The customer with, say, a leased Golf will probably be fine with it for 40-odd weeks a year. But he or she might temporarily hand it back to the VW dealer in exchange for a Touareg SUV for a winter skiing holiday. Then in the spring, a posh Arteon is nabbed for a wedding, followed by a load- lugging Amarok for the summer camping trip, and perhaps a T-Roc Cabriolet for an autumn break.

Such strictly short-term upgrades will obviously result in higher lease payments some months. But a customer will be able to occasionally pay less too – by downgrading from the Golf that remains the heart and soul of the contract. Why would a customer choose to go downmarket for a bottom-of-the-range up! urban runabout? Possibly because he or she needs to temporarily spend time in a different workplace, home, or hospital in a traffic-choked city centre where the benefits of smaller, slower cars are obvious.

So far, so good.  What I’ve outlined above could make up part of the fun, flexible, flipping (literally) future of leasing. Increasingly, we’ll stop having cars as much-loved personal possessions and instead treat many or most of them as here-today, gone-tomorrow commodities – a bit like hotel rooms and tables in restaurants.

But a serious word of warning – if and when you lease, say, that Golf in the (optional) brave new motoring world of the near future, then temporarily upgrade to a bigger vehicle or downgrade to a smaller one, ‘your’ Golf won’t just gather dust at the franchised dealership. Under the terms of your contract it might – and probably will – be used by other customers upgrading or downgrading for a week, a month, whatever. Depending on the small print (check it, then check it again) it could even be sold by the dealer who would then be obliged to replace it with something as good, or better. 

We’re still in the tricky planning stage of fully flexible, flipping leasing, which could give unprecedented freedom to future customers. I love the brave, potentially game-changing idea, but I’m not saying I’d be courageous enough to sign up for it. How about you?

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Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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