Subscription services are everywhere. Just sign up, pay for what you want, cancel anytime. “Commitment bad, flexibility good” seems to be the underlying corporate chant behind these companies.
You're already a part of the system with TV, music, your mobile operator, email newsletters (that’s not totally dead, right?), so inevitably the automotive industry would be itching to capitalise on the cachet of the ‘subscription’ model. In Malaysia, Renault Subscription (and GoCar) have emerged under the Tan Chong umbrella. That, or startups like Flux would want to beat them to it.
Undeniably, there’s added flexibility and a certain degree of luxury/ access as a perk. For example, you wouldn’t have to amass the millions of MP3 files to enjoy them when you want to - just sign up with Spotify or Apple Music and pretend you’re a musical historian at RM14.90/month.
In the same way, car subscriptions both grant you the convenience of a car when you need one and access to different cars you might not otherwise have the chance to drive if the ownership model was all that was available.
This flexibility and occasional option of 'atas-ness' seems to be far more appealing in the mental hierarchy of today’s society and it’s obvious why. Switch up to a Renault Megane RS for a weekend blast, a Koleos for a family road trip, or arrange for a Volvo XC40 to arrive at a black tie event. Sounds like a sweet deal.
For a certain type of driver, that may be exactly what they’re looking for, but that level of vehicle does still come with a high price. For most of us, though, we’ll have to pick the more ‘mesra rakyat’ options. Thankfully there’s still plenty of choice at the lower end when it comes to car subscriptions.
The Diet Cola Of Leasing, Almost
The industry has already had an answer for those not looking to own a car in the traditional sense. Leasing has been around for decades upon decades, albeit not very prevalent in Malaysia. Crucially, leases usually run in multiple years whereas subscriptions are month-to-month.
With subscriptions, while you do forego the usual hassles of dealing with the bank and trips to the workshop, you still do have to pay for your own fuel and minor vehicle damage. Because these cars will mostly like be changing hands/subscribers much more often, more control is ceded to the provider (compared to a leasing company), who handles things like insurance and routine maintenance.
Consequently, since it’s basically an all-in monthly fee, car subscription services also have to step in with mileage limitations. Increasing that distance cap comes at an additional premium and removing that altogether costs even more.
Aren’t We Just Renting Our Cars From The Bank Anyway?
That’s one way of looking at it. Since most of us essentially borrow money from the bank to purchase a car, the vehicle itself seems more the bank’s property than ours, contrary to the name printed on the grant of ownership. Unless, of course, you bought you car with cash. Fuyoh!
While being under that repayment period may not be an ideal situation, your car is still yours as far as anyone else is concerned. You’re always responsible for it and, for the most part, you can do what you want with/ to it. You cannot say the same, for better or worse, about a car you merely subscribe to.
Is It All Advantages?
Well, it definitely works as an elevator pitch: More choice, more flexibility, one all-in fee, little to no commitment.
Personally, I drive around in a coupe with a useless set of rear seats. If I want to carry more than one passenger (and I usually don’t), there’s really no way around that - I’d have to use my tenuous grasp on charm to borrow someone else’s car or….well….buy another one.
If I were on a car subscription service, however, I would be able to swap whatever car I already had booked at the time to something that would fit my altered needs, all done from my smartphone (probably) and conveniently billed to my credit card. Now I would feel hip and dynamic and carefree, like the commericals tell me.
The car would arrive and my temporary problem with passenger space would be solved. What’s more, I wouldn’t need to worry about service intervals or maintenance (as that is handled by the provider), let alone resale value or road tax. Just drive.
And let’s say I am scheduled to spend an extended period of time overseas the following month, which would normally mean I would need to make sure my own car would be kept safe and the monthly payments deposited as usual while it sits parked and depreciating. With a car subscription, I would just choose not to re-up my package the following month. Easy.
Some Things Are Worth Owning
For those of us that view cars as extensions of ourselves and reflective of our personality, driving around in a car that’s been changing hands every month or so as if it were our own feels oddly disingenuous. As a motoring journalist, we know this feeling more than most.
It's always an awkward moment when you're forced to admit that it isn't yours. You feel like a teenager again, sneaking out your father’s car for a little joyride. That might not be the sentiment with most drivers, sure, but there is something to be said about pride in ownership.
Fact is, we don’t value something belonging to someone else nearly as much as we do something of our own. Because the car subscription model takes away the inconveniences of traditional ownership and just grants us quick access to a car, it seemingly robs the transaction of any weight.
The psychological stakes are much lower to begin with and compounded by the safety net of being able to wash our hands clean of the matter at the end of the month. Borrow a different car next, and a different one after that, and another, and another. No guilt, no hassle, no love gained or lost.
The future where cars are seen as disposable and our relationship with them is reduced to something as shallow as swiping left on a dating app is one I don’t find much appeal in, though I can’t argue with its convenience.
This isn’t to say that I think car subscription services shouldn’t exist. On the contrary, they could be perfect for a certain type of driver that values flexibility and choice above all else. However, there are some who claim that private ownership will one day be supplanted outright by the subscription model, which I find impulsive and out of touch.
Are Malaysians Ready For Car Subscriptions?
Absolutely, at least in the Klang Valley, and just as much as other tech savvy societies are. We pay with virtual credit/currency, order goods over the internet, and engage in rampant social media use. Most importantly, a lot of us already have more subscriptions than we can keep track of, so adding cars to that allotment just means a fatter monthly statement.
That said, the question about whether car subscriptions will thrive in Malaysia can also be asked about most of the world and dependent on how we, as a global society, perceive cars. For most, they still are major purchases and ones that we associate with a certain degree of vanity and prestige.
Until that goes away, private ownership will be a heavy long-term mainstay, but car subscriptions have plenty to gain by filling the gaps in between with the lightness of short term access and convenience.
How short term? We’re talking periods of a few months at most for each car, because if there were a huge untapped market for even longer commitment periods, why is nearly every car you see on the road bought and not taken on lease?
…But who knows, I could be very wrong on all these points. Time will tell.