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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Queen for a Day

Note to readers:  This piece is a feature that was part of the cover package in the September 25, 2006 issue of Barron’s, which focused on luxury cars.  The research for this article was the most fun I’ve had as a freelance writer.  Contact me if you need a review of, say, renting a villa in Italy or comparing hotels in New Zealand.

To see a .PDF reprint of the article, which includes a photo of me behind the wheel of the Ferrari, click here

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"WOW, WHAT A RUSH!" I hollered as we exited Highway 280 in Menlo Park, Calif., punctuating the experience with a loud, “Yee haw!” Muttered my 17-year-old daughter, Kate: “That was terrifying.”

I had just tested how quickly the 1997 Ferrari F355 Spider I’d borrowed from Club Sportiva in San Francisco could get to 100 mph. Answer: very, very quickly.

Teenage boys obviously had a different view of the six-speed Ferrari than Kate. “Whoo-hoo! A Ferrari! Cool car!” three of them whooped as we drove, with the roadster’s top down, in San Francisco. “Nice ride!” called out another in Palo Alto. “Oh my God, where did you get that car?"-with a deflating emphasis on the “you"-squealed another at the local high school.

For the shock value alone, driving a Ferrari is great fun, especially for someone like me, with two children, who’s been driving a “mom car” for a couple of decades. Although Kate accused me of having turned into a man with a midlife crisis, I had a huge smile on my face the entire time I had the keys in my pocket and, especially, when I had my foot on the gas pedal.

Club Sportiva (http://www.clubsportiva.com) isn’t a typical car-rental place. As its name implies, it’s literally a club, and membership entitles you to borrow vehicles for up to 21 days at a time. An Elite membership costs $12,495 a year, and provides 80,000 points that can be swapped for a certain amount of drive time, depending on what you select. The lowest membership level, Gold, is $3,195 for 17,000 points. Each car in Club Sportiva’s fleet is assigned a daily point value-25 for a Ferrari, 19 for a Maserati, down to 10 for a non-luxury Mini Cooper convertible.

That value is multiplied by two factors—the month in which you drive the car, and whether you’ve got it for a weekend or a weekday. Taking out the Ferrari on a weekday in September costs 3,000 points, while driving a much more commonplace Mercedes CLK 500 costs a mere 1,440. The weekend tab would be 4,200 points for the Ferrari, and 2,016 for the Benz. The dollar value of a weekend day in the Ferrari for an Elite member is $656. Not cheap, but still almost $100 less than the same car rented for a day from Dream Car Rentals in Las Vegas (http://www.dreamcarrentals.com).

If you’re contemplating buying an exotic or luxury vehicle, a rental can be a smart way to really get to know a car for a few days. It certainly makes sense to carefully evaluate a $200,000 Ferrari or $100,000 Porsche on your schedule, rather than the sales staff’s.

And how much fun would it be to cruise up to your 25th class reunion in a Lamborghini? A supercar would be a fun treat for a special birthday or a surprise anniversary trip, too.

For a relatively comprehensive nationwide list of suppliers of fancy cars, check out the Exotic Car Rental Directory (http://www.exoticcarrentaldirectory.com). Be warned: The ease and cost of renting an exotic or luxury car depends, to a large degree, on your location. The closer you are to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the New York City area, Chicago and Miami, the easier it is to find a company that will let you take a spin in a Ferrari, Lambo, Maserati or Porsche.

In Southern California, for example, Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car (http://www.bhrentacar.com) has several Ferraris and Maseratis, and recently picked up a Lamborghini and an Aston Martin. They even offer to deliver a car nationwide, for a price: To bring a Ferrari to me in Northern California would have tacked another $1,700 onto whatever the rental tab would be.

Would it be worth it? Maybe not. But once you’ve been behind the wheel of a Ferrari, spending that much or more to get in the driver’s seat again doesn’t seem irrational at all.

Posted by twcarey on 09/30 at 02:36 PM
Published in Barron'sPermalink

Test-Driving Luxury Sites

Note to readers:  This article was published in conjunction with Barron’s annual luxury car issue.  The article was short (by my standards) since there is a table accompanying the piece, plus an ad and a fair amount of white space.  I’ve restored some of the comments that didn’t get into print. 

CAR MANUFACTURERS SEEM TO THINK their websites must be packed with flash and glamour. Flash animations of vehicles travel the screens of many without prompting. And most make it way easy to find a live sales rep at a dealership. Yet key consumer information is often hard to locate.

Still, shopping for a car on the “Net is a great way to get a head start on the purchase process: You can get a feel for how much you’ll have to pay without leaving your desk. Just don’t expect to be able to complete the process online.

One of the better online offerings is http://www.bmwusa.com), “>BMW’s (http://www.bmwusa.com), which provides a 360-degree-view of your chosen vehicle, including interior and exterior colors. There’s just enough animation to keep the site interesting, but not so much that your browser bogs down. You can find a local dealer, and even search through dealers’ used-I mean, “pre-owned"-inventory, and save your searches for future reference. There’s also a section under the “Vehicles” menu where you can look at coming models.

http://www.cadillac.com)">Cadillac’s site (http://www.cadillac.com) lets you put together the car you want, and then search through the inventory at dealerships nearby to find whether an exact match is available. The Website gives you the ability to easily contact a GM certified Internet Manager to help answer your questions.

I like the “Which Lexus Fits My Budget?” feature on the http://www.lexus.com), “>Lexus site (http://www.lexus.com), found under the “Financial Services” tab. This site also gives those interested in Lexus hybrids tips for getting the most out of their cars.

http://www.audiusa.com)">Audi (http://www.audiusa.com) seems to assume that you know all of its models specifics, since the details aren’t available online. The configuration tool begins with choosing a model, even though there are no data, beyond the MSRP, to help you make that choice. Once you put a car together, you’re directed to a dealer for a quote.

http://www.infiniti.com) “>Infiniti (http://www.infiniti.com) not only lets you select a vehicle; you can get pre-approved for financing as well. The “Help Me Decide” feature, available on the first two screens of the configuration utility, provides useful information that is buried on most other sites.

I BOUGHT MY “MOMMY CAR,” a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan SE, on http://www.carsdirect.com). “>CarsDirect (http://www.carsdirect.com). Shopping online was ideal at the time, as I was just completing a move from Japan back to the U.S. Time was my most precious resource, so doing the research and getting 95% of the way through the buying process without human intervention (a.k.a. pushy salespeople) was an enormous help.

The purchase process has changed at CarsDirect, however. Now you can only get as far as specifying the features you want before being prompted to have a human being call you with a quote-and a sales pitch. You can deal directly with the CarsDirect staff, or you can opt to talk things over with a local dealer.

The site lets you compare up to four vehicles side-by-side—very helpful in sorting out specs such as headroom, legroom and exterior dimensions.

When I bought my Caravan—at the time a hot model—I paid $8,000 below what a dealer had quoted me on the same car (down to the vehicle identification number). CarsDirect even delivered the car to my home, and we finalized the deal at my living room table. 

The good deals aren’t quite as apparent now, however. Most luxury-car models are quoted at their MSRPs, and can’t be bought directly from CarsDirect. Instead, it virtually escorts you to a dealer to complete the transaction. Times have changed, and not entirely for the better.

Table:  The Internet Highway

Most of these Websites offer terrific graphics, sound clips and animation and, frequently, the ability to view a vehicle from many angles. Some are light on key data, however—even price.

Site Address What’s There
Audi http://www.audiusa.com Little detail on each model available. Configuration tool, however, is fun. 
BMW http://www.bmwusa.com “Build Your BMW” feature lets you specify your desired options and provides a quote. 
Cadillac http://www.cadillac.com User-friendly path to explore and compare models, configure one, get a quote. 
Ferrari http://www.ferrariusa.com Lots of pretty pictures, but not much information. 
Infiniti http://www.infiniti.com “Help Me Decide” offers useful configuration details. Financing pre-approval possible here. 
Jaguar http://www.jaguarusa.com Flashy intro page. Pricing and offers easy to find. Can search for used vehicles, too. 
Lexus http://www.lexus.com Good financing tools, lots of useful info on the “Models” page. 
Maserati http://www.maserati.com Great graphics, photos and video. Nothing on pricing; maybe buyers don’t care. 
Mercedes http://www.mbusa.com Very comprehensive. Good configuration tools. Lots of video. 
Porsche http://www.porsche.com/usa Includes sound files, so you can hear that Porsche growl. 
CarsDirect http://www.carsdirect.com Luxury-car quotes don’t offer much in the way of discounts. Car comparison is handy. 

Published in Barron’s, September 25, 2006.

Posted by twcarey on 09/30 at 02:23 PM
Published in Barron'sPermalink

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Note to Zecco Founders

Hey guys.  You need to hire a copy editor for your site.  There are so many typos and grammatical problems that the site looks amateurish.  The buzz I see that you’re trying to spread is that you plan to “take on E*Trade.” Ummmm, good luck with that. 

According to Om Malik’s GigaOm in a posted dated last Thursday entitled, “Skype backer takes on ETrade with free trades,” Morten Lund, one of Skype’s early funders, is now backing Zecco, a site that will allow free stock trades. 

The site is festooned with blurbs such as this one, which comes from the “About Us” page: “And you can even share your own thoughts. By signing up as myZecco member and contribute your thoughts and ideas. Big or small. You are more than welcome.” The opening page asks the musical question, “Are you interested to join?”

I spent part of last week in Prague, and lived for several years in Japan.  I’m getting a definite “English as a second language” feel from the writing on Zecco.  So a note to the founders and site designers:  People might not trust their money to you if they feel the site looks cheap or quickly cobbled together.  Find someone to clean it up.

As for the ballyhoo about the trades being free, here is my comment posted on GigaOm: “This isn’t a new idea. It’s been done. One of the other pieces of revenue for E*Trade, and quite a few other online brokers, is payment for order flow.

“When you enter a stock or option order, some brokers employ technology that seeks out the best price. Say you entered an order when the markiet is at $10/share. A broker who offers price improvement might find you a trade at $9.98. If you were trading 1000 shares, you just saved $20.

“But other brokers route their orders to market makers who PAY THEM for your order. Why? Because they are either selling from their own inventory, or bumping the price a smidgen and taking it from you. So your order when the market is at $10 might get executed at $10.05.

“Now your “free” order just cost you $50.

“I will cover this topic in more depthy in my Barron’s column (”The Electronic Investor”) in the not-too-distant future.”

As for the community promised in Zecco’s marketing, that’s being done at TradeKing and other sites right now, so that’s not a brand-new idea either.

That said, there are people who look for only low cost when choosing a broker.  They may be attracted to Zecco based solely on the “Free Trades!” campaign.  But they may end up annoyed by the Google text ads sprinkled liberally all over the page.  Once the site is open for business in approximately 280 hours, I hope to take another look. 

Posted by twcarey on 09/27 at 03:02 PM
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