Key Party

Zipcar makes car sharing sexy, not sorry.

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One of Zipcar’s Mini offerings

Carpools, hybrids, buses that run on banana peels—it’s too bad car sharing gets lumped in as another save-the-Earth guilt trip. Here in San Francisco, a hybrid plastered with City CarShare logos is the only politically correct way to be seen behind the wheel by your poetry-slam buddies. Challenge CarShare members on their dubious eco-friendly stance (they’re still driving, aren’t they?) and they retreat to liberal high ground: “It’s a nonprofit.” If only City CarShare could lose $50 million a year, it’d be as hip as public transit.

The dirty secret of car sharing is that it’s not just for the environmentally or economically conscious. Car sharing is the ultimate pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle option for upwardly mobile, status-conscious, free-spending yuppies like me. So far this year, I’ve blown close to $4,000 on Zipcar, the unabashedly for-profit counterpart to City CarShare. (Flexcar is a similar but less upmarket service available in eight locations.)  I joined in January when my own vehicle needed long-term repairs. After it came back from the shop, I found myself making excuses to keep renting Zipcars instead.

The company’s official slogan is, “Wheels when you want them,” but Zipcar’s obvious appeal is, “wheels you really want.” For $8.50 to $12.50 an hour—gas and insurance included—I can choose from a Mustang, a Mini (and a Mini convertible), a Mazda, three brand new BMW 325i’s—silver for daytime, navy for nightlife—an Escape, a Toyota truck, even a Volvo to visit Mom. 

I book cars online using the company’s Web 2.0-inspired scheduling application: no need to deal with unpredictable rental-agency humans. I hit, click my choice, then walk to the parking lot where my new silver Mustang—mine for the next five hours, at least—waits in its stall, keys hanging in plain sight inside. I place my member card on the windshield and—fweep-beep—the car unlocks for me. Ten seconds later, I’m rolling.

Zipcar was founded in 2000 by Robin Chase, an MIT management grad who applied an Internet mind-set to the problems of urban transportation. The economics of car sharing are simple: City dwellers love to drive themselves, but car owners who don’t commute waste money and valuable real estate on vehicles that sit idle for days at a time. 

Car sharing shifts a smaller number of cars into a much higher duty cycle. Economies of scale kick in for everyone—fleet prices for cars, corporate rates for fuel (there’s a gas card on the visor of each car), group insurance, long-term parking bought in bulk.  The company handles maintenance and washing, too. 

But most important, car sharing turns members into automotive swingers, free from having to commit to one model. In the city, middle-class people own a nice car. Rich people own lots of them. Zipcar makes me feel rich.

A recent week for me went like this: On Monday evening, the wife called me to pick her up after a late night at the office. I logged in and eyeballed the grid of available cars on our neighborhood lots. I could get a Mazda 3, but I saw a Mini available at 9 p.m. for a couple bucks more. Could she wait an extra 10 minutes? I rolled up in her favorite little red wagon and carted her home via the scenic route. We had to walk the last few blocks home from the lot, but it beat trying to squeeze our own car past our neighbor’s in the alley at 10 p.m.

When I got home, I found mail from a friend coming to town for a weekend. I reserved the red Mini—then switched to the blue convertible—for all three days. The next morning I was summoned to a meeting in another county. Zipcar’s Web site showed a Prius and a Mazda a block away, but by walking a bit farther I was able to pick up my business date in a shiny new BMW.

This is where Zipcar departs from standard car-share marketing. City CarShare plasters supersize logos on all of its autos. It’s not just advertising, it’s a way for members to flaunt their non-car-owning status. But if you’re renting a Beemer to court clients, a bunch of stickers sends exactly the wrong message.

That’s why the pricier your Zipcar, the more low-key its branding. The econoboxes sport jaunty decals on their passenger doors. A 325i has discreet black “” lettering on its trunk lid but nothing on the front or sides. I drove a silver BMW from Boston to Bar Harbor and back over Memorial Day weekend. I caught plenty of guff from Mainers for my Massachusetts license plate, but not one word about the URL.

My only beef with the service is they need to wash the cars more often. A rented 3 Series is cool, a dirty one is not. With a bit more bling, Zipcar could erase the stigma from car sharing once and for all. What they need is a halo car—a tastefully posh Bentley Continental GT garaged at AT&T Park for high-rolling Giants fans. How about $100 an hour? At that price, it shouldn’t say Zipcar on it at all. It wouldn’t need to. People would know.