Harrison Weber

Car Culture

Should you "subscribe" to a Volvo? Here's how that works in the real world.

Care by Volvo presents itself as a novel solution to car ownership, but we asked subscribers, “Isn’t this just a lease?”

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

What if you could push a few buttons and subscribe to a car — an entire car — like you subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, a new iPhone, or whatever else has been eating away at your bank account lately?

This is the magic idea behind a product announced on the cusp of 2018: Care by Volvo, a subscription that makes "having a car as easy as having a cell phone," "takes the guesswork out of car ownership," and covers "basically everything except gas." But does subscribing to a Volvo with maintenance and insurance built-in really look anything like a subscription service from, say, Apple? Should you seriously consider "subscribing" to your next car?

Regardless of your desire for a Swedish SUV, Volvo is the place to start while you ponder these questions. Volvo was one of the first manufacturers out of the gate with a subscription service, and it’s still one of the most widely available services of its kind. Conversely, many of the recent car subscriptions launched by other manufacturers are only available in a handful of cities.

“Like underwear, wine and vitamins...”

The headlines wrote themselves when Volvo unveiled it. Advertised with an "all-inclusive $600 per month" price tag, Care by Volvo was met with some skepticism and a whole lot of salivating. "Just like underwear, wine and vitamins: You can subscribe to the Volvo XC40," wrote the LA Times. "Dream of having a new car every year? Volvo hears you," wrote USA Today. "Why own a car when you can subscribe to one instead?" asked CNN. These headlines touch on the weirdly intoxicating nature of modern subscription services, and Volvo leaned into it hard. At one point the company even bellowed, with a wink, "DON’T BUY OUR CARS."

Sure, Volvo was still down to sell you a car, but soon it had more interest from potential subscribers than it could handle. In four months, Volvo "sold the number of subscriptions it had anticipated for its first year of operation," and eventually the waitlist for new subscribers stretched into 2019. Lots of people wanted to pay a set price for virtually everything, from insurance all the way down to replacement windshield wiper blades. The CEO of Volvo’s North American business reportedly traveled around to reassure dealers who were uneasy about the new subscription model, as it seemed to cut them out of the picture.

If you dig past the flashy launch stories, Volvo’s struggle to cope with subscriber demand is why you’ll find a lot of frustrated accounts of people who would really, really like to get a Volvo on a subscription, but can't. The reasons cited included challenges with "paperwork," bewildering back-and-forths with dealerships and concierges, or simply giving up because the wait is too long.

Two of the people Input spoke to for this story say they tried to subscribe to a Volvo but ultimately gave up after pleading with the company on Twitter. By the middle of 2018, the Volvo subreddit and SwedeSpeed forum were popping off with complaints about undelivered cars and vague delays.

This was, to be fair, a while ago. Care by Volvo has largely flown under the radar ever since, save for additions to the expanding lineup of available cars.

Reached for comment by Input, Volvo declined to say how popular its service is today. A spokesperson for the company said wait times have improved and subscribers can now "expect to pick up their vehicle within two weeks (subject to vehicle availability and transit time)." The company wouldn’t say much else. Six subscribers who eventually got their cars, however, responded to requests from Input and shared their experiences. Much of the feedback we heard was positive, but two current subscribers laid into the company for running a service that actually seemed to involve a whole lot of guesswork.

“Tragically bad”

David Tyler, a Care by Volvo subscriber in Vermont, is a big fan of the car he subscribed to. However, he says the company "is tragically bad at operating a 'subscription' service. I mean REALLY bad!" When asked whether the service worked the way he thought it’d work and if he’d recommend it to a friend, Tyler answered: "nope," and then described a service that featured "lots of challenging back and forth with their [Care by Volvo] team," "poor" integration with dealerships, and a customer support team that was "pretty clearly doing their best given what was obviously a poorly executed rollout."

Ruven Klausner, a California-based customer, turned to Twitter in 2018 to ask, "Is Care by Volvo actually happening?" Klausner says he thinks "the primary disconnect is that 'Care by Volvo' essentially ends as soon as you take delivery of the vehicle." For Anson, and many of the other subscribers we contacted, that was the crux of it. After signing up, the service is more like a traditional lease than, say, a Spotify subscription.

According to Klausner, "the dealership doesn't have any dedicated Care by Volvo reps so you work with a sales person (versus a 'concierge'). Volvo Service at the dealership can see that there is coverage through Care by Volvo, but it doesn't feel any different than servicing a warrantied leased vehicle. And Volvo Finance doesn't seem to have much awareness about Care by Volvo at all and are just focused on ensuring your payment is made (aka a traditional lease)."

Care by Volvo subscribers get the option to swap out their car for a new one every year, but when they do, the two-year contract restarts, mirroring Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program, but differing from some recent, high-priced car subscription services from Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Audi. Whether this kills the idea for you depends on how comfortable you already are with the idea of the conventional car lease.

Despite some spectacular moments of confusion early on, the four other subscribers reached by Input responded positively to Volvo's "tweak on a traditional lease," as Klausner put it, after sticking with it for a while.

Martin, a customer in Washington state who turned to Twitter for help in 2018 because he literally did not know how to pay Volvo for the car, told Input that service "doesn’t feel like a subscription since there is an early termination fee." He added, "It was a little disappointing to find out I sign all the same lease agreements." Nevertheless, Martin recommends the service, calling it "a solid short-term lease option."

Anson Ling, a customer in California, said the service mostly worked the way he expected it to. Ling added that he "would be open to recommending" it to a friend—"if they're not afraid of a high monthly payment, because when I bring up how much I pay, it's usually met with shock." (Ling pays “just over $800” a month for Care by Volvo after taxes.)

Chris, a customer in Georgia, "absolutely" recommends it: "If you’re looking for a 2-year fixed-cost lease with no down payment, 15k miles per year, and a wonderful car to have, it’s a fantastic option." He adds, "Even if I crack a rim on Atlanta’s massive potholes, I’m covered."

Joe DiFrancesco and his red R-Design XC40.Joe DiFrancesco

Joe DiFrancesco of Ohio said, "After price comparing, it’s great value for the money! Especially living in a downtown area where insurance tends to be higher, I’m paying the same price as everyone else."

Among Care by Volvo’s fans, the feedback points in a similar direction. They spoke highly of the service, despite the early hiccups that early adopters should expect when trying out a new thing. They also likened the subscription service to a word you can find downplayed considerably on Care by Volvo’s homepage next to an asterisk in gray type:

"* 24 mo lease. Excl. taxes and reg. fees."

And suddenly the question, "Should you subscribe to your car?" seems incongruous with all this talk of leases. It prompts more questions: "If you didn’t 'subscribe' to a car, would you lease one anyway?" and "What is a lease, but a subscription with a less catchy name?" Luckily for carmakers, plenty of Americans do want to lease, no matter how ordinary the word may sound.

If you don't want a lease, or a lease by another name, then you have your answer: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to your next car. Unless the idea of bundling in insurance and maintenance at a fixed monthly price appeals, in which case, Care by Volvo might be for you. But because the business model is still relatively new, you should probably expect further hiccups.

So, even if you decide to subscribe to a car next week, you should ask yourself first how comfortable you are dealing with early-adopter problems as companies like Volvo iron out the kinks. The service is still under fire from dealers in California and unavailable in New York. Meanwhile, the other car companies pushing more flexible subscription options are still testing the waters with limited pilots. And you may need to be willing to wait a while, which you seldom have to do with a new smartphone, and never have to do with Netflix.