America's luxury car enthusiasts are feeling the adverse effects of the economy just like the rest of us.But while many have beat the economic crunch by settling for something more Ford ( F) than Ferrari, a few have found a unique way to smartly handle their money without giving up their dream machine -- by leasing. If it's synonymous with exotic luxury, you can still probably get it with a lease, and often for less money than you might think. That's all thanks to a few companies that specialize in personalized leases for everything from million-dollar Italian sports cars to vintage American muscle, enabling high-end car aficionados to remain in the driver's seat without raiding the retirement fund.
"These are not bread-and-butter cars," says Putnam president Steven Posner. He says that even in these hard times, "it is a niche market, a lot of people are still making money, and the really wealthy are still spending." These special leases follow the same principle as a typical lease on a non-luxury car. Essentially you negotiate a down payment, monthly payments and residual value for the car you are leasing. This residual value is what the company estimates your car will be worth at the end of your lease, and it is typically set ahead of time for virtually every make and model, although doing so for these more expensive exotics is much riskier because more value is at stake. The benefit of a lease is that you are then only paying for the amount of car that you use: the total value minus the residual value. Monthly payments are set based on this number. So let's assume that you are in the market for a 2008 Maybach 57, one of the most luxurious cars out there. A standard base price on this vehicle is about $340,000. Both Putnam and Premier typically use 48-month leases, as do most standard dealers, though shorter or longer terms are available. Based on current estimates, a Maybach 57 will be worth about $240,000 after four years. Assuming no money down and standard interest of around 6.5%, your monthly payments would be about $3,200. That's no small amount, but when you consider that monthly payments would be about double that if you bought the Maybach outright and financex it over 48 months, the draw of this leasing system becomes clear. (There are disadvantages to leasing, too -- including that if you lease, you're not buying the car, just the right to use it for a specified period of time.) Still, the benefits of leasing can sometimes be impressive. For instance, "several states allow you to pay sales tax based on the monthly payments, instead of all at once off the total value," says Posner. "By paying the tax on a $200,000 car up front all at once, if you choose to get rid of that car one year into the lease you've just cost yourself the entire tax payment."
Of course, no matter how affordable these leasing options may sound, make no mistake that this niche market involves a very special type of driver, who isn't known for staying in one car's seat for too long.
"A very large percentage of our clients don't go the full term of the lease on the same vehicle," says Katz. In fact, he estimates that almost 60% of Premier's leases are ended after only two years, usually to continue a re-structured lease with a different model. Unlike many traditional leases, these are free from penalty for early termination. There's been a boom in another area of high-end leasing, as well: the vintage market. "Old collectibles are doing very well," says Posner, who adds that it isn't an area that people are just dabbling in for fun. "These are real collectors, who really love and know their cars." "The vintage car market has continued to climb rapidly," agrees Katz. "Units-wise, it makes up a smaller percentage of our business, but as far as dollars go it's larger and growing." Whatever the kind of driver, this unique take on obtaining a dream car seems to be taking off as other areas of the automotive market decline. "Business is still good for us, surprisingly," says Posner. "We did see a slight rise in people paying slower, but it has provided an alternative." Katz is also hopeful for the future of this niche market, and feels that his company's "large amount of new business says there's still a market out there."