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Jon Epstein said goodbye to his last Lincoln Town Car in July. At 162,000 miles, it was time to retire the old reliable workhorse. In finding a successor to the Town Car, Epstein, president of Royal Coachman Worldwide of Denville, N.J., paused and said, “My feeling is the replacement fleet vehicle for our industry has not yet arrived.”
Epstein’s words sum up the views of many operators, fleet managers and chauffeurs, as they test and try out a variety of chauffeured vehicles, but hedge their bets on picking just one.
With a fleet of 123 vehicles, Epstein runs 92 sedans and an array of SUVs, vans, Sprinters and mini-buses. “I run two classes of sedans, Chrysler 300 and Lincoln MKS, and I’m thinking about adding Cadillacs. I essentially provide something for everybody.”
Part of his evaluation process draws on client feedback and satisfaction with the class of vehicle offered, and operational factors such as vehicle cost, durability, longevity, and maintenance. “I have Chrysler 300s and for the most part people don’t care about prestige. I view the Chrysler as a two-year car because of the cost, warranty and return on investment (ROI) versus the MKS which is a three-year car because of its cost, so I keep it longer for ROI,” Epstein said. “It’s funny that being out of warranty with the Town Car was no big deal because our mechanics could easily fix them. Today, with vehicles having so much electronics, it’s more about the warranty.”
Aside from cost, the major issue Epstein noted — and repeated by many operators — is that the new wave of successors lack one or more of the following: rear seat legroom, headroom or adequate trunk space. Because 82% of his runs are one passenger, Epstein said his sedans are adequate. “You could put a family, their luggage, and the kitchen sink in the Town Car trunk. Today’s sedans can’t handle that,” he said.
Like other operators, Epstein is adding more SUVs to his fleet mix to handle multiple passengers and luggage.
“Right now the market (vehicle) is wide open and there is no single ‘right’ car that’s perfect for the industry, and until that happens, you’ll have a mixed-match of makes and models out,” Epstein said. “Ultimately, we will choose what we consider the best option with regards to safety, comfort, reliability and appearance for our clients.”
Gary Buffo, president of Pure Luxury Transportation in Petaluma, Calif., got to the point when asked about the state of his sedan fleet. “We are testing a lot of models and have had no luck — numerous complaints. It’s frustrating. We have tried every single vehicle out there and no one is happy with any of them.”
Whether it’s cramped rear-seat legroom, trunks that fail the golf bag test, or head dings from short and narrow rear doors, Buffo said clients are not too pleased. In fact, one client told him that if he continued to use one particular vehicle, he would drop the account.
“I’m not in business to buy vehicles just to buy vehicles,” said Buffo, also the President of the National Limousine Association. “I’m in business to take care of my clients, and the manufacturers are not paying attention to what’s best for the industry.”
Buffo also pointed out that it would be ideal to have stretched sedans but not at the $10,000-plus it costs to add six inches. “The industry cannot afford to spend that. Now, if the OEMs built them and dinged me for an additional $4,000, then that would be fine.
This is a big issue with operators and it’s all about our customers. We relay the information back to the OEMs. It’s not what we want in a sedan; it’s what our customers want. At what point are people (OEMs) going to realize that we need a vehicle that works for the industry?”
Like other operators, Buffo has added more SUVs to his fleet without any client complaints. However, he said that with SUVs averaging 13 miles per gallon and a gallon of gas in California costing $4.20 — “they’re killing me.”