Vehicles

Still Searching For The Perfect Limo Sedan

Tom Halligan
Posted on August 19, 2014

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.”

California Costs
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.”

Operators Stephen Story and Jon Epstein (below) are typical of limousine operators nationwide, who are in a period of trying out multiple types of vehicles, evaluating performance and costs, and listening closely to their clients in the backseat.
Operators Stephen Story and Jon Epstein (below) are typical of limousine operators nationwide, who are in a period of trying out multiple types of vehicles, evaluating performance and costs, and listening closely to their clients in the backseat.
 
Flex-able
Stephen Story, president of James River Transportation in Richmond, Va., has found an approach still considered unique for chauffeured fleets. In fact, Story has followed a reverse model of what’s typical for the industry. His company started out as a predominantly motorcoach and shuttle business, and then added chauffeured sedan service.
“We started back in 1999 as a motorcoach and charter company, but the seasonality of the business was driving us crazy, so we expanded into corporate and campus shuttle business and then landed a contract at the Richmond and Norfolk airports as the exclusive sedan service,” Story said.

Realizing the market was not going to support upscale transportation service, the company targeted its service as “business class” that was priced higher than a taxi, but affordable and with all of the added value of chauffeured service. Using a fleet of Town Cars that have now grown long in the tooth and are being retired, Story added what may be a first for the industry: The boxy and big Ford Flex crossover. The reasons should be obvious: “They’re black, they have lots of leg room and big trunks — and they work for us,” he says.

Caddy Shack
Of course there are plenty of operators who are married to Cadillac, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz or another brand that best fits their business and client base year after year. Take for example Rudy’s Executive Transportation of Stamford, Conn., a diehard Cadillac fan for decades.
 
“The company started in 1956 with two Cadillacs and that’s the way it’s always been,” fleet manager Frank Bosch said. “It’s not that we don’t look around, but Cadillac is the brand of Rudy’s and that works for us. The company runs XTS sedans and Escalades and turns them over every two years with an average of 85,000 to 90,000 miles per vehicle.  

“Our goal is to keep our cars new and provide the best service for our customers and the Cadillac brand gives us that.”

Sidebar: We’re Buying More, That’s for Sure
According to the annual LCT Magazine Fact Book published in May, fleet sales in 2013 exceeded 4,800 vehicles, more than double the 1,996 sold in 2012. In addition, more vehicles were sold in 2013 than in any prior year since 2001, when 6,500 vehicles were bought.
 
The growth reflects an improving economy and purchases to replace the retired Lincoln Town Car. Today, operators are building — and expanding — their fleets with a diversity of multiple sedans, SUVs, vans, crossovers, mini-buses, shuttles, motorcoaches, green vehicles — you name it.

Operators are experimenting with new brands and models at all price points that are vying for a piece of their business, including Toyota, Chrysler, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla. They want to test worthiness of the vehicles among particular businesses and clients. In fact, the average chauffeured fleet size has increased from 17 vehicles in 2013 to 19 vehicles in 2014.

The big question is whether an industry winner emerges at some point. It’s possible, but may not be necessary amid wider vehicle preferences among clients and operators. But based on operator opinions, if an OEM can hit the trifecta of ample legroom, headroom and trunk space in a large-sized sedan, then that vehicle would be a top contender.

Related Topics: fleet management, Gary Buffo, Jon Epstein, Lincoln MKT, Lincoln Town Car, new vehicles, Stephen Story

Comments ( 1 )
  • glen

     | about 4 years ago

    Epstein got rid of a Town Car with only 162k? It's just getting broken in if it was taken care of. The new owner will get 2-3v times that mileage. The problem in our industry is that the Big 3 do not make a full size sedan. The Caddy XTS (Xtra Tiny Sedan) has a lot of legroom if you are a double amputee. The same goes for the Lincoln and Chrysler offerings. Cadillac is coming out with the TLS in another year, but if it is priced like an S Class or 7 Series, (85-120K) those two will be what the companies will buy. To be a replacement for the Town Car, it will have to be extremely well built, roomy, (both in passenger room and trunk capacity), be easy to enter and exit the rear, (no low sweeping rooflines for passengers to bump their heads on), and lastly, affordable.

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