Could subscription cars become the next big thing? How do they work and what do you get? We put one service to the test

  • Car Dealer puts electric car subscription service Onto to the test for a month
  • Rebecca Chaplin interviews operations director Rui Ferreira about why now is the time for subscription cars
  • Watch the video above to find out what happened

Time 7:52 am, August 25, 2021

From Volvo to Cazoo, Hyundai to even Jaguar, there are plenty of reasons to think subscription could be the next big thing if names like these are investing in it. Is a car subscription really what consumers want though or is this just a case of if one car maker has something they all need it?

I love a subscription if it’s for music, television shows or even tech like my phone or iPad. However, looking at the prices alone for a car subscription was enough to put me off. That’s before thinking about the fact that I love cars and like to own them. 

Car subscription service Onto reckoned it could change my mind though, and offered its service for a month for me to find out exactly how simple car ownership could be. 

Onto is a purely electric car subscription service and more than 3,000 people in the UK are now using it. That might not sound like a lot but it certainly surprised me that so many people are already choosing to subscribe.

The process is completely digital too, ticking two of those boxes we constantly talk about in today’s car market.

The only decision you need to make is the car you’ll be ordering. OK, yes, you do need to think about things like where your driving licence is, but apart from that there are just a few simple steps, similar to ordering a takeaway on Just Eat but with photo ID.

This time there’s no choosing if you want the pineapple added to your pepperoni pizza though (or whatever weird things you’re into), there are no options and add-ons, no upsell opportunities. 

And that was that. I ordered a car using an app on my phone and it would be mine for a month. Of course, there would be checks to make sure I was allowed to drive a car but the work for me was done. 

One of the most noticeable differences between subscribing and buying a car is the monthly price, though.

Many people think you’re paying more for the convenience of subscribing to a car, but is that really fair?

Onto is no different. From a Volkswagen Up! for £339 a month to Tesla Model 3, Audi e-tron or Jaguar i-Pace all for £1,299 they’re all more than a monthly payment for a PCP or lease for the same vehicles. That said there was no deposit to pay, just a one month upfront payment and a £49 charge for delivery to my door.

I had a few days to wait for my car to arrive – a Peugeot e-208 that came in at £449 a month – so I decided to ask others at Car Dealer, my friends and, of course, random people on the internet what they thought of subscription cars. 

Mostly, people told me that they wanted to own their car and wouldn’t pay over the odds for the convenience.

I was surprised to find out that one of my friends was actually using a subscription service already. They’d ordered an Audi e-tron but there was a long wait for it to arrive, so in the meantime they’d decided to sell their car and switch to electric vehicle life with a temporary subscription to a Renault Zoe.

That was probably the point when I started to see who this could work for. In their case, they wanted to be sure they’d made the right decision and could live with an EV, but they also didn’t know exactly when their new car would arrive so didn’t want to buy something else. 

Fortunately, I also had a direct line to Onto operations director Rui Ferreira and I wanted to find out more about who was using its service. You can watch the interview in full in the video above.

He said: ‘We have a little bit of everything [when it comes to customers], to be honest. The vast majority, I would say, if we tried to generalise, would be young families. 

‘I think 80 per cent of our users are families with children, 70 per cent of our users are using the cars to commute, so these are family cars and vehicles that are being used on a daily basis.’

Back to my Peugeot though, and the app had changed. It was now telling me where my car was and when it would arrive at my house.

A real human did have to deliver it to me, and once they’d completely disinfected the car they pointed out a selection of charging cards for me to use for free. See? The subscription service doesn’t just include the car, insurance and any maintenance, it also includes free charging at Shell, BP, Tesla and InstaVolt charging points.

Even during lockdown I was charging once a week to drive to the gym, the shops, and one self-contained hotel stay, so that would be saving me around £10 a week (if I could charge at any of those near my home).

Ferreira explained: ‘Basically, we have a very simple proposition, which is allow people to subscribe to an EV for one month. When I say subscribe, there’s a lot of companies talking about subscription at the moment, but when we use the term we really do mean a one-month subscription.

‘That gives you incredible flexibility, and included in your subscription is the car that you use. It’s your personal vehicle for that period. It includes 1,000 miles you can do per month, it includes fully comprehensive insurance, maintenance and servicing, and the best feature we offer is that you can charge the vehicle for free. So even the electricity is included.

‘We work with BP Pulse, Shell Recharge, InstaVolt and the Tesla Supercharger network, with over 11,500 charging locations across the UK and that number is changing every day.’

I’ve got to admit that going into my first car subscription, I wasn’t really expecting to think much of it. I thought it would still feel too expensive for what you get and it’s not your car still.

But the reality is with no deposit to put down, no insurance or maintenance to pay, and free electric car charging, it does make this way of owning easy.

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Plus, I think the fact it’s for EVs does make it more useful than if you could subscribe to just any car. All of those elements people worry about with their first electric car experience are neatly taken care of.

No, it probably wouldn’t be right for my lifestyle, but for those wanting to try an electric car for the first time it’s a safe way to dip a toe in and find out if it really works for them.

Read the feature in full and find out more about what happened during Rebecca’s month with the subscription service in issue 162 of Car Dealer at the bottom of this page. 

Rebecca Chaplin's avatar

Rebecca has been a motoring and business journalist since 2014, previously writing and presenting for titles such as the Press Association, Auto Express and Car Buyer. She has worked in many roles for Car Dealer Magazine’s publisher Blackball Media including head of editorial.

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