If you want a car to call your own, there are usually two ways to get one: Buy it or lease it.

Now there's a third alternative: car subscription services. They're operating in a number of places in the U.S., with one nationally available service so far.

You don't actually own the car with a subscription service, just as you don't own the car if you're leasing. Instead, you get the use of a car for an all-inclusive monthly fee. The fee typically covers insurance, roadside assistance and maintenance. With some car subscription programs, a key feature is your ability to "flip" in and out of different cars with just a few days' notice, often with a concierge delivering the vehicle to you. For example, you could drive a sedan during the week and switch into a sports car or an SUV for a weekend trip.

Each car subscription service has its own variations. Some are like long-term rentals, allowing you to change cars weekly or monthly. Some are more like leasing, but for shorter periods and, typically, with used cars. Some services are squarely aimed at the luxury market where convenience and pampering are paramount.

Who Offers Car Subscription Services?

Several carmarkers have services, but most are not available nationwide yet. Cadillac's car subscription service, Book by Cadillac, is currently in the greater Dallas, New York and Southern California regions. Ford's car subscription service, known as Canvas, operates in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lincoln also has started offering 2015 and 2017 vehicles in those areas via Canvas. Porsche's car subscription service, Porsche Passport, operates only in the Atlanta area. Care by Volvo is Volvo's car subscription service, available nationally and open to subscribers now. It is launching with the 2019 Volvo XC40, a subcompact luxury SUV that arrives soon in dealerships, and also will make the redesigned 2019 V60 wagon available through the subscription program. Lexus says it will offer a subscription for its UX subcompact crossover when it debuts later this year. BMW launched a test of its Access by BMW service in Nashville, Tennessee, in April. Mercedes-Benz has announced that starting in June, it will begin testing a multitiered Mercedes-Benz Collection subscription service in Nashville and Philadelphia.

Startup companies including Fair in Los Angeles and Flexdrive in Austin, Texas; Atlanta; and Philadelphia also are in the car subscription business, offering vehicles from a variety of carmakers. Clutch Techologies has created a car subscription platform that powers several services, including Clutch Atlanta; Drive Flow in the North Carolina cities of Winston-Salem and Raleigh; Wyler FastLane in the Cincinnati area and Drive Germain in Columbus, Ohio. Detroit-based Mobiliti recently announced that it will launch its first dealership-based subscription service in Austin in May.

Applying a subscription model to more niche markets are Less, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Borrow in Los Angeles. Members of Less sign up for a 36-month lease term but switch luxury cars annually. Borrow has only electric cars, available for three-, six- or nine-month terms. Home chargers and some charging credits are included.

Why Might I Be Interested in a Car Subscription Service?

  • Convenience. Most let you set up the subscription online and manage it via a smartphone app. The company usually delivers the car to you.

  • Flexibility. You can change cars more frequently than with leasing or buying.

  • Potential cost savings. There are no down payments or financing charges.

  • No negotiating. The fees are set.

Why Might I Not Be Interested?

  • Ownership is important to you. You want to buy a car, pay it off and be free of a monthly payment for a few years.

  • Restrictions on car use. Most car subscription programs impose rules on drivers. And a number use vehicle tracking. More about that later.

  • Switching cars holds no appeal.

  • Again, no negotiating. If you're someone who waits for car sales or you're good at driving a hard bargain when leasing or buying, your skills will go unused with subscription plans.

What Do Car Subscription Services Cost?

Prices depend on the cars and the subscription service that's offering them. Here are some examples:

  • Access by BMW debuts at $2,000 or $3,700 per month, depending on the pool of cars selected. The pools include a variety of the carmaker's performance vehicles, such as the X5, 5 Series and, at the higher monthly price point, the M5.

  • Book by Cadillac costs $1,800 per month and lets you select from five models: the ATS-V, CTS-V, CT6, XT5 or Escalade.

  • Care by Volvo starts at $600 per month.

  • Drive Flow starts at $850 per month.

  • Fair starts at around $235 a month, and less if you provide your own insurance. The fleet includes used cars that are less than 6 years old from various makers.

  • Flexdrive depends on the car and location, but a 2015 Nissan Sentra available in Atlanta is about $800 a month with unlimited miles.

  • Ford Canvas starts at around $400 a month. The vehicles are newer used Ford cars and SUVs. Trucks are coming soon, according to the site.

  • Porsche Passport charges either $2,000 or $3,000 per month, depending on the pool of cars selected. These include a variety of Porsche luxury sport vehicles, such as the Boxster, Cayman, Macan, Panamera and 911.

  • Car subscription programs also usually require some kind of start fee, ranging from $100 to $600.

Are Car Subscription Services Cheaper Than Buying or Leasing?

There's no easy answer because the services vary so much. For starters, though, here are two examples, along with estimated costs to buy or lease, including fees, taxes and insurance. It's important to remember your costs may differ depending on where you live and your credit and driving history.

  • Car subscription vs. buying: Let's say you use Ford's Canvas service to get a 2015 Ford Escape in the Titanium trim level with 15,000 annual miles, or 1,250 miles a month. If you signed up for a single month of service, that month would cost you $905. If you opted for a longer subscription, the price would drop. If you agreed to a six-month commitment, for example, your monthly payment would dip to $617. Commit to a full year, and the payment is reduced to $580. You'd also pay plus a one-time startup fee of $99.

    To buy a comparable certified pre-owned Escape with a 60-month, zero-down loan, you would pay about $461 a month. Insurance would be about $240 per month, for a total of $701.

  • Car subscription vs. leasing: Let's say you subscribe to Book by Cadillac and choose the Escalade. You pay $1,800 a month, plus a one-time $500 fee. You get 2,000 miles per month and can switch cars in the Book by Cadillac fleet up to 18 times per year.

    To lease a 2017 Cadillac Escalade with $500 as the startup cost and the same mileage, you'd pay $1,500 per month. Our insurance quote was about $375 per month, for a total of $1,875. If you wanted a sports car comparable to a CTS-V for a special weekend, it would cost you $150 or more per day to rent one.

What Else Do I Need to Know About Car Subscription Services?

The services will typically check your credit and driving history before they let you join. The services want to ensure you can pay for the car each month and that you're a safe, responsible driver. You'll typically need a credit card to sign up, and in most cases, you will have to agree that the company can periodically check your driving record while you're part of the service.

The cars aren't brand-new. Most car subscription services offer relatively new used cars. The exception is Care by Volvo: The 2019 XC40 you select is yours alone for a 24-month subscription. You have the option to switch into another trim level of the XC40 at 12 months.

There are usually mileage limits. Some services let you select your mileage and build that cost into the monthly subscription fee. Others, such as those from Cadillac and Volvo, have set annual or monthly mileage allocations. In all cases, you'd pay for each additional mile if you exceed the limits, just as you would if you leased a car. Some car subscription programs, including Porsche Passport and Drive Flow, have no mileage limits.

There might be restrictions on how you use the car. Companies are managing large fleets of cars and promising short turnaround times for subscribers who want to change vehicles. To do that, they have to keep the cars in good condition. And to minimize loss, repairs and reconditioning, they will put limits on what you do with their vehicles. These vary, but here are some examples:

  • Cadillac requires that you transport your pets in carriers, unless they're service animals. If your dog does ride outside a cage or carrier, you'll pay a repair and cleaning cost.

  • Many services, including Ford's and Cadillac's, don't permit any smoking in their cars. Others may charge an "excess wear and tear" fee if there's a persistent odor when you turn in the car.

  • Additional drivers might have to be authorized by the company in advance (unless it's an emergency situation).

  • Not surprisingly, drinking and drugs are forbidden. Cadillac says it has a zero-tolerance policy, and it requires users to agree that they will not use alcohol or illegal drugs before or while driving one of its vehicles.

  • Depending on the service, your use might be limited to the continental United States. No jaunts to Canada or Mexico.

You may be tracked.The companies want to know where their cars are, not only in case they're stolen, but also in case a subscriber's credit card maxes out or a subscriber violates the service agreement.

Cadillac's vehicles have OnStar, which collects and reports such information as GPS location, speed, airbag deployments, crash avoidance alerts, and braking, swerving and cornering events, according to OnStar's privacy agreeement.

Canvas also places a tracking device in each car to record location information and driver behavior that might violate the subscription agreement. Other services may also use vehicle tracking. Check the user agreement or privacy policy for details. Understand that by signing up for a service, you're agreeing to let the companies access and use the stored vehicle information.

Insurance coverage may differ from what you have now. Most services include insurance in the monthly fee. Fair is an exception: It allows you to use your own insurance or, if you qualify, you can buy coverage from Fair and include it in your monthly fee.

The limits and deductibles vary, and they might not be what you have now. If you decide to sign up for a car subscription service, you might want to review the coverage with your insurance agent to see if what's offered is right for you.