Choosing the Right Vehicle for Your Business

Our guide to choosing the right commercial vehicle for your business

Read the Commercial Vehicles Guide 2010

Any entrepreneur is obsessed with what drives business. But it's also worth contemplating what that business should drive. For startups especially, the right car isn't merely a means of getting around, it's a tool to enhance operations. Is it a mobile office? Is it part of your marketing team? Figure out where you car fits in your business plan, and we'll steer you through the options.

My Car Is My Corner Office
Hands-free Bluetooth phone systems let you jaw away with clients but keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Once a rarity, Bluetooth is available as an option on most makes and models, and it's standard on luxury brands, such as Mercedes-Benz, and tech-oriented models, including the soon-to-be-released Chevrolet Volt. The best systems include a microphone built in to the driver's seat for talking and tap into the car's stereo speakers for listening.

One of the most sophisticated, and low-cost, Bluetooth systems is Ford's Sync, which debuted in 2007. Continually updated, Sync recently added a feature called AppLink that provides hands-free access to three apps: Pandora Internet radio; Stitcher, a program that stitches together radio news feeds; and OpenBeak, to access Twitter feeds. Ford will add other popular apps to Sync later this year.

In addition to Bluetooth, many new cars come outfitted with USB ports to accommodate iPods and other electronics. Some vehicles, such as the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, can even be turned into Wi-Fi hotspots with a factory option called UConnect and play live television on the dashboard screen using the optional Flo TV.

Startup: Ford Fiesta ($13,320). The 2011 Fiesta shows off Ford's cutting-edge mobile technology at a bargain-basement price. High mileage (40 mpg highway) and luxury options (such as heated leather seats and moon roof) can fancy up this car without a lot of extra cash. No wonder it's the bestselling small car in Europe.

In the black: Cadillac CTS ($38,165). One of J.D. Power and Associates' highest-ranked premium cars in initial quality, the CTS is equipped with General Motors' OnStar system, which not only enables hands-free calling but also automatically dials for help after a crash.

After the IPO: Mercedes-Benz E550 ($57,100). Mercedes-Benz elevates its Bluetooth system with an enhanced voice-control feature that screens out "ahs" and "ums" and understands colloquial speech like "yeah" for "yes."

My Car Is My Green Statement
Until a few years ago, green business owners had limited options to align their transport with their philosophy. It was biodiesel or a small handful of electric-gasoline hybrids. But the options have multiplied. There's so-called "clean," or ultralow-sulfur, diesel, which is 25 percent to 40 percent more fuel efficient than gasoline and reduces greenhouse gases commensurately.

Before the end of the year, the first mass-market plug-in electrics will be on sale, too: the Nissan Leaf (a pure electric) and the Chevrolet Volt (an electric with a backup gas-powered generator).

Compressed natural gas, or CNG, vehicles emit half the greenhouse gases of gasoline-powered cars and are being used more for fleets. Waiting in the wings: Hydrogen-fueled cars, which may be the cleanest of all (especially if the hydrogen is produced using solar power). The first mass-market hydrogen cars won't come on the market until 2015, though some, such as the Honda Clarity, are already available for lease in parts of California.

Finally, there are hybrids. The Toyota Prius is the bestseller of the bunch and boasts the highest fuel economy of any car on the market (51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway), but other options include a new sporty, hybrid coupe from Honda called the CR-Z, which averages 37 mpg.

Startup: Toyota Yaris ($12,605). The fuel-efficient and inexpensive subcompact runs on regular gasoline. But what it lacks in sophisticated green technology, it makes up for in fuel efficiency (36 highway, 29 city) and dependability. Everything about it says, "Waste not, want not."

In the black: Audi A3 Diesel ($29,950). Diesel passenger cars aren't nearly as popular in the U.S. as in Europe, mostly because there are fewer models available and the fuel isn't found at every filling station. The fuel is also usually more expensive than 87-octane gas, but the extra pennies per gallon pay off in added fuel economy. The Audi A3 diesel gets42 mpg highway, 30 city.

After the IPO: Chevrolet Volt ($41,000, or $33,500 after applying the $7,500 federal tax credit). The Volt offers an elegant solution to the range anxiety all-electric plug-ins pose for some drivers. Its 40-mile all-electric range will cover most commutes. But it can also use a gas generator to recharge its batteries on the go.

My Car Is My Taxi Driver
Need something to steer you in the right direction? A top-flight navigation system, or GPS, will be critical. There are plenty of after-market options, including in-dash units that replace the stereo, and portable units from Garmin, TomTom and others. Although portables cost less and are more easily updated with the help of a PC, built-ins have advantages: The screens are typically larger and easier to see while driving. The voice-activated features are also well integrated with the car's Bluetooth or stereo systems. Higher-end nav systems, such as the NavTraffic system used by Porsche, have nicer displays, larger memories for destinations and can link together multi-stop routes. The downside is that built-in systems are pricey and drivers have to go to a dealer to update their map software.

Ford's Sync system skirts the update issue by leveraging drivers' phones. Using Google Maps, drivers can e-mail a destination to their phone; the car then coordinates that data with the car's GPS receiver to provide spoken directions in real time and display them in text on a small, in-dashboard screen. The screen isn't four-color and it doesn't show a map, but the system is always as up to date as Google Maps.

Startup: Portable Garmin Nuvi ($449.99) in your existing car. Comes with subscription-free traffic alerts.

In the black: Honda Accord EX-L ($28,830): The ubiquitous Accord is one of the bestselling cars in the U.S. The more premium EX-L model can be outfitted with satellite-linked navigation that can be operated with voice commands.

After the IPO: Porsche 911 ($77,800): Sporty and reliable, classic and classy, the 911 offers NavTraffic as an option.

My Car Is My Limousine
Today's luxury cars do everything short of driving themselves. Their ignitions roar to life with the push of a remote. Their transmissions can be operated in multiple modes--and moods--to suit the driver's whim. They elevate traditional amenities: memorizing seat and steering wheel positions, automatically opening and closing the trunk or doors, wicking water from passenger windows. Who needs Jeeves?

On many premium models, the leather isn't just buttery, it's embossed. The interior trims are from trees you never knew existed, like the moonwood used by Maserati. Climate systems control the humidity as well as the temperature. Sound systems come with 20 speakers. The seats aren't only heated, they're also air conditioned. Front seats in 2011 model Jaguars offer a massage feature.

Then there's the performance: 500-plus horsepower you'd be a fool to use but can brag about, or neck-snapping torque you'd only demo if you like police attention.

Startup: Acura TL ($38,835). Nice looking and fun to drive. The TL's premium stereo system has a hard drive that automatically records CDs.

In the black: Lexus LS 460 ($66,865). Leather seats, LED interior lights, power sunshades--and 24/7 emergency assistance.

After the IPO: Mercedes-Benz S550 ($91,600): Take luxury and add more: A 7-, rather than 6-speed transmission, panoramic (i.e. two) sunroofs, a video screen in the rear seat as well as the front.

My Car Is My Delivery Truck
A handful of small, affordable delivery trucks are on the market. The problem is, you probably don't want to drive any of them socially. Your date might admire your entrepreneurialism but balk at valet parking your van at Spago. If your delivery vehicle isn't also your daily driver, the Ford Transit Connect is an excellent and economical option that provides good cargo capacity (135 cubic feet) and payload (1,600 pounds) with respectable fuel economy (25 highway, 22 city). Nissan's new NV2500 HD and NV3500 HD feature cargo holds that are tall enough to stand in.

Otherwise, multi-use vehicles, aka minivans such as the Dodge Caravan and Toyota Sienna, offer plenty of space to carry pallets of organic baby food or vases of fresh flowers. Most minivans aren't so mini. They carry about 140 cubic feet.

Startup: Ford Transit Connect ($21,185). Ford's low-cost workhorse can be customized to operate with alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas, liquid propane gas, even an electric motor and batteries.

In the black: Honda Element ($21,775). This SUV is used mostly by the mommy set, but its rear seats can be removed, and the rubber mats are easy to clean. Side doors open toward each other for easy loading.

After the IPO: You'll no longer drive your delivery truck.

Susan Carpenter is a senior writer at the Los Angeles Times, specializing in cars and motorcycles.

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This article was originally published in the October 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Wheels: Commercial Vehicle Guide 2010.

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