Choosing the Right Vehicle for Your Business

Our guide to choosing the right commercial vehicle for your business
11 min read

This story appears in the October 2010 issue of . Subscribe »

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.

How to Save on Maintenance Without Really Trying

Over the last decade, it's actually gotten cheaper to maintain cars and trucks. Why? They're better built. And new models don't even have some parts that needed regular tune-up or replacement, such as condensers, carburetors and points. Today's coolants, belts and hoses have a longer lifespan, too, some up to 10 years. Sophisticated systems also monitor vehicle performance, so a small problem, like an oil leak, can be remedied before it leads to a big one, like a seized engine.

Even basic upkeep--the routine oil and filter change--is no longer required every 3,000 miles. Most new vehicles can run 7,500 to 10,000 miles between oil changes, cutting oil bills in half.

Or how about cutting oil-change costs altogether? Many dealers are throwing in free periodic maintenance with new-car purchases, including oil, tire rotation, replacement brake linings, wiper blades and fluid checkups. On Ford's 2011 Lincolns, maintenance is free for three years or 45,000 miles. Coverage on any new BMW is four years or 50,000 miles. You can also compare total estimated ownership costs at

Too busy to keep tabs on your fleet? A dealer's service center will do that, too, sending you monthly reminders with an online account. Or you can buy software programs to estimate and analyze operating expenses and notify you when specific vehicles need service.

But if you're a fleet of one, there's plenty of maintenance you can do yourself to save money. Replacing the air filter and topping up transmission, brake and windshield fluid levels are tasks anyone can do by reading the owner's manual.

While you've cracked open that manual, also check out what your tire pressure should be--particularly if you haul cargo. Underinflated tires increase rolling resistance--and that's bad for handling, braking and fuel economy, and wears out tires faster. No point ruining a $500 set of tires for lack of a 50-cent stop at the air pump.

Likewise, don't risk damage to your hybrid's batteries by letting them run down. Although most hybrid batteries are designed to last 150,000 to 200,000 miles, they shouldn't be left dormant. Run the engine for 30 minutes at least every 90 days to keep the battery recharged.

Other tips:

  • Don't rely on dashboard alerts for oil and tire pressure readings. Sensors can malfunction. Periodically remove the dipstick to check the oil level yourself.
  • Stow jumper cables in your trunk to save tow truck fees--and time off the road.
  • Hire the experts. Today's onboard electronic systems require specific diagnostic tools usually found only at a dealer's service center.
  • Watch out for recalls. Check your auto manufacturer's website every month, or, which lists recalls for every make and model.
  • Keeping your business vehicles in great shape not only keeps your enterprise rolling now, it'll pay you back when it's time to trade them in later. 

-- Jill Amadio

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