Sedan Begone

When he's on the road selling banking software, Mark Oliver of Houston typically rents a Ford Taurus. But recently he took a ride on the wild side: he splurged on a 2004 Cadillac DeVille. He rationalized spending the $75 a day on the luxury car--almost twice the Taurus's price--because he was squiring around important banking clients. But after dropping them off, he cruised around Dallas, enjoying the Caddy's cushy leather seats and fiddling with its 101-channel satellite radio. "It's a great ride," he says. Now that he's spoiled, Oliver's eying a Volvo for his next business with clients.

Road warriors are driving golden chariots. With business travel finally showing signs of life, rental companies are attempting to jump-start the bottom line by offering dream cars for hire. The pitch: impress your clients by showing up for the meeting in a hot car. Instead of the usual bland-mobiles, business travelers can now pick from Jags, Land Rovers, T-birds and sports cars like the Nissan Z. Of course, riding in style doesn't come cheap. These wheels run $69 to $195 a day--a lot more than that $29.99 special on a Chevy Cavalier. Really exotic cars like a Lamborghini, available at the Driven Image national rental chain, run up to $2,800 a day.

Rental operators say business travelers like the upgrades. Once they see the rows of gleaming luxury cars as they step off the shuttle bus, the cars are hard to resist. "We're doing a lot of upselling at the counter," says Brian Kennedy, marketing chief for Hertz, which offers its Prestige Collection of luxury cars in 37 markets, nearly double the number of locations from two years ago. Adds William Lobeck, CEO of National's parent company, Vanguard Car Rental: "Higher-end models always get somebody's attention."

Even the outfits that rent cars to the stars for Hollywood galas are going after business types. Executives currently account for one in four rentals at Budget Rent a Car, Beverly Hills, which offers everything from a $350-a-day BMW 745iL to a $1,800-a-day Bentley Azure. "We're huge with business people," boasts Budget Beverly Hills president Ken Kerzner, who regularly scouts for high-rolling travelers on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. When-ever Manhattan chef Kerry Heffernan is in L.A., he'll spend up to $500 a day to rent a Mercedes to impress the valets as he checks out trends in Left Coast cuisine. "You need a gorgeous car in L.A.," says Heffernan, co-owner of 11 Madison Park restaurant. "People take you more seriously."

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Commanding premium prices, though, can be a tough sell in these days of tight travel budgets. Companies often set strict limits on the vehicle size and day rate they'll allow. So to coax business travelers into the gilded coach, the big rent-al chains are discounting prices and giving free upgrades. Hertz, for example, just cut the day rate on a Volvo S80 from $90 to $75, if booked online before Dec. 15. And Avis's fleet of Cadillacs now comes with satellite radio at no charge.

The idea is, if a renter gives in to car lust once, he'll never go back. But too much discounting, and that fancy ride becomes just another set of cheap wheels on the rental lot. "There's a certain elitism in these cars, and you shouldn't dumb them down," warns Neil Abrams, who consults for major rental agencies.

Fears of going downscale have traditionally steered luxury carmakers away from the rental counter altogether. BMW and Mercedes still won't sell cars directly to U.S. rental companies, even though their models are for hire in Europe. (Budget Beverly Hills and other exotic rental outfits get around that ban by purchasing Bimmers and Benzes from independent car dealers.) But the stigma of the airport rental lot is mostly fading among the automotive elite. Catering to the business traveler, it seems, makes good business sense for all.

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