It’s a Monday morning at Boston University, and the Porsches start to pull up. Next, along Commonwealth Avenue, come the Maseratis, Range Rovers, a BMW M6, and a Lamborghini Aventador.
The drivers aren’t foreign dignitaries or business titans arriving for a meeting. The flashy sports cars — with prices as high as $379,000 for the Lamborghini — are almost without exception driven by international college students on their way to class.
The undergraduates, some as young as 18, drive in from the Back Bay, Cambridge, and Allston, areas so dense that few college students own cars. Tucked amid beat-up Hondas and Toyotas, the exotic wheels are so prized that students have formed their own car club, Fantastic Rush Rally.
Members cruise to New York and New Hampshire on the weekends and signal their club membership with a stuffed turtle on their dashboards.
These luxury vehicles, which adorn many Boston college campuses, are perhaps the most visible sign of the enormous wealth that pours into the city each year from the wallets of international students. Nearly one-third of the foreign students are from China, where an economic boom has created a new class of multimillionaires.
The approximately 44,000 foreign students in Greater Boston last year spent at least $120 million, not including money they paid directly to colleges, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Boston may never be able to host the Super Bowl, but we have something that’s even better than that, a Super Bowl of education spending,” bureau president Patrick Moscaritolo said. “And it happens year after year after year.”
Car dealers routinely watch international students drive off the lot in brand-new Audi R8s, a car that sells for at least $116,000, or BMW 650is, which sell for at least $87,000. Far more buy vehicles that cost between $30,000 and $90,000, dealers said.
“We see more Asian students, actually, coming to the dealership and buying cars, and they mostly pay cash and their parents wire the money,” said Milad Farahani, owner of Boston Foreign Motor in Allston, who said he helped one young man buy car insurance for $15,000 per year.
Realtors say they have also been stunned by the number of foreign families paying cash for condos that cost $1 million or more in Downtown Crossing, Cambridge, and Back Bay. Some have purchased units in the not-yet-complete Millennium Tower condominiums in Downtown Crossing, realtors said.
Car dealers said they’ve sold to foreign students for decades, but Asian buyers recently overtook those from the Middle East. Dealers said students sometimes know more than they do about the cars.
“They definitely want the newest, the most cutting-edge technology, the most cutting-edge design,” said Melissa Steffy, general manager of the Herb Chambers BMW in Allston.
Car culture among international students thrives in Boston. The Fantastic Rush Rally club shies away from publicity that might feed negative stereotypes about wealthy foreign students. But other students can’t help but notice the gleaming chariots.
“There’s whole gangs of them that have the same Maserati,” Satya Patel, a BU graduate student, said one recent afternoon as she sat along Commonwealth Avenue.
As if on cue, minutes later, ggrrrrrrrrroom! a baby blue Maserati GranTurismo — base price $132,825 — streaked past.
Not all college students are fans. “They all drive really fast because they think it’s cool. It’s not cool,” said Ali Pylitt, a BU graduate student sitting next to Patel.
International students have picked up on that tinge of resentment. Asked about their cars by a reporter, students were shy about why they like them.
“Young boys like nice cars,” Zhen Lin, a BU senior from China who studies accounting, said as he locked his white Range Rover Sport with a surf rack for his trips to Nantasket.
Lin said many Americans ask him why Chinese students have such nice cars. It’s partly because they cost about half as much as in China, he said.
Matthew Huang, a sophomore at BU’s business school stepping out of his Mercedes G63 AMG, which starts at $137,000, didn’t want his picture taken with his SUV.
“You don’t need to let everyone know you have a good car,” he said.
The number of international students in Boston has been growing for the past decade, with a spike in recent years. Last year, there were 44,000 foreign students in Greater Boston, up from 29,276 in 2010. Of those, about 12,000 were Chinese, according to the Institute of International Education. Students from India rank second.
To be sure, not every international student can afford luxuries. Like their American counterparts, many scrape together savings, work part-time, and live far from campus to save on rent.
Ulya Aviral, a graduate student from Turkey who attends Emerson College, lives in Brighton and shares an apartment with another student, paying $825 in rent. She works two jobs and spends an hour each way commuting to class on the MBTA.
“It was really hard for me to find an apartment,” she said.
Aviral lives about 3 miles down Commonwealth Avenue from where the luxury cars park at BU. One of them, a $90,000 blue Maserati, is driven by Alan Sun, 21, a senior from China who lives in Allston.
“I like Maserati, so I bought this car,” Sun said, simply.
When he graduates, he plans to sell it.