In Praise of Rentals

Rental Car Sanity

Perhaps no small asteroid belt of the automotive universe gets less respect that the rental car. It seems an article of faith among enthusiasts that rental cars are objects to be scorned, used only when no other option is palatable.

This tenet is bolstered by tales of racers abusing rental cars in all ways possible – reverse burnouts, drifting contests, parking in motel pools, etc., sad epic adventures fueled by alcohol. Methinks many of these stories evolve over time, with details stitched together from male ego (in most cases), hindsight editing for drama, and the regrettable egotism of many racer ilk who feel the world needs to sponsor every excess as the price of sharing the planet with them.

I held the same opinion for many years, unaltered by the fact that I rarely had the need to actually drive a rental car. I am sorry to state that I shared this opinion often, although “brayed” might be a more suitable verb. Ignorance can create a lot of nonsense in all areas of life.

My ignorance began to be abraded away a few years ago when my late father-in-law purchased a series of nearly new former rental cars for his own use. His ownership experience was very positive. The purchase price was reasonable for a lightly used car that had received all scheduled maintenance work, and had been driven gently the great majority of the time by business people or vacationers who simply needed to get from Point A to B and C and D and etc. with a minimum of fuss and bother and no need to prove anything to anyone. Presumably none of his purchases involved a car previously abused by a racer.

For his last purchase I was brought in to assist, as he was aging rapidly and did not feel comfortable either shopping of negotiating. We looked at a few “normal” used cars – all of which were depressing, and eventually got to a Budget rental outlet selling off a galaxy of used Ford Taurus rentals. The Ford Taurus was such a staple of the rental car world that the final year of production was earmarked 100% for that market – none were sold directly to the public.

There were a dozen or so to choose from, in a variety of bland colors. All but one were built to the same specification. The anomalous one had a vinyl roof, a sunroof, and a leather interior, and was priced accordingly much higher. Prices on the others ranged from $10,200 to $12,000, which seemed curious as they were all the same vintage with similar mileage, so I asked. The proprietor told me that it sort of depended on when he had put each one up for sale, and then said. “Tell you what – take your pick. $9,995 for your choice.” I was stunned. Here was a car(s) with roughly 19,000 miles, new tires, no damage anywhere, with a sensible set of options to make living with it a pleasure. Automatic transmission of course, and power winders, AC, etc. My in-laws had a two minute discussion over what color was preferred, and Grandpa won out. All the way through the purchase process of the silver one I tried to figure out what I had missed. Based on a comparison to other cars we had looked at the price seemed to be at least two grand too low.

Three years later Grandpa has passed on, but the Taurus continues. Every time I drive it I am again impressed by what a fine design it is for the intended use. It does what a car needs to do with no fuss or bother, and costs very little to maintain.

Grandpa’s other car was also a previous rental, and is MUCH less desirable. It’s a small Oldsmobile of some sort, and the seat, the ergonomics, and the driving experience are all crap. There are several design “features” that strike me as just stupid. If the Taurus was the goal they were aiming for, they missed by several miles.

If you wanted a used car to serve as a family workhorse, a prior rental might be a good way to go – with a few caveats.

• Grandpa’s Olds has taught me that a crap car is a crap car – whatever the price.

• A large GM SUV of some sort (was it an Acadia?) we rented in Spokane because we needed a lot of seats was also a headache, in fact a literal one, with a huge (everything about it was huge) instrument center stack trimmed in chrome positioned so that sunlight would be guaranteed to blind you. It was riddled with slipshod engineering solutions to obvious problems that would be an irritant every day. The seat would not go back far enough for a person of even my height. It needed a back-up camera because vision to the rear was so abysmal.

• Decades ago you could rent from Hertz a specially modified Shelby Mustang termed a GT 350H. Stories abound of racers renting a GT 350H for the weekend, removing the engine for race duty in their own Mustang running in stock production, and reinstalling the engine back into the rental Sunday night before returning the car – with no great number of miles on the odometer. The more ambitious, or so the lore goes, actually welded in roll cages and detached the odometer cable (you could do that back then) before returning the car with the roll cage removed and the cable reattached.

Hertz now rents Corvettes with mild custom paint jobs, but racing rules are now so restrictive I doubt they are abused in road races. Drag racing or a track day would be possible, methinks, if you had sufficiently lax morals to do so.

Those few caveats aside, anyone wanting a car with the most auto bang for the smallest buck would do well to look at used rentals.

Case in point was this past weekend, where the National Car rental person at Sacramento Airport told me I could have any car in Row “B.” Row B consisted of a long row of new Chevy Malibus – the car than invented bland. At the end a shiny white Dodge Charger. Same price? Yep. I took that one over my wife’s mild objections. She felt it was so much bigger she would not want to drive it. I countered with the fact that I would be doing all the driving barring unforeseen disasters, and we might need a larger car for the tall son in law we would be carrying. In the end he was drafted for front seat duty as a navigator, so that was moot, but the real reason I wanted the Charger was because it was interesting.

Practicality is a great idea, but go too far at your peril – you might turn well turn into a conservative right wing Christian – a price to dear to be considered.

The Charger is styled with deliberately retro crimps in the side sheet metal to emulate the Charger muscle cars of the late 1960’s. Enthusiast cynics will sniffle, while experienced marketers will nod. My college roomie purchased a 1969 Charger in green with a vinyl roof (nobody is perfect) equipped with a 383 and a 4 speed. I drove it and it was awe-inspiring. The 2011 version has virtually NOTHING in common with that car, and yet the styling took me back to the days that I remember, which are of course not the days that were. The power of styling cues is enormous.

What interested me over the weekend was the incredible level of what at one time would have been luxury level accessories at enormous cost, include with a basic rental car. That and the expense. $100 for 4 days rental with unlimited mileage strikes me as a terrific deal. We spend about $60 on gas and drove – a lot. My information gathering was made more interesting because the owner’s manual was not in the car. When I returned it the young woman at check-in told me it was supposed to be there, but many people took them out and failed to return them.

I can see why people are actually forced to read the manual, which they should do anyway. The dashboard of this “simple” rental car offered a plethora of menus and choices, and I was still deciphering them 4 days and well over 200 miles later. Heating and air conditioning, of course, but with separate controls for right and left. An excellent cruise control with clever icons on the dash I found on day three. Stopping for fuel was an adventure, as I could not find the fuel release door for many many long minutes, It is a small button in the left hand door you cannot see with the door closed – but very handy with the door open as you step out to get gas, which you would know after the first time. All of these features were either expensive options or unheard of a few years ago, to say nothing of auto up and down front windows and power rear windows, and an excellent stereo and CD player. Cup holders everywhere, of course, but also real time tire pressure monitoring, and an engine that tells you when an oil change is due. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Remember when it was cool to have a make-up mirror behind the right hand sun visor for your date to do her make-up? Later, your bucks-up swain would arrive in a car with a lighted mirror under the sun visor. In a 2011 rental car, lighted mirrors behind both visors!

I could find nothing to tell me what engine the car carried. I presumed a V6, but I had to open the hood to prove myself correct. In cut and thrust California freeway wars the power was more than adequate. The seats were supremely comfortable and the driver’s seat adjusted in all the directions I could think of.

All in all, superbly outfitted transportation for $25 a day with comfort, near silent performance, room for four adults, and absolutely no thought of anything being amiss or out of place.

If I wanted to purchase a large sedan for a small price, I would look no further than my local used rental car sales lot.

Copyright David Preston 2011

About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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1 Response to In Praise of Rentals

  1. David Flowers says:

    That reminds me of going to a Hertz of Budget place years ago with a newly arrived Brazilian doctor who wanted to get a car NOW. They had a loaded low miles Nissan Maxima he bought and pulled out a huge wad of cash to pay for it. I remember the salesman’s eyes getting pretty big with surprise! Then there was the insurance that we needed to get on Sunday afternoon. They had trouble getting the guy insured because he had arrived from Brazil the day before, but finally found some agent drove there to meet us in his Jaguar! Interesting day to say the least. Also during the test drive my friend took off driving pretty fast with the salesman frantically educating him about speed limits! It all worked out fine and the guy had no problems with his Maxima during his 2 year stay in Seattle.

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