Mediocrity abounds on the rental car lot

The Thinker by Rodin

Has anyone else noticed that rental car lots are stuffed with cars that you would never actually buy?

This has happened so often to me that I have begun to think it is more than coincidence. The one exception was one Toyota Camry that I rented some twenty years ago. More often, when I rent a car I end up with a bright, shiny, clean and well-maintained car that, if I did not have to rent it, I would never even want to test drive.

Last week I was in Denver. Since I am a government employee, naturally I have to go with the contract car rental firm. In this case, it was Alamo, which at least at Denver International Airport is now partnered with National. Although my contract was with Alamo, I was pointed to the compact cars in the National lot. “Pick any one of them,” the attendant told me. “Any one of them” turned out to be a half dozen or so Chevy Cobalts, in my choice of colors.

I picked the closest one, pulled the key out of the driver’s side door lock and pressed the trunk release button. Nothing happened. I pressed it several times, very hard. Nothing happened. Okay, I thought, I will just try the next Chevy Cobalt. At least this key allowed me to pop the trunk. I put my suitcase in the trunk. Fortunately, it was just me in the car. For a two door car there was not much room for luggage. Then I made the mistake of actually getting into the car.

This was wrong. All wrong. I am six foot two inches tall, but I could not fit in this sports car unless I bent back seat quite a way. Of course, I could reach the steering wheel, but my long arms had to be fully outstretched. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be with sports cars. I have never owned one. However, the position felt unnatural and awkward. I couldn’t imagine driving this all day long.

Then I closed the door. I should have grabbed the seat belt before I shut the door because, even though I had the seat pushed way back to accommodate my long legs, I could not grab the seat belt. Even with the door open though, it was a hassle. The arm motion to grab the belt was beyond unnatural; it was almost painful.

After the usual inspection at the exit gate, I left the car lot. Then I tried to change lanes. WTF? I knew I had a blind spot, so of course I craned my head back to see what was coming in the lane next to me. I could not see my blind spot; the frame of the door, which was receded way back, got in the way of my vision. Are all sports cars this dumbly designed? Maybe there is more than testosterone to blame for so many sport car accidents.

Perhaps it is stylish. I am no judge of style. I can say it is an impractical car. There were numerous other things that annoyed me: a badly laid out instrument panel, a funky interior car smell, no elbowroom for my left arm and it was hard for me to read the odometer. I kept fumbling trying to locate radio station; the buttons were not in the usual spots. For a sporty car, you would think it would take a light touch with the accelerator to move it forward, but I had to press quite hard to make it move.

I was so glad to return the car. As I scanned the lot, I realized there was not a foreign car in the whole place. Like the Chevy Cobalt I drove, the lot was full of very shiny, clean but wholly unmemorable cars.

Last year on a similar trip, I was given a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Oh boy, I thought. This was a step up because it looked bigger than a compact car. I had rather admired the car when I saw it on the road; it was somewhat retro. After driving it though, it felt flimsy and was loud. I too turned that one in, glad for the experience because here was another car I would now never buy in a million years. I prefer a car that looks plain but is well engineered. While I prefer quality to style, but I do not understand why I cannot have both.

Perhaps the worst car I ever rented was some ten years ago. It was a Ford Aspire. It was a catastrophe of a car. As the Car Talk guys put it, “It aspires to be a real car.” Truer words were never spoken. It was cramped, loud and came with a sticky accelerator. No power brakes here: be prepared to press very hard. It had virtually no headroom either; it was the rental car from hell. For years after when I would see someone drive an Aspire, I would laugh aloud. “You mean you actually paid good money for that piece of crap?” I wanted to yell at them. Alas, I am too well mannered to actually articulate it.

I guess it is too much to find a copy of my Honda Civic Hybrid on a rental lot. What I wrote about when I bought it is still true: it is a finely engineered automotive experience. Over eighteen months later, I am still thrilled with my car. The trunk is too small but that is its only drawback. I feel integrated with the car. It breaks smoothly. It turns steadily and predictably. It is amazingly quiet in spite of having its tiny four-cylinder engine right next to the steering wheel. It responds uniformly to the minutest presses on the accelerator. While I am sure there are better-engineered cars out there, it is about as fine a driving experience as is possible in a compact car. In addition, it is better for the environment.

My theory is that rental car companies buy overstocked cars that would otherwise languish for years on dealer lots. I figure they are getting a hell of a discount from the car manufacturers. Why else would anyone buy these cars? They have to go somewhere, so they end up in rental car lots across the country. Apparently, we rental car buyers just are not fussy because we know in a couple days we will turn the car in.

I heard that buying used rental cars makes sense. Perhaps there is some logic to this. Rental cars are very well maintained and their vehicle history is rarely in any dispute. I doubt though that you will find a model for sale that will inspire you. If you aspire toward mediocrity or if you are trying not to be noticed on the roads, any of these cars will do. I would ask for a hell of a discount.

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