Rental cars, however, are an entirely different story. This story, to be more precise. We recall the words of noted author (and occasional C/D contributor) P.J. O’Rourke: “There’s a lot of debate on this subject—about what kind of car handles best. Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car.” That may be true, but which rented car handles best? And which agency is the best at handling your business? To find out, we put together an octathlon of events at and around the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research that would help us learn a thing or two about rental cars, as well as the agencies that rent them.
Event #1: The Setup
Purpose: See which rental-car agency gets us into a car with the least hassle.
Hertz, the largest rental-car brand in the world, has nothing to offer walk-up customers on our Monday in Raleigh. We learn this after waiting 25 minutes as a lone agent handles a line of increasingly annoyed customers. Meanwhile, Yanca and Sherman set out for Dollar. Young Yanca is looking for something fun to drive and is promptly provided with a 2011 Ford Mustang convertible. The agent requests that the interior be cleaned if any of that fun driving results in, er, interior stains.
Time: 10 minutes.
Rebuffed by Hertz, I get a ride to National. The lot looks picked over. I request an economy car because we are still lacking a cheap vehicle in our test fleet. The agent tries to coax the daily rate upward, fails, and then gives me a free upgrade. Taking my pick from the selection of Grand Cherokees and Caravans in the Emerald Club rows, I settle on a Jeep Compass. Hey, somebody had to rent a bottom feeder.
Time: 11 minutes.
Silver (tie): Avis, Dollar
Approach the Desk with a Cool Head
Before you run off and try to swamp-buggy race your hired Aveo, take a look at the rental agreement’s fine print. The rental agency hands you a sheet of paper stating terms and conditions. You won’t read it, but you should. No amount of supplemental insurance coverage will save you if you violate these rules. Some clauses are obvious, such as warnings not to drive while intoxicated. Others are more curious. Driving on unpaved roads, towing or pushing anything, using the vehicle as a gypsy cab, or partaking in a race or speed contest—all of these violate the agreement. Go figure. Also, you cannot “with willful disregard” allow damage to the car. Now, the term “willful disregard” is a slippery beast, but if you’ve spray-painted racing numbers on the doors, you’ve pretty well sealed your fate. And for the love of all that is good and right, do not post the video of your antics on YouTube. —MA