As a regular Supreme Court justice for the 24 Hours of Lemons and Roadkill contributor, I travel frequently. That means lots of hours spent on airplanes and the need for reliable mobility once I’ve reached the destination. I don’t have the clout for manufacturers to drop press cars off for me everywhere I go, which means I usually need a rental car. Rather than just drive them and forget them, I figured I’d put to the test the rental cars I’ve had in 2017 for various trips and durations in a series of short reviews.
Before I dive in, however, I recommend that you first watch Freiburger and Put Up Or Shut Up host Brian Lohnes demonstrating how to check out your rental car in this Roadkill Extra episode. After that, we’ll recommend a handy book when considering any trip and appropriate rental cars. Read on for the stories.
Rich Duisberg – ‘Nothing Handles Like a Rental Car’
British car writer Rich Duisberg lives for automotive adventure and he points out in his second book that you don’t always need a beautiful or sporty car to enjoy the world’s best driving experiences. He documents in the book a number of adventures that involve getting the cheapest flight possible, renting the cheapest near-wreck you can get, driving to and around the amazing place, staying for a night cheaply, and then flying home.
Some of his adventures in the book involve borrowed car or borrowed time or borrowing his 14-year-old daughter from school for a day to let her drive at a track day. That might be a tad illegal but “Rich Duisberg” isn’t his real name anyway so who, as they say in England, gives a toss? However, many of his adventures involve whatever car the rental agency had available cheaply and that’s perfectly good enough to enjoy most fantastic driving roads and vistas.
Well, you’ll just have to read the book because there are some doozies in here. Duisberg offers invaluable advice on planning these excursions, but I will spoil Rich’s most important point: Always purchase the rental company’s total-replacement insurance. This gets reiterated several times so that if you’re doing this several times, you’re likely to use it at some point.
Your experiences may vary, of course, but Mr. Duisberg has collected a solid automotive-adventure anthology that surpasses the substantial humor of his previous book, “Confessions from Quality Control.”
The “Retreat From Moscow” Lemons Rally. This included the drive from Chicago to the rally’s start in Moscow, Pennsylvania, before driving the rally’s full distance to the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. After that, it was time for an overnight blitz back to Chicago.
A Ford Escape Titanium with turbocharged EcoBoost 2.0-liter engine
Like most modern crossovers, the Escape handled the road more like a car than SUVs of the past. This was particularly useful when trying to make up time on West Virginia’s winding mountain roads and on the famous Tail of the Dragon. It’s obviously not a Porsche, but it handles twisty roads with at least basic competence and doesn’t feel top-heavy. No, I didn’t drive a hooptie because when running the rally and covering it, you need to reach Point B in a reasonable amount of time.
The turbo engine made enough power when driving solo, but adding cargo for one or two additional people made it a dog pretty quickly. The driver’s seating was reasonably comfortable on the long highway miles—though not quite as plush as Murilee Martin’s press-loaner AMG (below)—and the controls made some kind of sense.
Speaking of adding people, when Roadkill editor Elana Scherr and photographer Wes Allison joined me for one segment of the drive, the Escape ran out of room pretty quickly. Three full-size adults traveling with (admittedly a lot of) gear filled up just about every inch of the Escape with the rear seat split-folded.
Of course, road-tripping a car means being able to catch a few hours’ sleep in it if need be. On the long haul back to Chicago overnight, I caught a couple of Z’s in abandoned parking lots (Yeah, not always a great idea…Don’t try this at home, kids). I’m a short fellow so I managed to lay down with the rear seat folded for a couple of one-hour naps. So you could probably camp with one, maybe two, shorter people in a pinch.
Small family trip? You’ll do well in this. More than three adults? Things get tight in a hurry.
A budget trip to the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Sonoma Raceway to do some live webcasting on RaceCast.me. This was a basic trip: Fly in late Thursday, sleep where you can, work, get out of Dodge. In a Dodge.
A 2015 or 2016 Dodge Caravan with a 3.6-liter V6
A delayed flight meant I wasn’t sure if I’d reach the low-buck rental office in time. However, they were waiting for me and very accommodating. I hopped in the van after midnight and didn’t get a chance to look it over, but it was clean enough. The odometer read an astounding 44,000 miles on it, which is the rental equivalent of about 500,000 overloaded miles in an ordinary street car.
Modern minivans tend to pack some fairly impressive horsepower. Even after hard miles, the Caravan’s Pentastar V6 pulled hard and torque-steered like a wounded horse. Maybe that had to do with the four mismatched tires, one of which had clearly been run flat for some time. Who can say?
Without a place to stay for the night, I pulled off the highway at a “rest area,” folded all the seats into the floor—an extremely nice feature if you plan to camp in the rental—and crashed for a few hours in what turned out to be a highly illegal act of trespassing that is apparently tolerated in some measure because several other cars were doing the same. Don’t try that at home, either, but if you do, the view is sometimes worth it.
Anyway, the van generally handled like a van and while it wasn’t fun to drive in any traditional sense, I slept in the van at Sonoma during the race weekend. The higher parking lots that overlook the paddock and the racetrack? Those views are spectacular, too, when the sun rises.
With the seats folded all the way down, you could easily camp with two people in the van, although the hooks for the seats are bothersome. If you have it in the budget, an air mattress would transform the Caravan into a luxurious version of a Japanese capsule hotel. It’s not ideal, but if the price is right and you have somewhere to park it near a shower, a rental van can be a nice, weatherproof camping accommodation.
Chevy Cruze Hatch
Chevy Cruze Hatchback with a 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder
The rental agency offered a “Manager’s Special” so I rolled the dice for the one-day trip. I ended up with a low-mile (about 2,300 miles) Cruze hatchback in bright, bright red.
Here’s a funny thing about turbochargers: While you hear about how modern big-power cars have reduced turbo lag, small-displacement turbo engines tend to exhibit lots of lag still. At least, this Cruze’s itty-bitty turbo (above, roughly finger-width) did. When you mash the right pedal, you get a whole lot of nothing until the tires suddenly chirp at about 4,400 revs.
Since I daily drive a 2004 Ford Focus ZX3, I at least had a hatchback baseline and the Cruze offered the same kind of flat cornering that makes compact fun (and highway expansion joints misery). If I’d had more time, I’d have found a twisty section of road to enjoy the Cruze because its suspension seemed eager for a bit of well-meaning fun. This one was new enough that the rental company hadn’t just slapped on whatever tires they had at hand. Go ahead and check your next rental; there’s a good chance it’ll have at least one mismatched tire.
The Cruze hatch swallowed up a decent amount of cargo for tank-crushing, too. I picked up a charcoal grill (still full of charcoal, oddly enough) at a thrift store and chucked it in the back no problem. While you’d have a hard time road-tripping with anything more than a three-person family, the Cruze’s seats and cargo capacity were adequate for tooling around the Phoenix area.
Adequate for one or two people on a shorter road trip. Good for a local rental with a small family and not a ton of bags.
2017 Hyundai Sonata, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine
I got an unexpected upgrade when the rental company’s porter locked the keys in the squirrel-sized rental I had reserved. The replacement, this Hyundai, had the pedestrian 2.0-liter engine and 27,000 miles on it, which means it was close to retirement.
This was a rental-spec Sonata, which meant base everything. Infotainment screen was basic and so were the other options. Was it fast? It was definitely not fast. Did it handle well? It did not handle well. Was it comfortable? It was not the worst I’ve ever had, but I wouldn’t call the driver’s seat a plush, ergonomic delight. The footwell also featured the world’s most irritating parking brake (below). I’m a short guy and I bumped my foot on it regularly during this trip. I suspect a taller driver would find this even more annoying.
Basically, the rental-grade Sonata is a one-trick pony: It gets stellar highway mileage. Since the trip was mostly on the Interstate system, that meant 30-plus miles per gallon even at substantial highway speeds (on closed test courses in Mexico, allegedly). Since I’m cheap (or broke, depending on who you ask), this was not an unwelcome change. Surface streets, however, quickly whittled away the average mileage.
I had laughed at the porter who had locked the keys in my reserved car, of course, but the world has a way of flipping the script. Through a series of moronic moves, I locked the Sonata’s keys in the trunk the morning after Zip-Tie Drags. NEVER, EVER LOCK YOUR KEYS IN THE TRUNK OF A RENTAL HYUNDAI SONATA.
It turns out that Hyundai and only Hyundai have built their car to prevent trunk access without the key fob in your hand. I can only surmise that Hyundai knows a huge portion of their cars end up as rentals and knows that car thieves tend to target rentals. Through the transitive property, that means that car thieves target rental Hyundais. If your stuff is all locked in your rental Sonata’s trunk, then thieves can’t steal your stuff from the rental Hyundai’s trunk. The handles inside the trunk are the only way to fold down the rear seat, in theory.
If you accidentally lock your own keys in the trunk, this particular rental company’s policy is to tow the car to a dealership, where you will pay the dealer to make a new key and you will wait to get everything back from the Hyundai’s trunk. I had a lot going against me here, particularly that (1) it was Sunday so any dealership would be closed, (2) I would then have to wait an extra day for my bags in the trunk, and (3) this was going to cost a lot of money.
I managed to get a police officer to unlock the door for me to discover that, as expected, the trunk-release button by the driver’s seat did nothing without the fob. I won’t say exactly how I got into the Sonata’s trunk, but I will tell you that some corners of the internet have alarmingly good advice on breaking into cars. I may be on an FBI watch list now, but I got the keys out and celebrated by going to a cheap minor-league baseball game with an old friend.
2017 Nissan Frontier with 4.0-liter V6
You may or may not know that two years ago, I foolishly bought a 1978 Dodge Magnum XE from a Drag Week racer to make into a Lemons project. That turned into an utter failure and I recently parted out the Magnum, then scrapped the shell. I had bought a number of parts for it, including an early 1970s Chrysler 360 V8. I sold that engine and the Magnum’s Torqueflite transmission to Bryan McTaggart of BangShift.com for his engineless early ‘80s Imperial. Since he lived in Bowling Green near the Lemons race, I rented a pickup to deliver it right to his door.
The Frontier was a rental-spec, basic V6 model with a four-door cab. I managed to fit the 360, transmission, the Magnum’s subframe (for another team), and two bins of assorted parts in the short bed. Since I was also driving another Lemons staffer from Chicago, I also fit two people’s substantial race-weekend luggage in the cab.
For a heavily loaded medium-duty truck, the Frontier handled everything wonderfully and even drove happily down the highway at a good pace. Even more incredibly: This heavy load hardly bothered the Frontier’s efficiency. With the truck loaded to the gills, it still gave more than 22 miles per gallon on the trip south to Bowling Green.
The seat was more comfortable than many rental cars I’ve had and the hose-it-out interior even included USB inputs unlike the fleet-grade Caravan I’d rented. There was a lot to like for the Nissan, although the short bed handicaps some of its real utility if you were going to use it to haul something of real size.
The Frontier’s rental fees amounted to about the same as a mid-size car. Naturally, the gas mileage won’t be as good as a modern mid-size and your results may vary with pricing on rentals, but this was a whale of a deal for a specific purpose. Also, I hadn’t driven a pickup truck in a few years and had forgotten how much I liked them. And my kid apparently likes pickups, too. Who doesn’t?
I should rent trucks everywhere I go.
We will have more rental car reviews soon, including a head-to-head comparison!