By on March 20, 2013

Brad writes:

Hi Sajeev –

I’m a longtime reader of the blog, and also have been car less for the past 17 years. I live in a major Pacific Northwest city and haven’t needed a car. But I’m getting older, I’m partnered up and need to visit in-laws out in the boonies, and I just find myself wanting a car. I don’t want an older car. The two cars I did own back in my teens and early 20s were a 1980s Buick Skylark and a 1988 Dodge Omni. I think dealing with the repairs on those two beaters put a bad taste in my mouth for very old cars. So I’m looking at new or slightly used.

I’ve noticed that various rental car companies sell off their car with 30-40k miles on them for a decent price. What is your opinion on buying a rental car? On one hand, I think that people abuse a rental car, but then again, a rental car also might be well maintained by the company. Thoughts on buying a rental car?

Sajeev answers:

Normal rental cars (not Vettes, etc) aren’t more or less of a crap shoot than other used cars.  My only advice is to avoid cars that wound up in press fleets, or those used in driving schools. If a car is sold by a manufacturer at an auction…

Most rental cars aren’t abused as badly as you might think, thanks to today’s performance inhibitors built into the system.  Neutral dropping the transmission at red line?  Not possible, as the factory tune often has a 3000rpm governor in park or neutral.  Air-fuel ratios always(?) err on the safe/rich side, as you approach red line.  Traction control systems take the fun out of serious hooning too. Aside from excess brake wear from the active handling nannies (addressed by fleet mechanics) and the chance of transmission problems in the WAY distant future, I don’t believe that buying a former rental is a bad idea.

I’m more horrified at the prospect of buying a clean one-owner car with zero service history and a teenager in the house that’s beat the living shit out of it when they had the opportunity. That’s real fear: you can’t trust that smiling family! Rental cars have good upkeep, and the factory “tunes” them for safety and longevity.  The odds are good that you’ll get a decent machine.

So go ahead and get whatever vanilla rental machine suits your, um, fancy.


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45 Comments on “Piston Slap: To Rent, To Own...”

  • avatar

    I bought a cheap used Caliber as a work beater in 2009. It was a 2008, 30k miles, $9k, and a former Enterprise car. I put that car through hell. Nearly weekly it was loaded to the gills with heavy servers, power supplies, and RAID storage appliances. When I switched jobs and sold the Caliber it had around 98k on the clock. Only non-maintenance money I put into the car was a $150 alternator at 90k.

    A former rental car will probably be OK. If a Dodge Caliber can handle almost 100k of duty with almost no complaints, anything can.

  • avatar

    Was this picture made at Bob Hook Chevrolet in Louisville, KY?

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Sajeev brings up a lot of good points. As usual.

    It also depends on a few other things.

    1) Your willingness to buy the ‘unpopular’ car

    This is where the real sweet spot lies when it comes to used cars. Outgoing models, minivans, full-sized vehicles and convertibles that have more of a cruising character.


    2) The price advantage of getting one vs. getting another with a CPO warranty isn’t very much.

    In most cases, these vehicles have become insanely expensive at the auctions. Cars are staying in rental fleets for far longer periods of time these days, and the low sale levels of 2009 thru early 2011 are still making the prices at the wholesale level a bit… exuberant. You can also thank the rise of sub-prime lending (which is already approaching 2007 levels) and long-term 5+ year auto loans for this price inflation.


    3) I would ask around the grapevine of friends and associates to see what they have to offer. All things being equal, it’s better to find a seven to nine year old car that has been well kept and isn’t being sold for a lot of money. Then simply bring it up to Day 1 condition by eliminating any minor issues or major upcoming maintenance regimens.

    The days of 1980’s Omnis and Skylarks are long gone.

    If you do go for the ‘Impala’ route of an unpopular late model car, make sure to get it independently inspected and if possible, maintenance records. Not all rental outfits are on the level when it comes to maintenance.

    • 0 avatar

      Every former rental has some ‘thing’ the vendor cheaped out on to make it price attractive to Avis. GM removed the side air bags on Imapalas to save Enterprise $150/car. Late 00’s Chrysler interiors are hewn from a solid Lego brick. Mitsubishi’s have the horribly expensive to service timing belt. Altima’s have rubber band transmissions.

      But for the money for an occasional cruiser, Galant, Camry, Altima, Fusion, even the loathed Impala (and man do I loath GM) all make excellent highway cruisers. Just find the color/ you like and put aside $1,500 in case of a catastrophic repair.

  • avatar

    In 1978, my father-in-law bought a 1978 Ford Fairmont from Hertz. I don’t recall the mileage, but it was a very nice car, and had me beginning to seriously give Ford products consideration.

    He did have to replace the transmission, though, but kept the car for three years, so it worked for him.

    Nowadays, former rentals appear to be good buys, especially Impalas (I HAD to say that!).

    As for buying from a private party, buyer beware, unless you buy from me, as I take VERY good care of my wheels – because too many do not properly take care and maintain their cars, and you may wind up with a ticking time bomb.

    My advice? If at all possible, BUY NEW if you can!

  • avatar

    Also keep in mind when purchasing an ex-rental or other “fleet” vehicle, that the OEM manufacturer warranty is often shortened on fleet service vehicles. Case in point, I had purchased an ’04 Dodge Durango 4WD, *exactly* like the one pictured above at a local high volume used car dealer (unbeknownst to me that it was an ex-rental). Got a killer deal, it was a nice vehicle but about six months later the transmission started slipping/shifting abruptly. Took it in to the local Chrysler dealer to diagnose the problem, and while running the VIN the service tech stated “Oh, this was an ex-rental. So your typical 5 year powertrain warranty is shortened to 3 years for a “fleet” vehicle, same as the bumper to bumper warranty.”….and I was (luckily) in the last month of my bumper to bumper warranty, so it did get fixed. But had the problem surfaced another month later, I would’ve been SOL.

  • avatar

    I’ve had really good fortune with ex-rentals. They keep up on all the maintenance and are cleaned often.

    When I was reselling a clean Pontiac Trans Sport, a diligent buyer noticed Enterprise was the original owner and balked. “Buying a rental car, isn’t that like marrying a whore?”. I pulled out the stack of dealer maintenance records, “If it is, she’s had all her shots.”

    He bought the van.

  • avatar

    For what it is worth, the Manager at my local AVIS buys all his personal cars from the rental car fleet. If he is willing to trust an ex-rental to his 18 year old daughter to make monthly trips to/from college (6 hours away), they must not be that bad anymore.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe K

      Here on Long Island (NY) there was a 100% fatality rate amung cars in the area. After waiting weeks i finally got a rental car from Enterprise. The Manager there drove me home when I returned. He said him and several other employees lost their personal cars in the flooding, and had secreted away cars from Enterprises sales lot for themselves and (in his case) his elderly parents. To me, that spoke of how much trust he had of used rental cars. He said he would not buy a performance rental, but a middle of the road sedan he would as they are almost impossible to abuse.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I was ready to come on here and say never buy a rental because they don’t actually do routine maintenance, but I checked with my co-worker, a former Enterprise manager and he said they were pretty strict about it.
    I’d say most people who rent treat the cars fine, and seeing most cars on the road, they probably treat them as well or better than their own. And yes, cars today are pretty good at taking abuse and surviving it.
    All that said, I never recommend it to anyone. The resale of a former fleet vehicle is terrible. And the main reason… fleet cars tend to be boring.

  • avatar

    Beware the rental fleet or manufacturing auction:
    When an OEM (at least the one I’m familiar with) has a early production issue that they don’t partcilarly want the customer to experience, volume gets pumped into the fleet.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right, it can be hit or miss. You may be getting a RPO off-lease company vehicle, or you could be getting a fast feedback production prototype as long as it meets spec. Heck, you could be getting a lemon-law’d car, although they are supposed to be fixed before that happens.

      If you’re shopping an OEM dealer CPO lot and see a car only 1 model year old, chances are it falls into one of the above categories. You’ll probably still be fine buying one, but something to consider.

      • 0 avatar

        A lot can be gleaned from the VIN or looking up when the car was built. If it’s +90 days after the start of production, it’s a safe bet you will get the fixes for the majority of the issues found late in the pre-production life of that model.

        If the VIN has a lot of zero’s in it, run away (even if it is a MY with no significant refresh). It most likely was an early preproduction unit that lived a hard life as a calibration, quality test fleet or my company car while I’m away on assignment. If you find an emission exemption label in place of the VECCI label, you’ve hit pay dirt if it’s a collectible model. If it isn’t a Mustang or Camaro, you just found an early production terror chocked full of special one-off parts and a BOM with early suffix levels – if the parts weren’t saleable, that just means it was torn apart by a technician and repaired with saleable parts – torn down and rebuilt… I would probably take the prototype parts over this).

        • 0 avatar

          When I worked for Nissan, those pre-production cars never made it to market, well most of them anyway.

          The ones we used for our pools and test cars were crushed when we were done with them. I would ask the pool manager which ones the prototypes were before I’d take them because he didn’t care if those ones came back in less than great shape.

          I had some fun off road in a very fresh Pathfinder. It forded better than expected.

          • 0 avatar

            Ditto Honda. There’s a picture of a young Derek, aged 3, next to my father’s prototypePrelude. It was crushed shortly thereafter.

          • 0 avatar

            Depends on the pedigree of the car. It’s mindless to crush a vehicle that can be sold. My OEM used to crush everything until the economy tanked. Now, anything that can be retrofitted easily, is sold at auction.

          • 0 avatar

            You said yourself to stay away from them. That’s why customer oriented companies don’t unleash cars onto the public that they know will burn buyers.

          • 0 avatar

            CJinSD – you don’t know practices of OEM’s. “Customer oreiented.” Please.

            You’re essentially diving into the semantics of what defines a ‘proto-type’ vs. ‘pre-production.’ Production tooled? Saleable. Proto-type? Crusher.

            If a company can pay a technician a fraction of what the auction price is to retrofit the vehicle (and retain integrity of the vehicle), you can bet your ass that car is hitting the auction block. You’re foolish if you think a particular OEM doesn’t do this.

  • avatar

    Every vehicle I’ve ever rented has been in worse shape than any vehicle I’ve owned has been in, at the same age and mileage. And that’s just the stuff I can detect.

    Why would I buy any car that is in worse shape than meets my standards for that age and miles?

    So no – no former rentals for me.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, same here. The tires are usually low, requiring me to fill them up, there are always scratches all over it that the rental companies don’t care about, and there is always some mysterious, unidentified good all over the gearshift. There almost always coke/coffee stains all over the carpet.

      I also have rented 200+ cars over the past 5.5 years and would never want to own any of them (the cars, not specific models). I didn’t particularly hoon my rentals via speed, just offroad driving. I drove all sorts of vehicles offroad and in conditions they had no business being in.

  • avatar

    In 2008 I purchased (for my wife) a 2004 Mercury Mountaineer AWD V6. She wanted an SUV with leather. But we were buying a new house at the time so I wanted something that fit her needs and was affordable, nothing more. It was a former fleet vehicle, only 27k on the odometer, had been in a small accident and repaired (no salvage/airbag deployed, etc.). We got it for $11k. We took a gamble at the time and I knew it, the vehicle having been in an accident and a former fleet car. Bought it on eBay and drove it home 500 miles. We paid it off in a year and a half and have been driving it since. 5 years and 90k additional miles later, I can say it was a fantastic buy. I can probably sell it for $6500 today easy–or not–at 115k on the odometer, it’s got years of reliable life ahead of it. Sure, it’s a pretty boring vehicle, but immensely practical and has fit our new home and growing family needs very well (2 kids, labrador). Thumbs up on buying former fleet cars as long as you can accept driving something relatively staid. If you’re at the point in your life (as I am) in which you’re raising little kids, chances are what you are driving is pretty boring anyways.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Never bought a rental vehicle. As for “they’re well-maintained,” well the last two rental vehicles I experienced weren’t. I rented a car in Seattle that the TPMS said had low air just after I pulled off the rental lot . . . which turned out to have a slow leak that would maintain acceptable tire pressure for about 18 hours. My most recent rental, in Florida, had an “oil change needed” message on the dash when I picked it up.

    Yeah, I was late to pick up my wife at the airport in Seattle and assumed (incorrectly) that the tire didn’t have a slow leak. And by the time I realized that it did, we were in the boonies in the Olympic Peninsula; and I didn’t feel like blowing the better part of a day of my week vacation swapping out the car.

    In the past, when certain rental agencies rented crap Chrysler products, the brake discs were almost always warped producing a really scary set of brakes (before the days of ABS).

    I think what the rental agencies are good it, is making the cars look nice cosmetically, since they charge renters for dings and scratches and the like. Mechanically . . . I don’t know. I suspect when it’s time to sell, the slap on four new tires, change the oil and call it a day.

    The “fleet” warranty issue was something I never knew about. That’s potentially significant because the powertrain warranty covers things that are expensive to repair, like transmissions.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve been driven to the mechanic’s shop to pick up my Enterprise rental car because the mechanic was finishing up an oil change, so YMMV here.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked for Enterprise for several years and I can tell you that overall they are pretty good about changing the oil, although I have seen many cars rack up 15,000 miles or so before their first oil change. One issue is that almost nobody I worked with knew ANYTHING about cars. I’d often see my manager scrubbing a car with a dry brush, or washing a car with laundry detergent.

  • avatar

    IMHO you are better off with a CPO car. I don’t see any reason to go with an ex-rental. The prices were high to me and was non-negotiable.

  • avatar

    Crtified Pre-Owned and rental cars are good to buy because they have a service history that has been monitored by someone typically. Buying used cars is always a gamble, but even more of a gamble if you buy in poor neighborhoods. Hillside Avenue, Jamaica and Major World, Long Island City sell LUXURY CARS (BMW 750, MErcedes S550, Audis of all types and Lexus of all types from a “backyard” that’s more than 20 square acres. Thing is, unless you buy a luxury car that just got repoed from some murdered crack dealer or a low mileage Toyota/Honda/Nissan from someone who “simply couldn’t afford it anymore”, you can always end up with a problem. Not to mention all those german cars that got flooded by Hurricane Sandy. I actully had to talk someone out of buying a BMW X5 that got flooded and was being offered for $20,000 cash. I’m like: “DON’T DO IT…it’s gonnabankrupt you”.

  • avatar

    I don’t do anything to rental cars that I don’t do to my own cars. That said, I think late model used cars are not a good deal at the moment. And as has been said, rental cars are boring. If you haven’t owned a car in 17 years, treat yourself, buy a new one. Something fun.

    I’m totally biased but I think for an urban couple you can’t go wrong with a FIAT 500 in a cool color scheme. Cheap, great gas mileage, super easy to park, and you will smile every time you are in it.

  • avatar

    I think in someways it does depend on the car and the company. The national chains likely do have good maintenance programs and if you buy a “boring car” I would think you are more likely to do well. Want an Impala, Malibu, Fusion, Taurus, Camry etc. Go ahead. Would I buy an ex-rental Vette or Mustang GT or Challenger? NO effin’ way. I would think the guys who pay extra to trade up to the “fun cars” are going to beat on them.

  • avatar

    My first car bought with my money (not parent-bought teenage beater car), was an ex-rental ’99 Olds Intrigue. It had about 22K miles on it. Got it for a bit over 15K. It had the then-new “Shortstar” 3.5L V6.

    It was a great car, however it was dogged for a while by a no-start issue which ended up being a bad fuel-pressure regulator that would keep it from re-starting after it got up to operating temperature and was turned off. That took an exasperated trip to the dealer where I turned it off right in front of them then tried to cut it back on. Once they replaced the regulator, it was pretty much flawless.

    Sold it to my sister with about 95K miles, and, of course, she never thought about regular maintenance, which caused it to slowly nickel-and-dime itself to death. It eventually made it to about 190K miles, before she decided to stop putting repair money into it and sold it off.

  • avatar

    Every time we get one of these questions you get the same bunch of people telling you to shop CPO. And I come on here and say the same thing: Why pay extra to the dealer for a warranty, because that’s all a CPO is. They over-price the car and call it “certified” for buyers who are afraid of potential car repairs. If you buy a good used car then you don’t need the warranty. Exception?? BMW.

    That being said, why buy a newer used car? Unless you don’t care about cars or what you drive, the only good deals on newer used cars are the ones no one else wants. Anything that is fun to drive, reliable, efficient, etc, will be priced too high to make it worthwhile. Anything newer than 5 yrs is going to carry a a big premium because it is finance fodder for credit buyers.

    You haven’t owned a car is 17yrs, surely you have plenty of money saved up… so buy a new car. They are offering great deals on all kinds of new cars, finance rates are commonly offered at 0-2%, lease deals are crazy cheap, and we have some of the best cars ever built available today. You want luxury?? You can’t even count the number of luxury cars available. You want Sport? Muscle? SUV? Economy? Last forever reliability? You simply cannot go wrong these days. You pick any used car at any price from a rental car company and I will point you to a better alternative new.

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree. The market for new cars is way more competitive than used. The leases are even better since the lack of depreciation one late model cars keeps the lease rates low.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      This. Get a new Honda Accord Sport. About $24k out the door. 0-60 in under 7 seconds (per Car and Driver) if you get the stick shift with the 4-banger, a huge interior, and pretty fun to drive if the ’09 Accord LX I spent time with in December at a relative’s place is any indicator.

  • avatar

    Now is an excellent time to buy NEW, at least if you have good credit. I just bought a car at under 1.7% APR for 60 months. Total cost of interest for 5 years is $1000. My monthly payments are lower than if I had bought a 2 year old car and put it on 3 years of payments. By buying new, I was able to get exactly what I wanted, I have a full warranty, and I don’t have to deal with anybody else’s problems.

    • 0 avatar

      Good points, and I think the most important one was you got what you wanted.

      Trouble for me is, they are slowly eliminating the type of cars I like as a primary car, namely those being NA V6 normal sized coupe/sedans. Sure there are still a few examples out there but the trend is to turbo lawnmower engines and drop them in heavy cars to save 2mpg city mpg, and when you can get a V6 there is much more of an up charge.

      By-the-by, I’m hearing the fuel economy in the AWD Taurus Police car is abysmal (about 10-12mpg). A good deal of this may have to do with how hard and fast they drive them (and driving on 4 wheels instead of 2), but evidently the 3900 Impalas do about 18 and the 3.6 Impalas around 15 in similar police conditions.

  • avatar

    “If a car is sold by a manufacturer at an auction…”

    I saw one of these that a dealer had bought. It had pretty low mileage, and it had every option available (including the ones that even the “loaded” cars didn’t have). Seemed tempting, but I didn’t think a buying an ex-manufacturer’s vehicle made sense for the reasons stated.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked for a dealer that bought used vehicles at a manufacturer’s auctions. I also worked for a company that bought some of their fleet vehicles used from manufacturers. Every one of the vehicles from both groups was said to be “ex-executive-fleet.” There are some very democratically minded executives at Chrysler and GM, what with their use of parking lots full of mid trim level Caravans and Suburbans!

  • avatar

    The first rule of rental car ownership is to never look at the interior under a black light.

  • avatar

    First, what ever happened to all the Hertz vettes?

    Second, I reserved one a few years ago when they first came out, in Boston. Planned to go to VT for the weekend with my wife. Apparently I never saw the fine print, so when I got to the counter, they insisted I that I need documentation showing that I had just arrived on an inbound flight – in other words, no local renters. They offered me a v6 Mustang convertible instead, that was really adding insult to injury. So in desperation I called around trying to find a fun convertible, only Budget had something – a Sebring for something silly like $200 a day. Maybe, MAYBE if they were paying ME the $200 a day……..

    Ended up going home and dragging out the wife’s 92 Miata, and drove it all weekend and hoped it would run properly. Of course it did. Surprise bonus – since the trunk is so small she was unable to shop as much as planned.

    To stay on topic, the Enterprise next to me averages about 4 oil changes per day. The downside is that almost all their cars get in some fender benders. The local Thrifty however, probably because of their clientele, has some SERIOUS accidents happen to their cars.

  • avatar

    I purchased a year old Grand Prix in 2008 that had been a hertz rental. Came with 28k on the odometer & cost me 17k. I think new at the time they were about 22-23, 2008 was the last year for the GPs. Got the balance of the GM factory warranty, which I think was 40k or 3yrs. Car doesn’t have OnStar – but was loaded otherwise. Other that brakes & tires, and normal maintenance its been trouble free for nearly 60k miles.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought one of those rental special Grand Prixs too, a 2007 model, during the great fire sale of 2008. Nicely equipped, except strangely without ABS.

      I got such a fantastic deal on it (about $5500 under book value at the time) the licensing office (they collect the taxes on sales), refused to allow me to pay the tax based on the amount on the COMMERCIAL BILL OF SALE from the auction, and insisted I pay based on full book value.

      It took me 4 months, and talking to a lot of government employees who kept trying to convince me “it can’t be done” to get my $700 back.

      • 0 avatar

        I have one of those exact ABS-less models, except mine is an ’08 and I bought it in ’10. Very strange indeed… could ABS have been tied into the traction control option, because I know that wasn’t standard on these.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    The good thing about a rental car is that it will have been serviced and will have service history. I always tell buyers to beware of cars that have no service history or are very rarely driven (which is not good for most cars). Granny’s eight-thousand-mile 2010 LaCrosse may be harboring some ugly gremlins…

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