No Fixed Abode: The Rental Reviews Will Continue Until Morale Improves.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Well, here I am — just a contributor again, and no longer the EIC. It’s freeing. Reminds me of when I was just a fresh-faced twentysomething doing competitive pin-and-plate shooting back in the days of the Clinton Administration. Back then, I had a good friend who worked at the best of the local gun shops and who sold me a lot of the equipment I used to participate in dominate various events. Then as now, gun shops are notorious for being a place where people discuss ridiculous theories or misinformation, and it was a particular and oft-sampled pleasure for this fellow to stand impassively with his hands on the counter for as long as it took for a customer to get it all off their chests before saying, “You’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why.”

When Jalopnik’s Raphael Orlove did us the courtesy of promoting my Malibu rental review, a few people brought up the usual chestnut that “you shouldn’t review rental cars, it’s not fair to the car companies” and so on. Well, those people are wrong, one of them in particular, and I’m going to tell them why.

The prizewinning quote is from “ohio991”:


people drive them like they stole it, they don’t get worked on by anyone who should be underneath the hood and are generally mistreated .

Basing your views on a car by driving the rental version is terrible and if you report on it its bad journalism.

There’s so much to love here, isn’t there? You can smell the Asperger’s syndrome wafting off the screen, from the bizarre all-capped FUCKING business about what should be a dispassionately considered subject all the way to the tone-deaf insistence that his opinion is the only permissible one. I hate to say it, but I am reasonably certain this individual is a Millennial; he has the unique combination of entitlement, certainty, and childlike grammar that marks the detritus of the Least Great Generation.

Not that all you Millennials are bad. I quite like your women.

But I digress. Let’s address this fellow’s complaints and then we can go on to a few more legitimate concerns about rental reviews before TOTALLY SMASHING them as well.

To begin with, is there a “rental version” of a modern car? Like, do the worst cars get sent to rental companies, the way that all my friends thought they let the very best S-10 pickups be promoted to GMC S-15s when we were kids? I’m not sure it needs to be said, but of course not. Sometimes, there are fleet-only combinations of equipment, and where that happens it should be noted, but the notion that the manufacturers are somehow cheaping-out on rental cars doesn’t hold water. A rental car is built to the same standards as a retail version of that car. Remember that seemingly obvious statement, because we’ll return to it later as a contrast.

Now, do people really “drive them like they stole it”? Of course not. While it’s certainly true that young people given their first taste of a rental car tend to be a bit abusive — I can remember “Gork” from BMX Action! magazine bragging about how if you drive a rental around town in “L” it, and I quote from memory here, “sounds like a race car” — the vast majority of rental cars are driven in indifferent fashion by businessmen who are just trying to get somewhere and are also reasonably aware that they will be punished by their employers for any damage that is done to them. The average rental car hasn’t seen any deliberate abuse. While the employees of the rental agency might be a touch uncaring in their ferrying of the cars from one place to another, the same is true of dealer employees at a new-car shop, particularly the detailers. When you buy a new Corvette, it’s anybody’s guess whether or not your detailer felt like winding the thing to the stop in first gear or not.

What about “they don’t get worked on by anyone who should be underneath the hood”? Is that legitimate? Well, it’s hard to imagine that the oil changes and brake/tire changes are done any less enthusiastically than they would be at a Jiffy Lube or a dealer service shop, and for modern cars under 45,000 miles that’s all the “working on” they should get anyway. What, do you think that there’s someone re-grinding the cams on a 15,000-mile rental Impala? It’s not a Stradivarius, it doesn’t need to be lovingly adjusted by a wizened old man wearing a jeweler’s loupe.

Last but not least, the cars are supposedly “generally mistreated”. Well, the vast majority of cars are “generally mistreated”. This kid may rub his ’04 Sentra SE-R with a cloth diaper and check the tire pressures every time the ambient temperature exceeds a five-degree delta but in the real world no adults do that. The experience a rental car has is very similar to what a family car will have. I can only think of one group of non-exotic cars that receive constant loving care during their term of service. Remember that statement, too, because we’ll come back to it as well.

The reality of rental cars is very different from what an under-25 crowd of people who don’t travel anyway thinks. It’s very amusing to imagine that every rental has a “Days of Thunder” finish or an impromptu ass-ramming at the hands of an inebriated club racer, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of rental miles are put on at the hands of people who treat the cars in no special manner whatsoever.

So. Rental cars are the same cars you can buy at dealerships, with minor exceptions, and they have the same kind of lives that other cars have, with minor exceptions. So they’re just like any other cars, right? Almost. There is one kind of car out there that lives a completely charmed life. It’s often built before any of its brothers and sisters in regular production. It’s usually examined down to the last nut and bolt using a checklist that is considerably more detailed than any dealership PPI sheet. And every time it’s driven, it receives that check again, complete with meticulous and skilled adjustments or replacements wherever it might be necessary. Every time it leaves its garage, it is in a condition that exceeds what a new-car buyer should reasonably expect out of showroom stock.

What kind of car is that? Why, it’s a press car. I don’t subscribe to the belief that is commonly held among automotive journalists that press cars are “ringers”. Not in this day and age. Production is too automated now to make something like that feasible. At the most, there might be a slightly different ECU tune that favors driveability and power over emissions compliance. I do, however, believe that they undergo a unique and rigorous quality-control procedure both when they enter a press fleet and whenever they are returned from a loan period.

Press cars rarely leak or squeak. They are aligned properly and they have even inflation pressures. Minor fit and finish issues, such as the crookedly-installed center speaker grille I just noted in a new Buick LaCrosse rental this past week, are handled in the press-loaner shop by people who know how to make those problems disappear. In other words, they are the best that a new car can be.

When you add up all the above, it’s easy to make the following declarative statement: A rental car might be worse than a new car, but it’s representative of what can happen to a new car. A press car is better than a new car will ever be. In other words, the new Malibu you buy at a showroom is more likely to be prepared to rental-car standards than press-car standards.

It follows, therefore, that a rental car review is more likely to align with what the average new-car buyer experiences than a press-car review would. Low-mileage rental cars are pretty much the same as new cars. Higher-mileage ones offer a valuable chance to see how the interiors and the suspension components age with wear and time. If you want to know what’s going to happen to that Camry or Malibu you’re planning to buy, a rental-car review serves your interests better than would a new-car review.

Which isn’t to say that every review could or should be a rental ride. Some cars, as the man said, you just can’t rent. Others can’t be rented for a reasonable cost. Still others can’t be rented until after the buzz wears off and the allocation goes to the fleets. For that reason, TTAC is likely to continue to offer a mixed bag of review samples, with the goal being to get you the most reviews possible of the most diverse field possible. The people who complain about rental-car reviews will continue to have their opinions dismissed, whether they are manufacturers, “advocates” in the media, or regular people who simply don’t understand the business as well as they think they do.

Sometimes, too, renting the car just lets do you things that can’t be done when you are holding hands with the OEM. For instance, this Friday we’ll have a review of the LaCrosse eAssist… with a racetrack component. Do you want to read how a mild hybrid performs at over 100mph? Of course you do. Come back and see us, why dontcha.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Motormouth Motormouth on Aug 07, 2014

    I've had a couple of press cars that were not in the best shape. I well recall a Passat CC that had a DSG 'box that was slipping all over the place and when I mentioned it to the VW people they were suitably mortified. Never found out what happened to that particular 'mobile, but goes to show that some shitters do get through the net. (Or maybe the DSG is just shit - but that's an individual call.)

  • DougD DougD on Aug 07, 2014

    Great Article, I can confirm that hooning my rental car is the last thing on my mind when I stumble into the lot at midnight trying to find my ride. What is on my mind is finding the headlight switch in the dark, and getting to my hotel. It's amazing how much of the business travel dance is learned behavior, and how people who haven't don't know the dance.

  • ToolGuy I found this particular episode to be incredibly offensive.I am shocked that eBay Motors is supporting this kind of language and attitudes in 2024.I will certainly keep this in mind next time I am choosing where to buy auto parts (I buy a LOT of auto parts).
  • SaulTigh When I was young in the late 80's one of my friends had the "cool dad." You know the guy, first to buy a Betamax and a C-band satellite dish. Couple of stand up arcade games in the den. Bought my friend an Atari 2600 as soon as they came out. He had two of these crap heaps. One that only ran half the time and one for parts in the yard. My middle school brain though he was the most awesome dad ever, buying us pizza and letting us watch R rated movies recorded on free HBO weekend. At the time I though he was much better than my boring father.Now with adult hindsight, I now know he was "dad who should have taken better care of his family" and not had so many toys.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.
  • Master Baiter Both people who bought ID.4s will be interested in this post.