By on September 18, 2019

Porsche cayenne dieselLast week, we took a moment to recount our worst rental car memories — those times when the desk attendant at Rental Giant Co. was feeling either low on inventory or particularly unkind. Some of you took it upon yourselves to do some extra credit work, offering your winning rental car roulette examples, too.

Well, you can just type them again today, because the best of the best rental experiences is our topic of discussion.

My winning rental car recollection was easy to decide. In May of 2016 I decided to take a little road trip across Ohio to the border of West Virginia. To make it more interesting, I refused highways and took the Ohio River Scenic Byway instead. It would be a decently long journey, undertaken for one specific reason: pizza. There were two McDonalds locations in the nation that still offered the short-lived pizza that McD’s experimented with in the Nineties. I was determined.

I’d reserved a Standard class car. Enterprise picked me up the morning of departure in a grey Camry LE and took me to the office. They were hopeful. “You’ve reserved a Standard car. How about that Camry we picked you up in?”

I probably pulled a face, but asked, “Got anything interesting?”

Turns out they did; the black Challenger SXT seen here. On the long journey to pizza, I was pleased with the power on offer from the 3.6-liter Pentastar, even though the transmission kneecapped the engine a bit by shifting up through the gears too eagerly. The ride was generally comfortable with a big cruiser feel and a lot of old-fashioned road holding weight. My sort of thing.

Less impressive was the interior, with fit and finish coinciding appropriately with the generally just-okay materials. But that was mostly forgivable given it was a large, V6, and rear-drive coupe for $28,000 before any dealing was done. Seats were supportive, with enough bolstering, and the cockpit was generally comfortable. The biggest downside was the horrendous visibility mandated by the styling, and not assisted by the lack of a backup camera on such a base model. It made for some paranoia when reversing after eating an entire pizza (which was very tasty, by the way).

It was a fun trip, made nice by a comfortable, big car. Without any attempt to conserve fuel or drive on an interstate, I achieved something like 25 miles per gallon. Winning. (The pizza was discontinued at both locations shortly after and is now extinct.)

Let’s hear your rental car roulette wins.

[Images: Porsche, Corey Lewis]

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40 Comments on “QOTD: Winning at Rental Car Roulette?...”


  • avatar
    AdamOfAus

    Work Hilux was needed elsewhere in the company and I was asked to grab a rental Corolla. Well I rocked up only to be told they had none left and I’d have to take a Kluger (Highlander). Had it for a week.

    Was pleasantly surprised by the easy driver’s seat ingress/egress, the room and that nice v6.

  • avatar
    Dan

    “It made for some paranoia when reversing after eating an entire pizza.”

    This is why you back in to the known of the empty space when you arrive and not the unknown of the aisle when you leave.

  • avatar
    jh26036

    I had a Challenger SXT in Jacksonville but honestly, I can’t believe people actually buy those cars. The only redeeming quality was it got really solid fuel economy for something so large, yet felt so cramped inside.

    I chose it over the Camaro V6. Mistakes were made that day in Florida.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    Have had some advantages from renting from the same location multiple times. That’s the kind of situation where they throw you a free upgrade here and there, or at least when they had nothing but a Taurus, they gave me a brand new one. Hertz was offering a promotion for a free upgrade to a convertible in Florida once. In the past others who had done this got a PT Cruiser or something similar. I was luck enough to get a Mustang. So that was fun. This is the same rental office that offered me a discount rental on a Mustang GTH. Unfortunately my company wouldn’t have approved the extra cost and I had zero extra money.

    The ultimate upgrade though was when the rental office in League City needed a car return to the Houston airport. I had rented an Altima or something, but they asked if I wouldn’t mind taking this other car since it had to go back to the airport anyway, but “it has a crack in the windshield, so I hope you don’t mind”. Walked out to the parking lot to find a Charger SRT-8! Whee! At least that’s what I said. I think my wife said something like “oh gods, we’re gonna die!”.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Stuttgart Airport…Mercedes E-Klasse (with a manual!) FTW! I was supposed to be in A-class territory, but somehow got bumped several classes up and wound up piloting the E-class for several weeks.

  • avatar
    energetik9

    A few years ago, I was traveling often and renting cars frequently. My most surprising upgrades? A C6 corvette convertible. A Toyota Land Cruiser. Mustang GT. Volvo XC90. Porsche Cayenne.

    Loved the Cayenne, hated the Land Cruiser. Loved the Mustang GT, quickly lost my excitement for the Corvette.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Going to Charleston, SC and the Isle of Palms, my wife and I decided to rent a convertible.

    At the rental counter the woman tried to give us an Altima. “It’s new!”

    Luckily – after a flat out refusal of the Nissan – we ended up with a 2012 V6 Mustang droptop with an automatic. It was great to cruise the beaches in and even drive through downtown Charleston. And, because of fond memories of that car, I ended up buying – a few years later – a 2014 V6 hardtop with a manual.

  • avatar
    NTGD

    Back around 2009 – 2010 Went to go pick up the a midsize rental for my wife and sitting there next to a Camry was a Dodge Charger. No idea why the Charger was sitting in the midsize section but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to check out something new. Nothing special just a SXT with V6 but it was finally my first chance to check out a large RWD car so fun night for me.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Several years ago, my wife and I were headed for a Canada Day weekend trip to Ottawa, and had a car booked rather than schlep across the province in our AC-less car. I had just booked a standard or something, and was rather dismayed to see the distinctive Chrysler 200 key waiting for me at the counter. I had no interest in taking the risk of finding out if it was the Pentastar or not, and if that would make up for the car’s other weaknesses (this was after my bad Avenger rental). I had noticed a Mustang sitting in the lot on my way over, but hadn’t paid that much attention, so I asked the clerk “how much for that V6 Mustang?” I’m told something like $10 or $15/day extra, which was one of the easier decisions I’d ever made. Turns out though, it was a loaded GT. My wife still makes fun of the Mustang-shaped puddle lights, but it was fun, sounded good, and wasn’t a Chrysler 200.

  • avatar

    I’m truly happy with ANY car that I get, but there have been a few that I’ve really enjoyed:

    -A number of Holden Commodore SV6’s on the numerous trips to Australia, including ones in bright orange or the wagon, or the limited Storm edition.
    -A Ford Falcon XR6 in New Zealand
    -As silly as it sounds, I fell in love with the Chrysler Pacifica that I was given in LA last year. So comfortable, nice driving, luxurious, and a real treat to drive up the California Coast
    -Advantage Rent A Car has a fleet of buyback VW Jetta Sportwagen diesels. A station wagon, with diesel…..in America, is awesome!

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    My bad one came from Alamo but I am loyal to them because they let you pick your car and I’ve had great experiences in the past.
    Once I had my choice of 2 Pontiac Grand Prix GXPs. But the company I was with, my sister especially, demanded we take something more practical so I went with a Camry. It was bleh.

    But another time I got a Volvo S60. It was a really nice car and served us well.

    But the #1 is a car I’ve written about previously and which put me in the market for a new car and how I wound up getting the Buick and now continuing with that path when I had previously been all about buying used. I drove an Avis provided 2017 VW Passat. Initially I got a Malibu but gave it back because the front plate was not attached to the car, which is needed in VA as it was registered here.
    I asked about the red Passat R-Line and I was told it hadn’t been cleaned. I said I would take it anyway. I drove it home and cleaned it myself. I had low expectations and I was very pleasantly surprised. It was quick, I loved the automatic Bluetooth connection, and it rode great. I drove it from my house in Virginia to my family in New Hampshire and it was super comfortable. On the drive home I didn’t have to stop for gas and I could have driven to and from work for a few days after and still not needed gas.
    The only downsides were the alarming lack of traction on wet roads and I didn’t feel like the driver’s space was designed for me, but rather someone much larger than I am.
    Overall I was super impressed. I started looking to buy one and this is after 15 years of swearing off all German cars because of my Audi ownership experience.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Last year on a trip to Denver I used my Hertz gold membership for a rental. I went through the categories and asked about the Mustang. The salesperson said the Challenger RT was available for a bit less. I mused to myself “Hmm the RT, that’s the Hemi I didn’t know they rented them at that rate only the base SE with the Pentastar” Which I would have been more than ok with.
    I had a great experience with the RT. More than adequate trunk space and driving through the Rockies getting around 26 MPG mixed use.

    • 0 avatar
      CobraJet

      About 2011 I flew to LA to give a deposition in a lawsuit. At Hertz at LAX they were about to give me the keys to a Toyota when I looked out the window and saw a Shelby Mustang convertible 5 speed manual. I decided to treat myself and rented it. There was a lot more paperwork and they inspected the car even under the hood before and on the return. Parts under the hood were safety wired and sealed.

      The law office was in Century City and unfortunately the 405 was jammed up because of a wreck. The surface streets were terrible. Traffic the next day was just as bad. Bottom line I never got the car over 30 miles per hour the entire time.

  • avatar
    cicero1

    In 2017 I had rented a “standard” and got a Lincoln Continental. It did well on the dirt roads to the trailheads in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, but I went a little slower than I otherwise would have.

    Sunday I’m flying into Vegas for a trip to the Sierras and Death Valley. Have a “Ford Fusion or similar” booked. Hoping “similar” could mean Charger but I’m betting Altima or Sonata. (I’ll take the Sonata)

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I wrote about my bad turned into good Hertz experience before, but there have been other ones.

    I’ve had good luck at local office of the main chains, especially in Europe. I’ve been bumped up into 3- and 5-series in Italy and Germany (just by asking and showing my card), and I will never forget the rental BMW M5 (I KNOW!!!) that I had in Frankfort. Speeds, tires, and nerves were tested with that car. And my AmEx bill took a beating with the German gas prices and copious fuel consumption, but with a rental like that, who cares?

    Renting from the same place and them getting to know you, at least on a computer, does have its perks and on off times, or a non-busy season (might not work in Florida during Easter season for example), if you have that history, sometimes just by asking nicely or asking for several levels up the chart but asking to pay for maybe one level up the chart sometimes pays dividends. I’ve gotten Volvos, Infinitis, and M-Bs for Altima and Impala prices.

    And there was the rental MX-5 (automatic…oh well, what can you do) that was so much fun to tear through the Hocking Hills.

    There was the sleeper rental – when Chevy still had the Impala SS with the V8 and FWD – that was a handful but, heck, was the same price as an Altima. I’ll give it a try!

    I figure it’s a vacation or a weekend trip, pay the extra $5/day and ask nicely, especially if they have the nice cars on display out front. If you have the history with them, it can turn out very well in your favor.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    In early 2016, I paid for a compact SUV, but they didn’t have any. I ended up getting a 2016 Escalade ESV, in black. Nice

    Earlier this year, three family members and I had to drive to Dallas, to catch a DFW flight to JFK, and then onto Heathrow. This meant the car would have four medium-size suitcases and four carry-on bags, in addition to the four of us. Airport parking for the two weeks we’d be out of the country was expensive, but so was a one-way rental. I decided to book a car through my employer’s CDP, which had pre-negotiated rates on a “Chevy Malibu or Similar.” It was going to cost all of $72 for a one-way, one-day trip. But, when I got there, since I was a Gold member, they told me to just “take anything in that section.” So I got a Pacifica, which was much more comfortable.

    I booked the same rental on the way back, and when they were all out of cars that would fit us in the Gold section—the only stuff left was an Encore (too small) and a Traverse (with the keys locked in it)— they gave me a Sienna. Also nice!

  • avatar
    TheEndlessEnigma

    About 2 years ago….
    On a trip to Indianapolis I had a car reserved through National’s Emerald Aisle (I rent enough through the year I have Executive Elite status). Coming around the corner to the National aisle an attendant is pulling a black Camero into a space, I grabbed it before he had a chance to turn it off. As I pulled away I realized it had 8 miles on the clock. On the interstate around Indy I stomped the go fast pedal and was rewarded by roaring from under the hood and out the tail pipe, and crazy acceleration (I may or may not have hit 125 mph before I came to my senses). When I got to my hotel it realized why the engine roared the way it did….a nice red SS badge was on the rear bumper. So, I had a shiny new 2017 Black Camero SS all for the rental price of $35.00 per day (our corporate rate)…had the car for 5 days. Yes, visibility in Cameros absolutely sucks, but the SS is a hell of a ride.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I got an ’04-’05 “retro” Thunderbird once in northern Indiana. I was only 19 at the time and they didn’t even charge me much for it so someone screwed up big time.
    I gave rides to so many Mennonite girls that weekend.

  • avatar
    HaveNissanWillTravel

    All of this talk is frivolous. I rent National as an Emerald Club Elite member and I rent what I want when I want it.

  • avatar
    TheDutchGun

    Booked a mid-size once for a trip from Ottawa to Toronto. Would have been I believe a Sonata or similar. The only car they had available when I arrived was a Mercedes C300. Worked out well for me.

  • avatar
    ArialATOMV8

    Last year after the Detroit auto show, our scheduled flight back to Boston was delayed then “undelayed” and then eventually canceled due to Massport being unable to keep the runways at Logan free of ice.

    Anyways, frustrated we leave the lounge and after checking back in with our airline, we realize my father and I would be stuck in Detroit for another 2 days (he’d miss work and I’d miss the first day of classes of another semester). Tired from wasting 3 hours at the airport, we head to Hertz and my father requests a car with heated seats and 4WD/AWD. The only car that fits the bill is a Infiniti QX-80 which is overpriced. Our other option was a Durango SXT which the guy at the counter says is 4WD but does not have heated seats.

    We choose the Durango due to the decent price and after turning it on, to our surprise, it had heated cloth seats! Heck, that Durango was a better car than our previously assigned rental on the trip, a 2019 Chevy Equinox.

    Suprisingly, that extra full-day gave us a opportunity to visit the Ford F-150 factory, which was originally closed on the day we first visited The Henry Ford Museum.

    Back in 2017 during a trip to Miami, my family originally booked a compact SUV. Hertz was out so, they let us choose from the Luxury SUV row. We had the choice of a Navigator, a Escalade ESV or that Infiniti QX-60. We choose the black Escalade which was hilarious rolling around in Miami!

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I have done a ton of business travel through the years and have been a winner and a loser at the counter.

    Win: Just last month we were in Philadelphia. The rental agencies as a whole at the 30th Street Train Station have a terrible reputation so I booked with National (not my usual) as they appeared to be the best of the worst. Sure enough, get to the counter, and they don’t have any midsize sedans. Turns out all they have is SUVs with no cargo covers, which is a problem for us because it means our luggage and camera gear will be exposed anywhere we stop. For the “trouble” got upgraded at no charge to a 2019 Infiniti QX80 with 2900 miles.

    Win: In August of 2017 we flew to Kansas City, Missouri to be in a great spot to see the solar eclipse. Our flight was delayed due to weather and we didn’t get into KC until almost midnight. There was a HUGE line at the counter, and I figured we would be screwed. Again, I had rented a midsize as we wanted the trunk, better fuel economy, and the rental rates were CRIMINAL due to the eclipse. To keep the line moving the person told us we could take anything with four doors and a trunk. Got a 2017 Buick Lacrosse Premium that we ended up needing to drive over 1500 miles. Perfect car for us.

    Win: In 2015 went to Boston for my high school reunion. Used Hotwire and got saddled with Dollar (don’t ever rent from Dollar, ever) and it started off as a nightmare. Rented a fullsize because I specifically didn’t want to be pretentious. They didn’t have a fullsizer and tried to downgrade us. Told them nothing doing, ended up making a call, and we were told to see what was available. They had – nothing. A Camry LE, a Chrysler minivan, and 3 Mercedes GLK350s. We took the Mercedes but the man at the gate for Dollar wouldn’t let us proceed. He said in a thick Russian-Boston accent, “this is Mercedes, this is very expensive vehicle!”

    We actually were stuck because another vehicle was behind us. By blind dumb luck, the manager happened to be walking through the lot and the gatekeeper flagged him down. Again he says, “they have fullsize but they try to take Mercedes. Mercedes! Is very expensive vehicle!”

    The manager tells us to take it – no charge.

    That accent – will never, ever forget that hybrid Russian-Boston accent.

    Loss Turned to Win: Picked up a rental in SFO and got a Malibu LT1. It was a nightmare out of the lot. The Infotainment system was possessed by Satan, the passenger side human detector was broken, and was convinced someone was there so I had to drive with that seatbelt buckled. Then I came out to a flat tire when I was in Vacaville. I ended up having to drive to Sacramento (closer) to do a swap of the car, as they requested I just run it on the minispare (for a week, on 70 MPH California highways, in wet weather, ummmmm….no.”

    Counter agent took pity on my plight and 2 hour RT detour to swap the car. Got a Nissan Maxima for my trouble. What a step up!

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    One more:

    Win turned to Loss: In 2013 flew into Oakland for a conference that my now wife was attending. I setup a rental with Hertz and played, “let’s make a deal,” as I always go at the counter. For a nominal increase (like $5 a day) got upgraded to a Dodge Challenger R/T, brand new, only 200 miles on the odometer.

    I had the car for exactly one hour. While driving through the Treasure Island Tunnel (westbound) the afternoon sun hit just perfectly to blind me for maybe 1/2 a second, in that time traffic went from 40ish to zero and I was still going 40ish. Brake to the floor and the wheels locked (to this day I will insist ABS never engaged, the only thing I heard was howling tires, the Challenger pulled slighly left, and left long black skidmarks on the pavement). I rear ended a Toyota Camry, causing $8800 damage to the Challenger.

    Drove back to Hertz to swap it out and I got the penalty box. I was given the keys to a 2 year old, 44K mile Chevrolet Impala LS with the 3.5L under the hood. It had stem to stern parking lot rash, the rotors were warped, and the seats had stains.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Couldn’t actually take advantage of the best potential win, a new-generation Camaro SS I found sitting in the Emerald Aisle, because I needed a real back seat and cargo space on that trip.

    The best actual win was a loaded, HiPer-equipped Buick LaCrosse. Loved the dynamics for a big cushy sedan. The lack of torque steer from a big, heavy front-driver reminded me oddly of my own Acura Legend.

    Second place would be a previous-gen Camry XLE V6. That was in Nashville, where you have to drive with your foot to the floor at all times or be run over, and the refined power was much appreciated.

    Also appreciate any Chrysler 300 that is well-trimmed enough to have the nicer interior materials.

    Losses: Sentras, a current-gen Hyundai Sonata, and a current Jeep Compass.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      Envy on the XLE V6 Camry. The only Camry sleds I’ve ever found are the now-defunct rental trim L model (that was AWFUL, AWFUL, awful) or 4-cylinder LEs. The Camry L I had as a rental left a really bad taste in my mouth. Automakers do a huge disservice building rental spec vehicles.

      I would happily take the keys to an XLE V6.

  • avatar
    wario

    I paid the absolute minimum to book a car at a tiny airport – $30 or something – and I was fully expecting a Versa or Spark, and they gave me a Cadillac CTS.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I’m in the possession of one right now. Traveling in Spain to move my daughter here for her to teach English for a year. Reserved a Focus and got a Focus ST Line Sportbreak. Haven’t done anything other than in town driving yet. We’ll see tomorrow as we head out to the small town where she will be living.

  • avatar
    MZ3AUTOXR

    I had a trip that had me flying in to Pittsburgh to see a customer, then driving to Buffalo for a different customer visit. I was supposed to arrive around 9PM but the flight was horribly delayed and I didn’t get in until about 1:30.

    My preferred rental company is National because I like the ability to just pick a car and drive without going to the counter. Well there was some sort of convention going on at the same time. When I walked out to the rental car portion of the garage, it was bare – none of the companies had much, if any inventory and I feared that I would be out of luck until morning (and still had 30 miles to get to my hotel.)

    My fears looked to be confirmed when I got to the National area and the only two vehicles left were a Ford F150 Platinum and a BMW 740i, both of which were far above the rental class I reserved, which I told the attendants. They said, no worries, pick one.

    So BMW it was. I was looking forward to having it for a few days as it would have made a for a great ride up to Buffalo. Unfortunately, my Buffalo customer canceled the meeting and I had to turn the car in the following evening.

  • avatar
    gtem

    I learned a useful thing about how car rental places work, at least Enterprise. They track depreciation and usage of what’s on their lot, and each particular location tracks their own metrics and their branch’s performance is measured off that. So when a high-dollar premium car lands at a spot where most of the clientele wants cheap economy/fullsize sedans, that vehicle is a) costing that branch in depreciation as it sits there and b) occupies a valuable parking spot that could be used for a more rentable cheaper car. That is how I got upgraded to an almost new XC90 T6 for a one way drive from Indianapolis to State College PA last fall to scoop up a cheapo old B5 A4 that I bought off a customer of my brother’s. It was a great highway cruiser, but overall I thought it moreso reinforced my opinion that a lot of “premium” cars these days don’t really offer anything better than mainstream cars in terms of dynamics or quality. Just more flashy gizmos that can be incredibly annoying. Volvo’s “Pilot Assist” suite is very obtrusive IMO, and their touch screens have basic things like stereo bass/treble controls buried beneath 3-4 swipes and clicks to then adjust a on-screen slider. Just plain unsafe and very annoying.

  • avatar
    mncarguy

    Last year I had reserved a compact SUV for our trip to Florida. Usually, at the counter, the person will ask if I want to upgrade to a BMW or Lexus for only $30. I’ll say “$30 for the whole time?”, and they will say “No! $30 per day”. I’ll tell them that I’ll stick with my original rental. This time at the Tampa airport they said that since I rented for more than 10 days, and it was through Costco, they had a special and I could get a BMW X3 for $10 a day more than the compact SUV. For $10 I figured I could be a sport. I was more than happy with the upgrade.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Debbie Downer here to say:

    Remember than your typical rental vehicle is nicer and more functional than the daily driver of about 78% of the driving population.

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