I took a few days off in December for a vacation, flying out to New Mexico just in the nick of time to avoid the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID. I’d need a rental car to get from the airport in El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces – and to tool around town a bit, maybe.
Being on an automotive journalist’s salary and knowing I’d likely never have more than one passenger at a time, I decided to go the least-expensive route and get a compact – “compact” by the rental-car company’s definition, but subcompact per the EPA.
“Nissan Versa” or similar, the Web site said. Not great, but something I could live with for a few days. I didn’t need a lot of space or comfort.
As you might have noticed, or heard from us, rental agencies have been hoovering up new and used vehicles to offset the 2020 selloff that stemmed from everyone mysteriously canceling their travel plans that year. Returning to normal, which is something anyone who didn’t assume the world was ending could have predicted, has resulted in increased pricing for vehicles — regardless of whether you’re renting or buying.
Rental companies typically try to play the vehicle market like the rest of use stocks or (if you’re hip) crypto. Buy low, sell high. But 2021 has created a perfect storm of increased demand coming after a long stretch of nothing and an auto industry that doesn’t seem to be capable of building cars thanks to all sorts of component shortages. But it’s no sweat for the big rental agencies because they’re now able to charge just about whatever they want. They’re keeping vehicles in their fleets longer, making more money off them, and selling them back at elevated prices.
With car rentals crippled through 2020 as society collectively stopped traveling in response to the pandemic, businesses entered 2021 with the perfect excuse to charge exorbitant fees to lend out some of the cheapest vehicles on the market. Cities have it particularly bad as rental firms find themselves with a surplus of locals wanting to escape and not enough vehicles to serve them. Daily rates now surpass three figures in metropolitan areas and can balloon by hundreds more if a customer wants to return the vehicle out of state (depending on the agency).
However, Hawaii is where things start to get really weird. The islands are reportedly in such short supply of rental cars that tourists are borrowing U-Hauls, where the biggest concerns of mileage and finding a parking space pale in comparison to the upfront cost of something more typical of vacationing families.
Almost every rental car I’ve driven, regardless of make or model, in the last 18 to 24 months, particularly in the Bay Area and especially if the car has 20,000 or more miles, has the passenger detection system for turning the airbag on/off broken. Ford, GM, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, it doesn’t matter. Sedan, SUV, sports car, again it doesn’t matter.
The first time it happened was in a Malibu. I’m driving with an alarm going off and I keep scanning the dashboard for a message or idiot light. Pulled over and checked the doors were all closed and trunk closed. Then I noticed the blinking light for the passenger seat seatbelt not being buckled and that a passenger is detected in the front seat. Nothing was in the seat, not even a piece of paper. After I secured the seatbelt for the invisible passenger the alarm stopped. I had to drive the car that way for the rest of my trip.
This has repeated itself in almost every rental I’ve had since. The most recent frustration was a 2017 Kia Optima I just had, which again required me to drive around with the passenger seatbelt buckled for the invisible passenger.
Does this mean that my personal vehicles will eventually befall the same fate? Is there something that rental car drivers are doing that abuse this system? Does California have a different standard? What gives?
General Motors launched its Maven rideshare service in 2016 with the goal of providing renters with a taste of its vehicles, while also bringing in a little extra revenue. The service offers a wide array of vehicles ranging from small hatchbacks like the Chevrolet Spark to large SUVs like the Tahoe.
The service is available in many larger cities across the country and, since I was visiting Detroit for the auto show, I decided to give it a try to see what a potential renter might encounter. I signed up for the app and rented a couple of vehicles without notifying GM in order to experience the vehicles just as the general public would.
The vehicles were far worse than I expected.
This past week, your humble author spent three days on vacation with a rented 2017 Dodge Durango GT. The black wagon you see above is the result of terseness at the Enterprise counter, where I had a reservation for a “Standard, Buick Verano or similar” vehicle, but where a base model Elantra with 25,000 miles, stained seats, and wheel covers was presented by the Enterprise staff.
The Durango was equipped with the Navigation and Power Liftgate Group, bringing its price to around $42,000 before incentives. That’s far too much coin for the irritation this vehicle causes.
All things considered, the Elantra may have been less annoying to drive.
I have zero patience with people who make pricing comparisons between new cars and used cars. It is almost always done to show off the supposedly superior financial acumen, automotive knowledge, or enthusiast credentials of the person making the comparison. “I sure feel bad for that single mother emergency-room nurse who just wasted her money on a new CR-V. Doesn’t she know that she could get an ’86 Silver Spur for that kind of money? Or a early 308GTS roller chassis? Or a Cessna 152 that just needs a major overhaul to be pretty close to airworthy?” I have a pal, Freddy, who specializes in that sort of article for the nice folks at Jalopnik: “For the price of a new Mirage, you could be the owner of a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 600SEL with 178,000 miles on the clock and half of a wiring harness!”
Just this once, however, I am going to make an exception to my own self-imposed rule, and it goes something like this: Last week, I rented the 2016 Nissan Pathfinder S that you see above. I drove it from Columbus, Ohio, to High Point, North Carolina, over the course of a long morning. It was pretty much okay, as you will read below. If you go a Nissan showroom, you will see the 2017 Pathfinder, which offers some nontrivial improvements, starting at $30,200. And you will see the Nissan Rogue Sport, which is the company’s smallest crossover in this market, starting at $21,800 or thereabouts. But if you open up the used-car search engine of your choice, you will see that a 2016 Nissan Pathfinder S — just like the one pictured above with reasonable mileage and still very much under the factory warranty — can be had for the mildly astonishing sum of $18,000.
So let’s evaluate this Pathfinder in the context of its current price, which is $18,000. Is it worth paying less to get “more truck” than you would get with a brand-new Rogue Sport? Or should we leave questions like this to the Bring-A-Trailer types out there?
I closed the driver’s door and the back window of the 2017 Hyundai Sonata simply fell into the passenger compartment, a thousand little pieces sprinkled over my luggage, my spare pair of shoes, my son’s child seat. It was about 10:45 on a Saturday night. Danger Girl, my son, and I were nearly 400 miles away from home. It was 26 degrees outside. And we were about 40 miles from the nearest town with more than one stoplight.
Did I mention that the car in question was a rental?
This will likely come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who get your news through glass bottles tossed into the ocean and carried by persistent currents to the remote island on which you’ve been stranded by the crash of your FedEx plane, but Volkswagen is in a little bit of trouble due to some questions about diesel emissions. I think it’s a safe bet that the fellow I saw on Route 71 the other day with “TDI LOVE” as the license plate on his Jetta isn’t feelin’ it.
While the New New Beetle — now called just Beetle — was available as a TDI prior to the current kerfuffle, the version that I rented on Monday is powered by the same turbocharged gasoline engine that I liked in the Jetta TSI earlier this year. As tested, it’s $22,615.
So, should you buy one?
“Let me show you how this works,” Danger Girl laughed, as we descended the stairs in the airport parking garage. I call her Danger Girl because
0. I keep putting her in danger, sometimes mortal;
1. She soloed in a Cessna before she turned seventeen;
2. She has certain other dangerous habits that, this being a different kind of publication than it was in days past, cannot be discussed in the full and frank fashion with which it was once my delight to oppress our more delicate readers.
She’d told me that we were renting a Camry. I was happy about this. I like renting Camrys. But as we walked towards a line of cars that clearly included Camrys, Danger Girl took a sharp right turn towards a black Challenger in what I was pretty sure was the rental return lane. “I can take any car I want,” she informed me, “so I’m going to take this one.” I loaded our luggage into the wide, flat, Seventies-style trunk as she fired up the Pentastar and adjusted the seat. “Off we go!” she laughed, and we drove up two levels of a circular ramp and out into the warm California night.
As we entered the freeway, something occurred to me.
“Hey… aren’t you supposed to, like, tell somebody you’re taking this car?”
TTAC Commentator thirty-three writes:
Not sure if this fits into your usual line of questions, but I’m looking for suggestions on renting a car for my upcoming wedding. My problem is that here in Vancouver, BC, I can’t find anyone who rents premium vehicles like a Benz or a Jaguar.
Really expensive cars are available (e.g. Ferraris, Maseratis), but I just want a luxury sedan that will seat 5 comfortably. I only need it for one of the five days. Yes, it is an Indian wedding.
You never know what car you’re going to get at the rental counter. Whether you’re at an airport in Anchorage, a Milwaukee suburb, or in Tahiti, you won’t know how you’ll get from Point A to Point B, or if you’ve ever vacationed in Tahiti, Point A to Point A. It could better than your usual car, a newer version of your usual car, worse than your usual car, or horribly worse than your usual car, the last category reserved for the Dodge Avenger and Chevy Spark.
2014 has been a good year for the rental car industry. A recovering economy has meant more car rentals and more miles traveled by consumers. Volume alone isn’t responsible for the rental companies’ recent success, though. Each of the big three rental chains has been able to raise prices, thanks to the consolidation of an industry that they now collectively control 98% of.
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