Hello dear readers! This week, for our hottest of blogs, I would like to offer up a toast to the best worst car you’ll ever drive. To your chance to see how the other half lives. To the infinite promise of not having to own something. To, as one famous car presenter put it, the Fastest Car...in the World. Here’s to you, rental car!
We as a podcast have often discussed how much we like discussing rental cars. We’ve even come up with a Rental Car Reviews segment. But you know what? That isn't enough for me, and after my most recent rental car experience I felt I needed to write this blog. It was at the outset of a great Memorial Day adventure to Tennessee that I was handed the keys to a dreary Hyundai Elantra. It was the most basic of most basic models, redolent of the heady smell of industrial cleaners. The seat was tipped back to a simply astonishing angle by the lot attendant who had dropped it off. In my head, I decided that this was not going to be worth a rental car review. In fact, that specific Elantra is not going to be worth many more pixels on this page. What that car did do, however, was spawn the idea for this blog post.
The rental car, I believe, is one of the most under-appreciated luxuries of modern life. The rental car is often met with derision or, almost worse, just paid no attention to at all. I just did it to the poor Elantra mentioned above. But as a car person, I can tell you the last three or four cars I rented, easily. Yet I suspect that's pretty unusual. I think most people would remember the color of the car they rented more than they would remember the make or model. However, I really do find this to be a shame. In this country where distances are so vast and the forecast for quality public transportation is grim, rental cars are a godsend for travelers. Instead of getting off of the plane and having to go wherever the winds of fate (read: CTA, MTA, BART, etc.) take you, what can you do instead? Bounce on down to the rental counter and speak to a harried-looking man in a tie and ask him for a(n) car please. You can even pick the size of the car you want. It could be not a car at all, in fact! You want a truck? A SUV? A creepy panel van? No problem! And, just like that, you have as much freedom in the vast, far away land of Ft. Lauderdale as you could ever need. Of course, the rental car you get might be something you would never buy yourself, but then again, you didn't buy it. That car WILL take you to your hotel without having to wait for a shuttle. It WILL take you to the 24 hour Walgreens without having to talk to a cab driver. It WILL allow you to visit JimBob’s Barbecue and Moonshine Shack, located so far up in the mountains that you would never get there otherwise.
The other thing rental cars allow is the continuity of joy, at least for myself and my co-hosts. We’re drivers. We love driving. We love road tripping. We’ll be doing it to Watkins Glen in a few short weeks. However, we do realize there ARE some places to which it is quite difficult to drive. Like Madagascar. Or, for a less extreme example, the drive may be prohibitively expensive, like driving to Alaska from anywhere that isn't Alaska. The rental car allows you to still live out your “live like a local” fantasies while not having to take three weeks of vacation. You can even - like my family has done multiple times - rent a car in your very own home city! We often do this for road trips because, well, as great as they are, road trips put a lot of miles on the cars we love so very very much and if those cars break, that REALLY puts a wet blanket on your cool road trip. With a rental car, you don’t have to worry about the miles or the fear of turning your road trip to Colorado into a road trip to... Nebraska or something. Your rental car breaks? Great, have them bring you a new one. No fuss, no muss.
Rental cars also give you the opportunity to experience a car that you might not, otherwise. Sometimes, that can actually be a really valuable thing. For years, my co-host Andrew, had been harping on and ON about how actually good the new Hyundai/Kia models were. In the relatively standard response for someone who is a fan of German car... or Japanese cars... or actually lots of other cars, I always replied “Oh, I’m sure! Just not my scene, you know?” As if I were a man from the 70's (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is still a strong possibility). I was still living in the biased past where Korean cars were junk. However, that all changed when Nick and I drive a rental Kia Optima from Milwaukee, WI to Austin, TX and back. A trip of some 18 hours each way. In the span of that trip, we stopped three times on the way down and three times on the way back up because we had to. Not the car. The squishy human bits were tired and had to use the bathroom. The car could have gone another quarter tank each time we stopped. To us, that was an amazing feat! It rode out an absolute frog-drowned of a storm in Dallas. It was super comfortable and it had Bluetooth for our phones. (Something which neither of us had in our own cars, at the time, might I add). That one rental car experience took my entire car world view and tipped it on its head.
So, my point stands. Rental cars are cruelly under-appreciated. Are most rental cars the bottom of the options list barrel? Yes. Are they often not even close to the best model in their class? Yes. Are they YOUR car? No. But... are they A car? Yes. And that has a lot of value. You’ll be able to drive, no matter where you go, courtesy of the rental car. And hey, you might even learn something along the way.