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.
Yep, it's another car culture blog. I'm just bringing up Goldeneye because I couldn't think of a better jumping off point to talk about my thesis that didn't involve the phrase "rose-tinted glasses" and I hate that phrase. I'm just going to hit you with the main idea:
It is fine to judge old cars by modern standards.
A simple enough statement, but one that super-triggers people with fan allegiances or nostalgia issues. These same issues exist anywhere self-made loyalties lie: movies, music, food, and of course video games and cars. The reason I picked seminal Nintendo 64 title Goldeneye to clickbait this blog is because its saying Goldeneye sucks is one of my very hottest takes, and also because the reaction I get to that take almost exactly mirrors Tristan's reaction to my statement from a few episodes ago that old land yachts suck. There's anger. There's strident protest. And of course, the endless tide of "Yeah but".
Some more background for you non-gamers, feel free to skip ahead if you know this stuff: Goldeneye 64 was a first-person shooter released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. It was absolutely groundbreaking. Goldeneye proved not only that first-person shooters could work on home consoles, but also that shooters could be open-world adventures. The game's story mode mirrored the events of the hit 1995 Bond film, and the game's multiplayer mode reached such legendary status that not only has it spawned a hundred direct-line imitators, mods, remakes, and re-imaginings, but it also poisoned the mind of an entire generation. I'll bet at least a third of gamers my age would say Goldeneye is the best shooter they've ever played, and every single one of them would be complete idiots to do so. Because Goldeneye is trash. The controls were created by a meth-addled tarantula-ape-squid. The multiplayer is farcically unbalanced. Every aspect of the single-player has aged exactly as well as summer roadkill deer. All of these problems were screamingly evident with the advent of the very next console generation - just four years after the game's release. Goldeneye 64 is fetid. And it's also extremely important.
It's possible to like things that are of poor quality. It happens all the time. Look at McDonald's. Look at Twitter. Look at Dodge. Look at The Bachelor/ette. There's no accounting for personal taste. For example: I love chocolate cake. But only if it is not in any way homemade. I like the homemade stuff, sure, but I love the commercial-grade stuff. Would they serve it in a dorm cafeteria and/or a hospital? I already have my tray. With the chocolate sprinkles? Even better. Two pieces. And the big ones. But commercial-grade chocolate cake is objectively shit compared to "real" cake. It tastes worse. It looks worse. The texture is worse. It contains no love or care. Commercial-grade chocolate cake is worse than homemade chocolate cake by every meaningful standard of the food world, but I like it more. I freely understand that it is worse, and I can even tell you why it is worse, but I like it more. I'm fine with that. And by the way, we aren't going to talk about irony here in this blog. There is no irony any more, irony is dead. Stop bringing it up.
It's also possible for things that are of poor quality to be important, or even vital, in their own context. Those ideas are not remotely incomparable. Context is extremely important whenever you're judging an object of any kind, and it can't be elided or forgotten. The thing is that when context is properly considered, even if you judge the past by using the lens of the present the best will always shake out on top. For example, if we judge Goldeneye by modern video game standards, it's going to get utterly destroyed - but it will still come out as critically important because it was the first game to establish...well...almost every single tenet of the first-person shooter genre we know today. If you judge the 1974 BMW 2002 by modern standards, it looks pretty good! Decent power, decent-looking, good features, sure 9 seconds to 60, and it nearly created the sports saloon. That's pretty good! Ditto the original Ford Mustang. And the Firebird Trans Am. And the Model T. And the Honda Accord. And the Beetle. And a dozen-dozen other cars. And if you do the same thing with a Cadillac Brougham, you end up cry-laughing. Because that's how bad that car truly was. It reads exactly like a joke. So why can't it just be that? Even a joke has an audience.
Of course, car culture is absolutely infested with this nostalgia obsession where everything you like has to also be validated as good by some outside source. Car fans have always chosen to die on the hoods of the cars they like the most. Every few years some Detroit publication prints some soft-focusass piece on the newest Ford exec who was raised in fucking House Karstark or whatever and how that exec was promised to GM as an infant and then after the exec got the Ford job their father or uncle wouldn't talk to them for three months or whatever. Obviously these stories are complete fabrications, but the element of truth in the lie is the still-aggressive undercurrent of diehards in car culture. And to those people I would ask these questions: Why can't you like what you like and still recognize it for what it is objectively? Why is it total devotion or accusations of not being a "real fan"? Why is it zealotry or being a filthy casual? Why do the new Star Wars movies have to ruin the old ones for those too weak-willed to accept that they grew out of it a little bit in the interim of forty fucking years?
Maybe that last one is less connected, but I think my point is clear. It's perfectly fine to like things that are factually bad. It will always be okay to like what you like, but I honestly think we'd all be better off if we all could also understand what we like in it's own context, no matter what that context illustrates. And you know what? If facing the reality of what you like changes your like for it, then you didn't actually like it all that much. Move on. Find something else that's more your taste. It's fine to do that. It's fine to change your own opinion. But that's a blog for another day.