Commentary: The Return of The Rental Car

2013 Chevrolet Spark 1LT
The rented point of discussion. Photo by Randy Stern

This week, I had a bit of a transportation crisis.

Before I get into, did you know that I am not a car owner? At this point, it really does not matter since my vocation allows me to concentrate on one vehicle at a time. Yet, I found myself in a lull between waves of review subjects and in the midst of participating in a media junket. Just so happens, I had a job interview at a suburban location right before the media junket.

The location is reachable by Metro Transit via a mainline bus. However, time was not on my side. To manage time, I wound up doing something I had not done since February of 2011. It was not my first choice of transport, but a necessary evil…

Prior to April of 2011, I would work on my automotive writing craft by renting cars. Be it car share programs or full-on rentals, I would head somewhere, grab the car and go…somewhere. Rentals exposed me to a lot of mainstream vehicles that both satisfy my want to drive and experience them. I could Rolodex through each model to find my likes and disappointments of each vehicle. Hence why you could see them in the archives of this site…

You might say that it was quite an expensive hobby. Yet, the money spent on these rentals was hard spent on framing this work you see here.

Unlike the vehicles I normally review these days, rentals have already been through the wringer. Cars that have 15,000 to 30,000 or more miles on the clock and showing some wear from previous renters were one way to see how a car is to live with. Perhaps that would work as a good indicator on vehicle reliability and quality – something we always are curious about.

The rental car experience goes back years for me. I was 21 with a credit card and no sense at all. My car history was shite even at that age, but I always craved to drive the latest and greatest. My first rental was in 1985, taking up Hertz's offer of a weekend special for the Ford Thunderbird. That was exactly what I got – a big two-door personal luxury coupe with Ford’s aerodynamic design language, a V6 and plenty of equipment that I always dreamed of having. Best of all, I was very happy it all worked!

I went into Burbank Airport with my driver's license and credit card – nervous as I could be. I had no clue about rules, insurance waivers, mileage restrictions, taxes and so forth. I knew I had to fill up the big T-Bird's tank at the end – the one rule one should do when renting a car. The first experience was satisfying – almost climatic. It put me on the road towards debt and automotive insanity.

Needless to say, I had some epic rentals. Back home in California, I traversed Interstate 5 from San Diego to Seattle in my want of discovering the world. That stretch of highway had enough Chevrolet Cavaliers, Ford Tauruses, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes, Chevrolet Luminas and Buick Regals churning unlimited miles and insane driving stints. My southbound runs between the Bay Area and Southern California were overnight jaunts through the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. I was indeed fearless in my younger years.

Needless to say, I kept on renting up until February of 2011. There are too many stories to recall from Atlanta to Fargo, Phoenix to Philadelphia. It is hard enough to remember every vehicle I had touched for whatever purpose in whatever city I drove in.

A lot of changed since 2011. It appears that American rental car classifications are almost the same as in other parts of the world. I reserved a compact from Hertz at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and wound up with a Chevrolet Spark.

There was indeed a difference from my prior two experiences with the Spark – not because of the trim level alone. We now have a Spark that has indeed been through many rentals, equaling over 15,000 miles on the odometer. The Spark had its war wounds: Some scratches on the bumper cap corner in the road, scuffs on the cargo hold's lip-over plate and some stains on the seats. I felt sorry for this silver Spark 1LT, even as I gassed up and returned it to the airport.

I am not certain which group of folks is harder on cars – the automotive media corps or the customers of a rental car agency. I will refrain from even venturing onto this question…

Renting cars gave me some perspective on far the automotive has evolved within a period from the 1980s to today. The evolution in technology, safety and engineering are welcomed throughout the years. Every vehicle I drove just got better than the last in terms of these advancements. That is indeed a good thing.

Therefore, today’s renters are somewhat spoiled by these advances in their temporary vehicles. Or, should they be? Perhaps, as long as the trim level of the vehicles they rent are the ones heavily advertised with all of the goodies. Most rental vehicles are either the lowest trim or somewhere in the middle. Some rental agencies will have a particular model’s top of the line to thwart the rental car image. Believe me, getting one of these top line vehicles works in their favor.

However, this piece about renting cars is not about history or the experience of doing so. This kicks off an exploration of alternatives to car ownership on this site. Rental cars are one option with plenty of advantages going for them. With unlimited mileage, flat rates and a wider variety of vehicles to choose from, rental cars suit needs meant for extended trips within and beyond the metropolitan area. Yet, they are more costly than other solutions and pricing does not include key insurance provisions and fuel.

Understanding this, rental car companies are now expanding into car sharing programs that are more inclusive in cost and friendlier for more temporary use of vehicles.

Renting this already-reviewed and quite familiar little number brought everything back before this site became Victory & Reseda. A simple return to the calamity of airport or local location check-in, the drive itself and returning to see whether your Loss Damage Waiver will be tapped for someone else's scratch or dent. It is probably worth it…

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