Low Class Yuppie VIII: It was the best of rentals, it wasn’t the worst of rentals
Rental cars are one of life’s great punchlines. Few classes of machine are subject to as much apathy and abuse. It’s almost a shame, as rental cars are typically there for us when we need them most.
Unlike the tired jokes in the first installment of this column, rental-car humor never really gets stale. Or at least, not nearly as stale as the acrid odor best described as Hertz-says-you’re-not-supposed-to-smoke-in-here-but-countless-people-have-clearly-done-that-anyway. That’s likely because, unlike most car-person humor, the abuse of a crappy rental car is a virtually universal experience.
One of the all-time greatest rental-car jokes goes something like, “Q: What’s the fastest car ever built? A: A rental.”
Most of all, the experience is universal. Mel Gibson, Lizzo, the President, even your mother—at some point in their lives, they’ve all beaten the absolute dog-piss out of a rental. We all know what goes on in those things: You leave your sense of mechanical sympathy at the door, and then you slam it with the force of a Category 4 hurricane.
Perhaps much of the abuse heaped upon rentals is product of circumstance. Rental cars are almost universally foisted upon us after, or during, some of life’s greater discomforts—traffic accidents, air travel, and family vacations. In that light, all those neutral-slams, power slides, and curb-hopping antics seem almost natural, a socially acceptable way to blow off steam.
Nobody really rents a car for fun, even though plenty of fun happens after the college kid behind the counter hands you the keys to your borrowed crapcan. And on the rare occasions where the rental company hasn’t filled its fleet with the most basic, stripped-down people-movers, people have figured out how to abuse those cars even more than usual. We’ve all read the stories of Hertz Shelby GT-350 Rent-A-Racers returned with evidence of a roll cage being hastily welded in for club racing, then just as hastily removed.
Hundreds of thousands of retired rental cars are sold to the public each year. For some, it’s a cheap way to get a low-mileage, late-model car with a robust service history. (Ironically, rental companies generally take pretty good care of their investments.) On the other hand, that fleet service shows up on the CarFax for the same reason as an insurance claim for an accident, a joyride, or a flood: If one of your friends went out and bought an ex-rental, you’d look at him as if he had just taken out a seven-year loan on Babylon the Great.
I don’t mean to imply that any of this is bad. It’s just how the world works. Personally, given the opportunity, I’m always inclined to find the redline of whichever hapless rental appliance I’ve been assigned. After all, I paid for the extra insurance, and I’m going to use it. That said, I recently reflected on my experiences with rental cars, and I was reminded of a particularly chilly February night nearly a decade ago, when a rental was so good at its job, I didn’t want to give it back.
Back when I was still working at the Infiniti dealership, selling luxury cars and SUVs to the sort of discerning people who knew that Infiniti was a brand of cars that existed, I happened to sell a QX60 crossover to a lawyer from just outside Detroit. Part of the deal included delivery. At the time, I was green enough in the car business that I didn’t think to question whether that responsibility fell on me directly. The dealer’s management was all too happy to get the job done for no more than the cost of a rental for my return trip, saving the expense of sending a porter, who, horror of horrors, was paid hourly.
Detroit was only about two and a half hours away, so I set out midmorning. When I arrived, my customer was kind enough to drop me off at a rental-car agency—I don’t recall which one—where I was given the choice between some Korean econobox or a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. On that agency lot, the VW seemed almost exotic, and when I sat inside, I met an interior that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an entry-level Audi.
Okay, that’s maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but by rental standards, it might as well have been a Maybach. This was where I first met the joy of heated cloth seats, a feature that remains, to this very day, one of my most treasured automotive delicacies.
I got good use out of those heaters, too. As the sun fell in the sky, so did the temperatures. Then snow began to fall, hard and fast. Fortunately, the rental car agency had fitted the little grey VW with winter tires. A comfortable interior, reasonably responsive steering, good brakes, and great tires—I felt unstoppable. I had everything I needed in life right then and there. When I hit a turnpike rest area for a short break, I felt compelled to do something I hadn’t done before and haven’t done since: I took a picture of my rental car. I think I even patted it on the dashboard and told it it was doing a good job.
When I passed the exit for my dealership, I decided to not stop and switch back into the car I drove every day. I wanted to spend the night with the Volkswagen. The next morning, I felt distinct melancholy when I returned the Jetta to the airport rental agency.
To this day, I smile when I see a Jetta SportWagen in traffic. I might not have been happy living with one, but in that moment, as far as I was concerned, it was among the best cars on the planet. And as rental cars go, it was the best, bar none.
Cam VanDerHorst is a stand-up comedian and lifelong car enthusiast from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He recently celebrated two years of sobriety from German daily drivers.