Low Class Yuppie VIII: It was the best of rentals, it wasn’t the worst of rentals

Cam VanDerHorst

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.

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    As I was a frequent traveler in my working days, I can relate. I’ve driven mostly forgettable examples from most domestic and import manufacturers, along with a few that were unabashedly horrible. The one standout – in a good way – was the Audi A3 I had for two weeks in Norway. Manual trans, diesel. I am biased towards Audis already, and getting one as a rental was a bonus I’d never get in the USA. Great car, and I’d buy one now if I were in the market.

    Sometimes, renting even one of “the most basic, stripped-down people-movers” can be a surprisingly great experience, depending on where you go. If you want to drive south from Eureka, CA while hugging the coast instead of taking US-101 you have to traverse the King Range Conservation Area; a labyrinth of seldom graded old logging roads full of ruts and deep puddles big enough to swallow a pickup. In short, a paradise for dirt bikers, quad riders, and caravans of tricked out and bewinched Jeeps belonging to members of some four wheeler weekend warrior club (4WWWC). I had none of those things when I was there in 2015, and it was a weekday, so the place was pretty well deserted.

    What I did have was a rented Kia Forte, an ultimate destination (Sacramento), an aversion to four lane freeways, and complete ignorance about what I was getting into. Most of those 40+ miles were spectacular but otherwise uneventful. The road wasn’t so bad that you couldn’t pick your way around the deepest ruts and the sharpest rocks that were just aching to pierce the Forte’s oilpan. The car handled all this with aplomb because it’s small, light, highly maneuverable, and has excellent FWD traction. The only thing lacking was ground clearance, which meant that every puddle required serious recon and planning to negotiate a route through it that didn’t involve an assist from a tow truck.

    “Puddle” is a bit too cute and cuddly a word to describe the swimming pool sized, muddy bottom morass that the Forte was facing that sunny Spring day. Most of these were dips across the whole road filled gunwale to gunwale with several inches of water extending anywhere between a few yards and twenty in legth. There was never a way around along the sides. In a proper offroad capable vehicle, you could blast through them without even slowing down. But with the Forte, I had to inspect each puddle, probe it to assess water depth and muddy bottom softness, and THEN blast through it.

    Every puddle crossed was a thrill, and also a reinforcement of the Forte’s need to press forward because with some of these puddles there was no possibility of turning around and going back through it the other way.

    I did encounter a handful of other people that day and enjoyed seeing them wave with wide eyes wondering “how did THAT get up here?”. The last people I saw were a young hippy-ish couple and their dog with a ratty but rad looking Toyota Hilux 4WD that they’d managed to encase in the deepest muck so far. They had spent the night there and were still trying to dig out when I came upon them. They were headed north and I was headed south with no room to get around them, so I helped them dig a little more and then hooked their tow strap up to the front of the Forte, put it in reverse and, if you can believe it, pulled them right out of the mud!

    That sealed it for me. The Mighty Forte remains the best and most fun car I’ve ever rented and it still makes me smile to think about the amount of mud the rental company had to wash off when I returned it.

    One thing that will keep you obeying the speed limit in your rental is if you rent one for your conservative work. At no point, while I am in my work rental do I want to do a full-throttle pull or a power slide. Honestly, I never want to get where I am going any sooner than I have to be there. I like my job but I could be just fine not traveling so much.

    In 2022 I had 24 rentals, most have been just fine as all had Apple Car Play and that’s all I care about now as for options. My local rental branch has taken notice that I bring whatever car I am given, I bring back clean with no wear. Now when I come in, they tend to save me a very clean new car because they know it will come back in nice shape, the past 6 rentals or so I was given a car with less than 1,000 miles on it, compared to the first time I rented I got a Hyundai Accent with 68k on it. Be nice to your rental cars because you never know who is watching!

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