Rental Car Ratings for 2009

Now that 2009 is behind me, I took a minute to think about every car I rented, and boy has this been quite a travel year for me.  As businesses start to look around and ask the question, “So, Now What?”, I have been on the road more than planned.  A big part of being a road warrior is knowing how to get from the airport to your real destination.   Trains, buses, taxi’s, limos and rental cars all can meet the need depending on where you are going.

As an airline pilot twice a month, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room.  You stand there and wait for whatever the airline told you is your form of travel.  If that company doesn’t show up, you can take a cab and hope the airline pays you back.  As a business adviser and owner the rest of the month, the cost of transportation is part of the fee I charge my clients.  Since I own the company I have a lot more flexibility in what I do as long as my wife sees the price after we get paid.  My basic plan is easy.  If I have more than 8 hours of time to kill or my wife goes with me, then I rent a car.  Sadly that is most of the time I travel.  I also carry my own portable GPS since I can pre-program the routes or places I want to go before I start the trip.

I start out on Expedia or Travelocity and then book the second cheapest car I can at Hertz or Budget.  I have tried other companies in the past and it wasn’t worth the hassle to save $3 a day.  During 2009, I rented 15 times, and all but once my basic plan worked out.  I learned this trick in 2007 when renting from Hertz.  If they have an abundance of “premium” cars, you can usually get a great deal at the last second on the upgrade.  The flaw is using your “gold” membership to get the one class upgrade.  Hertz automatically assigns the upgrade and you get what you get.
In 2007 when Hertz had the Shelby GT350H available, I was chomping at the bit to rent one.  The online price was over $300 a day, so I decided to rent the $39 a day economy car.   When I got to the counter, I happened to get Todd, a manager of the LAX Hertz counter.  I asked why there were so many GT350H Mustangs sitting outside.  He said no body was renting them, and the negotiations started.  He of course did the right thing for Hertz and started at $299 a day.  We eventually settled much lower at a price that made me very happy to rent such a cool car, he even threw in a years membership to the #1Gold program.

The Shelby was an absolute blast to drive, and other than being a little stiff in the suspension arena for my wife, the GT350H was a perfect car for a Southern California work week.  Cruising Beverly Hills famous Rodeo Drive shopping district, the Shelby felt right at home.  I have reserved an economy car every trip since and all but once got some kind of good deal on the upgrade.  I don’t know if Hertz and Budget keep customer notes, but I usually buy the gas and return it at about a quarter tank.  If I get  a cool car I usually will wash it too.

Shelby GT350H at Newport Beach
Another Great SoCal Rental Car GT350H
In 2009 the economy rental upgrade plan failed one time.  Sure enough it was a vacation with my wife.  We selected economy from Budget at the Nashville Airport, and I couldn’t talk the guy out of any deals except a Ford Crown Victoria land yacht.  We ended up with a Kia Spectra.  The spectra had manual windows, a feature I didn’t even know still existed on US spec cars.  The entire week we joked about driving a “spec” as in the old commercials the car was so small.  It was easy to park at least.

Several times in 2009, I  ended up with various versions of the Ford Mustang.  What was impressive about the Mustangs was the overall quality.  Not one had a rattle or drip, and the most recent rental was a Mustang convertible with 24,000 miles on it.  Another successful upgrade from a reserved “economy car”.  We dropped the top and visited my friends at Truspeed in Costa Mesa before running up into Central California then back for a topless tour on the Pacific Coast Highway.  My wife joined me on that trip making the convertible all the better.

All of the Mustangs offered a very nice drive for a car guy, and the 2009 models have better seats than the 2008.  I can’t put my finger on what is different, I just felt better after the 3 hour ride up the central valley on I-5.  The multi-layered top on the convertible is just quiet enough to talk on a cellular with a headset at highway speeds which is a nice bonus.  Both the GT and the standard Mustang Coupe we rented were quieter than my F-150 at all speeds, never mind easier to park.  The GT and GT convertible were met with about the same response at the Shelby GT350H, except no one scratched the Shelby or the convertible.  The valet at the Four Seasons added a nice bumper stripe to the Bright Red Mustang GT.  All three got the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) test this year, and the GT convertible is the hands down winner.  Cruising PCH with the top down is the quintessential California experience.  I got lucky with three trips up the coast in one year.

Our most recent rental deal was an Infiniti FX-35.  This time I was willing to pay the $300 a day for an SUV to get up to the Lake Tahoe area for a combination work and play week.  The weather up there is very unpredictable so having all wheel drive is a huge bonus.  Sorry, I don’t buy chains for rentals, to much risk of damaging the car.  Sadly there weren’t any AWD cars available at all on the web reservations systems, so  we selected a mid-sized front wheel drive.  At the counter my Hertz #1 Gold reservation wasn’t there, my car had been given away since we were late.  Max at the Gold service counter was quick to apologize and offer a free upgrade.  I asked for an SUV, and he said he couldn’t give me an upgrade that far, but would look into it.  They did have one SUV that canceled and was ready to go.  Max gave us a great price, so we grabbed it an ran like the wind.

The Infinity FX is a very solid SUV.  I had rented one in 2008 and didn’t remember anything about it for some reason. Maybe because we had just purchased a Mercedes ML CDI, or Maybe it was just a one night rental so I didn’t get time to really look at the car.  I really couldn’t say much about that rental in 2008, nothing good, nothing bad.  This time was a little different.  The newer model FX-35 had a seven speed automatic with paddle shifting capability.  The funny part was even when you used the paddles, it would start to shift on its own in 10 or 15 seconds.  The dash would read the gear position for about a minute then it would go back to D.  Running up the hills to the Lake Tahoe area in AWD due to the snow the FX-35 was shifting constantly.  I tried to override it and leave it in 6th but couldn’t figure out how.

One of the problems with paddle shifting is everyone has a different way to do it.  The FX-35 up shifts on the right and downshifts on the left, similar to our ML.  With the ML it takes one shift past the top gear to return to automatic mode.  My BMW requires that you move the shift selector to sport and back to return to full automatic mode.  I am sure the FX-35 has a way to select Manual and leave it there, but I couldn’t find it.
The FX-35 is like a rolling PS-3 with leather seats and seat heaters.  Every button I pressed came up with a new toy.  Not one button in the car was labeled SAT or XM, yet when I pushed the button marked “Radio AM/FM” 3 times I got XM.  That was a sweet bonus.  Classic Vinyl replaced the static of Sacramento radio while running up the mountain roads.  We figured out the FX-35 also had seat coolers just in case you are thinking of renting one in Phoenix Arizona, mid summer.  I don’t think my ML has that, I will have to check when it warms up.  The range of adjustment for the FX-35 seats was impressive.  It took a little getting used to the drivers seat going full back every time you opened the door, and moving forward when you got in.  The back seat passengers needed to get out quickly, preferably before you pressed the stop button.  Oh yeah, the keyless was a nice feature.  I like that on our ML also.

On solid pavement the handling of the FX-35 was crisp and clean with very nice feed back.  On slick and icy roads the handling was reasonably sure footed with the exception of dead stop acceleration.  Even with the “snow” button on, you could be just a little heavy on the right pedal and get the back end to come loose.  This is an odd feature for an AWD vehicle with traction control.  The traction warning light would come on just as the back end got loose and you are busy wondering where the thing is going.

The unintentional excitement came on the patchy road where there was a mix of clean pavement, ice and snow.  The traction control and anti-lock would get in a fight and the car would pull right or left or get loose even when driving very timidly.  Our 2000 Chevy Astro AWD van does better in those conditions.  The only thing I saw different on the dash was the “icy” indication.  In the heavy snow, the FX-35 returned to normal and tracked very nicely.

The final note for the FX-35 was the fuel economy.  For a normally aspirated vehicle it was uncommonly high.  The trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to Reno was less than a half tank including a full lake tour on New Years Eve.  In Reno I made the mistake of filling it up and washing it.  I returned it with nearly ¾ of a tank after paying the $65 tank fee.   Maybe that is why Hertz gives me the deals, they make up for it in the gas I buy them.

The only real let down of the FX-35 was finding an oil puddle after we parked it in the garage for two days while riding up to the ski resorts with family.

So here are my Rental Car Ratings for 2009, part of the rating is the price paid vs. what you got:

Ford Escape ***, Great little SUV, but little and not very powerful.  Nice fit and ride. Good for two adults and no kids on a short trip.
Ford Mustang ***, Great car, not to peppy, average MPG
Ford Mustang GT ****, Great car, fun to drive just enough trunk for a week and two people.  This car gets on it when you want it too.  I started to wonder if Hertz has tracking in the cars more than once.
Ford Mustang GT Convertible ****, More fun to drive, very solid car, easy to operate top and gauranteed to put a smile on your face when cruising a coastline in the sun.  Wear SPF 50, you might forget how long you’ve been out there.
Jaguar ****, Fun to drive, very easy car to get around town in, good trunk room and comfortable back seats for clients.  MPG better than expected for such a nice car.
Mercedes C320 **, Nav system is horrible, just like my ML at home.  Reasonably quick car, MPG average, fit, finish and ride quality were typical Mercedes, gets lower score due to very high cost.
Infiniti FX-35 ***, Add the fourth star if you need AWD, otherwise there is more fun stuff out there. Great Fuel efficiency, didn’t have NAV, used the big NeverLost which is kinda in the way.
Ford Explorer ****, Great AWD vehicle for snow trips when they are available.  Just enough room for a weeks worth of stuff for four people.  MPG isn’t the FX-35 but not to bad either.
Jeep Liberty**, same size as the Ford Escape, less power, same gas mileage as Mustang GT, and not nearly as fun, very comfortable seats for long drives but the wallet shock isn’t worth it.
Kia Spectra *, good fuel economy, poor seats for long drives.

One over all observation.  American Muscle is still just that, brute strength which always gets a smile when merging or passing on a lightly traveled highway.  The Japanese models had the most toys and the best driver to car to driver interface.  The German cars clearly still have the focus on the driver to road interface the driver to car interface still needs work.  The Mercedes C300 did have excellent road feel, but for the fun the slightly heavier driving Mustangs win.

The one upgrade I haven’t been able to talk any Hertz rep out of is a great deal on the new Corvette ZH model.  It doesn’t matter how many are sitting on the lot in LA, Orange County or Miami, the price doesn’t seem to come down to my territory ever.

If you get a Vette let me know what you think.

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