RCOAL: Rental Cars of a Lifetime

(Authors note: I’m inserting an intermission here in my Cars of a Lifetime series, as the first chapter of my life closes, and big changes are coming in the next part. Before getting into the next chapter, I though this would make a nice change of pace).

As regular readers of my COAL series will no doubt realize, I have a habit of extensively photographing every car I’ve ever owned. Much to my wife’s annoyance, I have a similar habit with rental cars, often times trying to incorporate them into the scenery. I’ve been renting cars long enough now (since the early 90’s) that many of these rentals have become Curbside Classics on their own rights. So lets see what the rental companies have foisted on me over the years.

I believe this might be Bryce Canyon, but I’m not sure.

First up is a 1995 Ford Taurus, as rented from Hertz for a road trip with a friend across the US desert southwest. The picture above was taken at Arches National Park in Utah on July 4, 1995. As I recall, this car was a competent highway cruiser. Unfortunately, I got a flat tire on a dirt road heading to Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, and had to put on the donut spare. Shortly after getting back on to the pavement, I got a speeding ticket for 85mph – while still on the donut spare.

We took the wounded Taurus to the nearest Hertz facility, where they kindly exchanged my silver Taurus for an otherwise identical blue one.

The picture above shows my rental parked next to an identical rental car at Canyonlands National Park. I was so amused by this at the time that I snapped a picture. Over the years, I have lost track of whether my rental was the car on the left or the right.


Next we have a 1996 Nissan Tsuru for a road trip across central and southern Mexico with the same friend. Americans know the Tsuru better as the third-generation Nissan Sentra, which incredibly was still being built in Mexico up until early 2017. This particular rental car holds several distinctions, including the only car I’ve ever rented with a stick shift, and the only rental I’ve even had without A/C.

At the time, Mexico had recently completed a wonderful toll road system. The tolls were expensive, however, even by US standards, so almost no one used them, while the side roads remained jammed with traffic. It was not unusual to cruise for miles at a time without seeing another vehicle in either direction.

Not as fast as it looks – That is km/h, which works out to about 95 mph.

Naturally we did what anyone would do when presented with their own personal autobahn: We cruised at the top speed of our car, pictured above.


Here we have a 2004-ish Kia Optima, photographed in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. This wasn’t the car I had originally requested (which would have been a Nissan Altima). However, when I got to the rental counter in Reno, I was informed that travellers heading up to Tahoe were required to upgrade to a V6 model.

The irony of this “upgrade” is that the 4-cylinder Altima would have been just as powerful, more comfortable, and was an altogether better car. At least this wasn’t a 2003 model with the infamous Hannibal Lechter grille.

Next up is a Pontiac G6 rented during a trip to Disney World in 2007. Unlike contemporary reviewers, I found nothing to fault with the road manners. I was quite impressed with the rear legroom of the long wheelbase Epsilon platform.

In 2009, for a second trip to Florida, I was handed the keys to the stablemate of the G6, a Saturn Aura. This was slightly more luxurious than the previous G6 rental, sporting such unheard of (for a rental car) niceties as leather interior and automatic climate control.  Much like the G6, I found it to be a compentent car. Indeed, I was so pleasantly surprised with the Aura that I even briefly considered getting one at one point.

Off road with rental Dodge Caliber at Sedona Red Rocks

In the spring of 2008. my wife Kristen and I decided to celebrate my 40th birthday by taking a getaway to Arizona. Since it was just the two of us for a long weekend, we opted for a compact car. So what did Alamo stick us with? A Dodge Caliber. Yes, the interior was loaded with hard plastics, and the engine was noisy. No, I would never want to own one, but honestly the experience wasn’t terrible.

Rental Dodge Caliber in Sedona, Arizona

For starters, it had all wheel drive, which afforded us the opportunity to do some light off-roading. Atypically in rental car fashion, it wasn’t a stripper – it was actually the range topping R/T model, with largish 18 inch wheels and a 172 hp 2.4 liter engine, which provided more than enough oomf to handle the mountains of Arizona. The CVT was amusing with its rubber band effect, but I would probably be annoyed by it if I had to put up with it on a regular basis.

Least scenic view of Hawaii

Next up on the rental car hit parade was a Jeep Liberty I received upon arrival in Honolulu, Hawaii in summer of 2013 for a family vacation. I had requested a mid-size SUV, but it was anything but. I can honestly say that this was one of the worst cars I have ever driven. It was cramped, noisy, uncomfortable, and had the hardest ride of pretty much any vehicle I’ve ever been in.

Best part about rentals – you don’t have to worry about getting them dirty

There’s barely enough leg room in the back a 10-year-old. Ingress to the back seat was terrible – as you can see, the door frame actually blocks off much of the seat cushion. The weatherstripping was already getting pulled off as a result of people rubbing up against it getting in and out of the back seat.

On this same trip, we island hopped over to the Big Island. Perhaps to make up for the Jeep Liberty in Oahu, fate dealt us a kind hand. Once we arrived in Kona, Hertz informed us that they were all out of the mid-sized SUVs we had booked, and offered up to a Nissan Armada at no extra charge. While it was large and gas hungry (which really hurt at $4.25 per gallon), it was supremely comfortable and quiet, and the V8 made short work of the trek up to the summit of Mauna Kea.

Nissan Armada with Mauna Kea on background

I would never own such a gargantuan beast, but it was a perfect rental. Something this large would have been challenging to drive in the urban bustle of Honolulu (which is basically Los Angeles on an island), but it was perfectly suited for the wide open spaces of the Big Island.

When renting cars, I always take advantage of the opportunity to try out different vehicles. After a bad experience with GM cars in the 80’s, I was basically an import buyer 20+ years. However, my positive experiences with domestic rentals eventually led me back in to the fold of buying domestic cars (including my first GM car), but that is a COAL for another day. Aloha for now!