Note: Despite first writing this post in 2006, it is still current as I update it a couple times a year.
Out here in Fort Collins—where it has been perpetually sunny ever since late October—owning a top-down sports car has its rewards. In addition to being basked with ample UV radiation to ensure an adequate production of Vitamin D during the day and being able to see the stars piercing the night’s sky with their brilliant lights, the roadster driver can transport a surprising number of tall, slender objects.
No, I’m not just talking about long-legged beauties like Tyra Banks or Nicole Kidman. (They are welcome to pick me up in their limos if they’d rather.) Instead, here’s a partial list of items I’ve taken home in the Alfa: a ladder, a 7′-long 45-pound barbell, several ottomans, and a weight bench.
There comes a time, however, when a more conventional vehicle is needed to transport bulkier items. Today was one of those days due to purchasing a used coffee table set and a futon frame. These are items generally too large for a two-seat convertible but not large enough to warrant a mammoth gas-guzzling, hard-to-drive moving truck. Enter the rental car.
I motored on down to the friendly Budget rental car station, where I had a compact car reserved for me. I was prepared to make a plea for one of my favorite all-time rental cars—the Ford Focus ZX5 hatchback—when I spotted a deep purple Chrysler PT Cruiser parked just in front of the rental car office. “Hmmm, I hope I get one of those,” I thought.
Sure enough, I was offered a choice between the PT Cruiser and the Oprah-touted Pontiac G6. I’ll take the PT Cruiser, thank you. I had always loved the concept of a modern-day, hot-rod-styled breadwagon with compact car proportions, and Chrysler finally took the wraps off of the PT Cruiser around year 2000 or so. Its styling was somewhat controversial, but I had always liked the 1930ish radiator face, bold fender flairs and elegant, upward-lifting rear door. (Never mind that a friend of mine swears that its buttocks remind her too much of a hearse.) In any case, its aesthetics are far more distinctive than any other modern day hatchback that has careened down America’s roads, and to top it all off, the PT Cruiser was also designed to be delightfully utilitarian. This was, after all, brought to you by the folks who “invented” the minivan (please, no complaints by you VW Bus owners!)
Its interior is full of thoughtful touches and retro-coolness. The simple dash has body-colored panels in which round gauges and a passenger airbag are housed. The transmission (sadly, automatic) sports a 1960’s-inspired ball shifter topped by a chromed-plastic gear-selector push-button. The oversized steering wheel features a round hub (again housing an airbag) with four cylindrical spokes connecting to a large-diameter rim. This wheel would look at home aboard a steamship or hot rod if only it were made out of wood and metal instead of hard, un-leather-like-feeling plastic.
It’s the cargo-hauling features that I really appreciated on this day. First off, like all hatchbacks, the split rear seat folds down flat. In addition, these seats can be lifted up and forward for a lower, but shorter, cargo area. I think I have read that the rear seats can even be removed from the vehicle to completely turn the car into a mini breadvan, but I did not attempt to do this.
The front passenger seatback also folds flat, becoming an extension of the rear cargo area. The resulting cargo “floor” looked flat enough to possibly even sleep on (if one were inclined to go camping in this vehicle). Speaking of sleep, this cavernous space was more than long enough to haul a partly disassembled futon frame and full-size futon. (“I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it,” the futon’s seller stated.)
Perhaps just as remarkable is the rear parcel shelf behind the rear seat. In its default configuration, it serves as a cover to obscure the cargo bay from prying eyes. It can be lowered to a middle or bottom position to serve as a shelf. Or can be inverted to stick out of the cargo bay (with the rear hatch open) to serve as a shelf for tailgating parties after, say, a football game. It can also be removed entirely.
As a driving vehicle, the PT Cruiser is more ho-hum: the base four-banger is fairly anemic, but at least it achieves ok fuel economy, especially for a car with a cargo capacity rivaling small SUVs. It seemed to achieve about 26 mpg on the highway, though keep in mind I was driving 75-80 mph almost the entire way on Interstate 25 which has 75 mph speed limit (so other drivers were still passing me.)
Vehicle dynamics, while not bad, are nothing to write home about—it is about as good, but no more, as any Hyundai, or Chevrolet compact, or Dodge Neon as far as I could tell. For road feel and cornering, the rally-inspired Ford Focus takes top honors in this rental car genre, at least of the cars I have driven. All in all, though, the PT Cruiser has a lot going for it with its style and practicality. I may keep this in mind if—or when—I am ever in the market for a front-wheel-drive vehicle, for days to play in the snow.
Rental Car Rankings
[Note: the next two paragraphs was written in February 2006, so it is very outdated.]
Actually, my favorite as-of-2006 rental car award goes to a vehicle that won’t garner any styling or performance accolades, but goes to one that almost wins it by default: by virtue of having a manual transmission, hand-cranked sunroof, and achieving approximately 50 mpg on the highway from its 1.2-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine. Never mind that this car was right-hand drive, being rented in England. I drove it about 1000 miles, only having a brush or two with curbs and heading down lanes in the wrong direction only once or twice. (There also was an episode where I had to check the owner’s manual to figure out how to put the car in reverse, as it had a funky lock-out feature on the shifter that had to be lifted up in order to engage the reverse gear.) It was a Vauxhall Corsa, manufactured by GM of Europe.
In the U.S., however, possibly tied as a favorite with the PT Cruiser, is the Ford Focus. I’m not a fan of the ZX4 4-door sedan’s styling, but the Euro-inspired aesthetics of the 3-door ZX3 and 5-door ZX4 hatchbacks is a knockout. I first spotted the ZX4 in England years before it was introduced to the U.S., so admittedly some of my delight at the angular styling comes from an imbedded association with memories of all the other great little European cars over there. The Focus also gets quite a bit better gas mileage than the PT Cruiser and feels more spirited, both in acceleration, road feel, and turning prowess.
Below is a list ranking the rental cars I have driven. Although I first wrote this article in February 2006, I will try to keep this list up-to-date as I drive more rentals.
- 2011 Ford Mustang Convertible: Despite a generation apart, this was like the 2008 Mustang Convertible I loved in New England, but with evolutionary sheetmetal that is akin to shrink-wrapping a muscular exterior and a high-quality interior that features a one-piece soft-touch dash. Great memories of going through San Francisco (including Lombard St.) like we were in the movie “Bullitt.”
- 2008 Ford Mustang Convertible: Iconic styling, rear-wheel drive, a 210-hp V6 that sounds almost like the famed Ford 305 V8 and goes from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds, 500-watt sound system, and convertible top. I was lucky enough to get this car instead of the economy car I reserved, and was only charged the $15/day econocar rate.
- 2010 Ford Mustang coupe: Very high-quality interior and I love the exterior details like the sequential turn signals. The V6 got about 27 mpg on the highway (a 2011 is supposed to get 31 mpg with 305 hp!) A car I’d consider owning in the future.
- 2016 Kia Soul: In an odd way it reminds me a lot of the PT Cruiser (a car I liked so much I actually bought one): fun and unique styling, great packaging, and lots of character. They also both had base prices well under $20k, making them astounding values. But I have to admit the second-generation Soul is a much better car—unsurprisingly considering that it came out a decade and a half later. Material quality is heaps better on the inside and the car feels and sounds much more refined. It also gets much better gas mileage despite being slightly larger, and the styling is much less controversial while still being iconic. Finally, all Kias have 100,000-mile warranties. This is a true gem from South Korea.
- 2015 Chevy Spark: This car oozes with character from the headlamps to the tail lamps, the funky styling, the oversized grill and the motorcycle-inspired gauge pod. The attitude continues in the interior, which features body-colored dash and door inserts. The handling, quick steering, and tiny turning radius is delightful, and reminded me of a Mini Cooper more than even the Fiat 500 or Ford Fiesta. The standard seven-inch touch screen with Bluetooth is easy to use, cabin noise low, and ride quality not bad. I even liked the CVT automatic transmission, which kept the engine in an optimal powerband. Despite its puny footprint it has an amazing amount of leg- and headroom for four adults. But the biggest shock was the engine—it puts out the most overachieving, underrated 84 hp in the world. The car seemed peppy enough I would have guessed it had at least 130. I got over 37 MPG with the car, which is not totally mind boggling but very good. A simply brilliant vehicle that started out at $12,500. It’s too bad the 2016 Spark seemed to lose a bit of the 2013-2015 car’s character in Chevy’s attempt to make it more mature.
- 2012 Fiat 500: A peppy, stylish, sporty little runabout with Italian flair. I first got to rent one in Seattle and then in San Francisco Bay Area (twice as of July 2013). Nice driving, although the gas mileage was a little disappointing (32-36 MPG) for a 1.4-liter engine with Fiat’s proprietary Multi-Air system.
- 2011/2012 Chevy Cruze: Very Audi-like in appearance, refinement and fit-and-finish. Drove one cross-country to Boston and back, and also rented one in Florida for a week with leather and heated seats. Does not scream econo-car in any way. Well done, GM.
- 2011 Ford Fiesta: This car is revolutionary. Despite its low base price, it features a high-quality interior with a soft-touch dash and Microsoft Sync, dual-clutch automated transmission that was super smooth, and a super efficient 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. How efficient? Without trying, I got 47 mpg from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs and back according to the trip computer. Great looking car too. Amazing.
- 2011 Ford Focus: Like the Fiesta, a great driving and good looking car. We used the 5-door version as my Furnace Creek 508 crew car, and it was definitely the most eco-friendly vehicle of any team. The main downside of the particular car we got was that Ford’s MyKey system was activated, which did Big Brother-like things such as beep whenever we exceeded 45 mph or 75 mph, or limit the top speed to 80 mph.
- 2006/2008 Chrysler PT Cruiser: A very stylish car on the exterior and interior and super practical on the inside. I was able to transport a full futon and frame in this. It handles decently—not on par with any generation Ford Focus, but reasonably fun—but unfortunately the base engine and automatic transmission is quite slow while providing disappointing fuel economy for a four-cylinder (I was getting 26-28 mostly highway). Off-road clearance is good—I drove it very rutted roads for a couple hours and it only bottomed out twice. I rank this car highly for its style, practicality and character, plus admittedly I have some great memories of it from a wonderful camping trip to Crawford and Curecanti. Iconic and good enough that I eventually bought one (the turbocharged GT model).
- 2014 Chevy Sonic LTZ: Good driving car with hip styling on the outside and inside. I particularly liked the motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster. Gas mileage was disappointing on road trip with sustained 75 MPH speeds (<32 MPG) but was able to get about 40 MPG at speeds of 65 MPH or so.
- 2010 Chrysler 300: A big, heavy car usually isn’t my cup of tea. But this one at least had the air of luxury with an All-American attitude. Love the style for a sedan, even if some of the materials inside were sub-grade for a near-luxury car. Was getting a surprising 28 mpg from its 3.5-liter V6.
- 2010 Chevrolet HHR. The HHR actually drives better, holds more stuff, and gets far better gas mileage (I was getting 33.4 MPG mostly driving on highways) than a PT Cruiser. I rank it only slightly lower than its de-facto inspiration (regardless of GM’s claims that the HHR was actually inspired by a 1949 Chevrolet Suburban) since the PT Cruiser has more captivating styling (especially the interior) and was the first of the modern-day five-door retromobile genre.
- 2016 Toyota Corolla: Big improvement over previous generations (especially interior material quality) and one of the first Toyota sedans ever to have a little bit of style. The car got 36 MPG and felt pretty refined.
- 2014 Dodge Charger: Nice styling on the outside; drab on the inside but huge and good materials. I was able to slide in my road bike without removing either of the wheels by simply folding down the rear seats. A large car but with the bas Pentastar 2.5L V6, I was easily able to get >30 MPG around town—and that’s with 296 hp on tap.
- 2008 Dodge Caliber: Initially I made fun of this car because both my friend Tori and I got Calibers that had roll-up windows and no keyless entry, but had 10″ woofers in the doors. Strange priorities—I didn’t even know one could buy a car with roll-up windows anymore. But later, I rented a Caliber two more times (with power windows and keyless entry), and its styling and utility really grew on me. Not as inspired as a PT Cruiser or Chevy HHR, but a solid, underrated, domestic small car.
- 2009 Chrysler Sebring Convertible: Again, the rental car company ran out of compact cars, so it gave me this instead. Pretty nice styling on the outside and even the inside, although material quality, fit and finish and handling was unimpressive. More ridiculous was the size of the trunk—with the top down, it was smaller than any of my convertibles despite being 2-3 feet longer! So it only gets so high on this list was by virtue of being a convertible.
- 2007 Pontiac G6: Slick styling, gorgeous/elegant dash (at least back in 2007), and a ton of passenger room in a tidy, structurally stiff chassis. Handling not quite as good as a Ford Focus but better than all the others I have driven. Single-handedly renewed my faith in General Motors.
- 2016 Nissan Altima: Kind of conservative but one of the more pleasant family sedans out there.
- 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. A very high-quality offering from Detroit with even an air of luxury from the bow-tie division. Based on the same platform as the G6 but rated much higher by automotive experts. I rate it lower, however, due to being more bland—particularly on the outside.
- 2007 Hyundai Elantra: Another great surprise! Great exterior styling, and extremely roomy (classified as a mid-sized sedan on the inside even though it has a compact car footprint). Interior is very stylish and exudes quality (just turn the climate control knobs) aside from some hard plastics you’d expect from a sub-$20k sedan. Drives very well with good fuel economy.
- 2003-2010 Ford Focus—one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive rental cars I had driven to date. Hands down my preferred rental car in the first half of the 2000s, especially the hatchbacks with their cool new-age, European styling. A second-generation Focus is less inspired style-wise but offers good economy and the one I got had satellite radio.
- 2013 Mazda 2: Very sporty driving car and got great gas mileage (38-40 MPG). Interior material quality only average or sub-par. The car is a bit small but barely large enough to fit bicycle with front wheel removed and rear seats folded down.
- 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt coupe: I really like the exterior styling, and the car drives well enough with good gas mileage. Interior is unremarkable except that it is kind of boring with low-grade materials.
- 2016 Hyundai Accent: Not a bad car, but lacks soul especially when compared to the 2015 Chevy Spark.
- 2016 Toyota Yaris: It’s better than previous iterations with even some soft-touch material on the dash. Got decent gas mileage (36 MPG) and has touch-screen. I don’t care for the styling though.
- 2000 Vauxhall Corsa: I rented this in England. It was the first rental car with a manual transmission I have driven. It was getting 50 MPG. It even had a sunroof. Styling is terrible but otherwise I enjoyed the car.
- 2012 Chevrolet Captiva Sport: The first SUV I rented (I was given this instead of the compact car I reserved). It was able to swallow my bicycle without taking the front wheel off with plenty of cargo room to spare. Despite being basically a fleet-only rebadged Saturn Vue that was in production from 2007 to 2009, it was not a bad automobile, with the only thing offensive being some of the cheap plastics inside. Put this one in the appliance category.
- 2008 Mazda 6: Handsome styling and sporty handling (though steering was surprisingly on the light side). It even had an manumatic gearbox (an automatic that could be shifted manually). Bland compared to the newer Mazdas, though.
- 2008 Kia Optima: Somewhat elegant (though bland) styling on the outside. Attractive on the inside and very well put together. Manumatic gearbox.
- 2003 Oldsmobile Alero: Pretty luxurious with nice ride and style. Of course, the Oldsmobile brand went to the grave shortly afterwards.
- 1999 Dodge Neon: I really liked these in the late 90s, as they had spunk and character. Guess my standards were also a lot lower.
- 2000 Buick Century: Elegant and surprisingly good fuel economy for a v6. They look particularly good in China (there are lots of them in dark colors out there).
- 2016 Hyundai Accent: A letdown weeks after driving the brilliant Chevy Spark, this car in contrast seemed generic with no soul. But in all fairness it seemed well put-together with good ride quality and was not a bad car.
- 2012 Chevrolet Impala: I failed to appreciate why this super bland car has been consistently a best-seller the last few years, or why they are everywhere in Birmingham, AL where I rented this. Its interior seemed terribly outdated for 2013. Much rather would have a Chevy Cruze which despite having a MSRP of $8k less, seemed more upscale for even the base model.
- 2010 Toyota Yaris: The Yaris sedan seems redundant with the Corolla including space, fuel economy and blandness; not sure why Toyota even bothered. I put this one higher than the Corolla since the one in Costa Rica had a stick shift.
- 2010 & 2006 Toyota Corolla: I’ve driven the last two generations now, and surprisingly, thought it was inferior to the G6 and Focus in every single way except for stellar fuel economy. But not a bad car, just bland. Edit: this applies to 2011 and 2012 models as well (I’ve rented both). And compared to the outstanding 2011 Ford Fiesta, the Corolla’s fuel economy no longer seems stellar, just very good.
- 2012 Toyota Yaris 3-door: Got one of these in California. I was shocked to see that in 2012 it was still possible to rent a new car with wind-up windows. Gas mileage was only so-so (35 MPG) for this underpowered car that I only had to go 60-65 MPH on CA highways. The Yaris is probably the worst car in its segment now, well behind the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic, Mazda 3, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, etc.
- 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt sedan: While the coupe looks great, the sedan is extremely bland. Interior is bland as well. Gas mileage is good but not as good as a Corolla’s.
- 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier: Drove sportily but was otherwise unremarkable. Not terrible, though. I even slept in this one night at 11,000 feet before the Mt. Evans Ascent.
- 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer: Super bland exterior and very ugly interior. It drove well, though, with good fuel economy.
- 2005 Saturn LS: Despite its European roots, surprisingly bland.
- 2012 Toyota Yaris 5-door: I was shocked to see that there was a car made in 2012 with wind-up windows. Interior dashboard plastic was harder and more coarse than my compost bin. Gas mileage (~35 MPG going 65 MPH 90% of the time) wasn’t even that great. Probably the worst new car you could possibly rent in 2012.
- 1998 Hyundai Excel: Hyundai has really come a long ways since that decade.
- 2000 Ford Escort: Admittedly, part of my dislike for this was because my particular rental car was brown on the outside, camel-colored in the inside, and smelled like shampoo. Had windup windows too. Really felt like I was driving a econo-car (so I was).
- 2001 Suzuki Swift (a.k.a. Geo Metro): The rented one I got had a manual transmission, but that and its superb gas mileage were its only redeeming qualities. Otherwise, everything else shouted “piece of crap,” including an interior that reminded me of the 1982 Honda Civic wagon I drove in high school and acceleration that was even worse!
Of the moving trucks I have rented, I have only rented two. One was a U-Haul Ford that, thankfully, I only had to drive six or seven miles as it was downright frightening. The other was a Ryder Isuzu that I drove 135 miles (to go to and from Denver to pick up a used leather sofa set), which was much better. Both were diesels, the latter achieving 12 mpg or so. I try to avoid renting moving trucks as much as possible as they are extremely cumbersome and expensive.
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