Sunday, March 10, 2013

Editorial: Rental cars and the improving automotive industry

My job involves quite a bit of travel, resulting in my spending a fair amount of quality time with a wide variety of rental cars. In many ways, I always felt that the rental car industry is a pretty good indicator of the state of the entire automotive industry in the United States - as the automotive industry improves quality standards across the board, the change would be reflected in the rental cars that are available to the public. In recent years, I had begun come to terms that rentals cars had demonstrated a remarkable improvement with even the poorest quality cars showing a marked increase in drivability, material quality, and overall feel.

Image courtesy of Newcars.com
Then, a few weeks ago, I picked up a rental car at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky airport that left me a bit dumbfounded. The car in question was a 2012 Nissan Sentra in about as base a trim level as was possible. I have driven a number of competitors to the Sentra in recent years and nearly every one of them has been a relatively pleasant experience, feeling well sorted if price appropriate. Nissan, however, clearly did not get the memo. I simply have not had such a miserable experience in a rental car in a very long time; so long that I had completely forgotten just how bad a crappy car can be.

Image courtesy of MotorTrend.com
Let us start with the interior. Even in the dark, the mouse fur interior looks cheap. So cheap that one begins to wonder what sins he has committed to be banished to such a horrid automotive hellscape. Of course, sitting on dead mouse is only just the beginning. The seats are an absolute torture rack, with extremely limited adjustment that made it somehow impossible to find a comfortable position. If I got the seat in the right position for my steering comfort, my knees were bumping against the bottom of the steering column, but if I set the seat to make my knees comfortable, the steering wheel could only be reached by stretching my arms out into a nearly fully extended position which severely limited my range of steering motion. Every surface that the eye could see looked as cheap as it felt, seemingly made from the same materials as the crap toys one finds for sale in a drug store check-out aisle.

Starting up the car, the motor wheezes to life, sounding like an asthmatic after the 100m dash. Grabbing a hold of the wheel, the lifeless steering revealed little of what the flabby chassis was doing. Stepping on the throttle engages the rubber-banding CVT transmission, a death knell for any sort of enthusiastic driving. Once on the road, the brittle ride quality had the car crashing over even moderate sized bumps and every pothole sent massive shudders throughout the structure of the car.

Many of the top rental car companies now offer a wide
variety of surprisingly enjoyable rental cars in their fleets.
Honestly, I was so utterly flabbergasted with how bad the experience was that I was beginning to question if I had simply become too optimistic about the automotive industry. But then, I recalled my recent experiences with other small cars in the same class as the Nissan Sentra, such as the Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze, and Honda Civic. Each of those cars was a dramatically different experience offering a sense of being well engineered, well thought out, and well appointed for their price. None of them exhibited the terrible qualities of the Nissan Sentra and none of them felt so cheap that I wanted to shower just from having been in the car. To be fair, Nissan does have a new generation of Sentra that was recently introduced to the market, although if the new Nissan Altima, which I tested back to back with several competitors, is any indication, Nissan is still lagging so far behind its competitors that it might as well give up.

Luckily, the following day at my next destination, I was able to get my hands on a much different car that redeemed the rental car experience and restored my faith. Clearly, not every car can meet every need, but on whole, the broader experience has been a generally positive one. Even the cars from the American manufacturers have demonstrated massive leaps forward from their fleet sale products of a decade ago. To me, this is a wonderful sign of things to come. Hopefully, someone at Nissan will see just how far they are falling behind the competition and step up their efforts to catch up to the rest of the industry. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the overall improving quality of rental cars hope that the upward trajectory of the automotive industry in meeting consumer expectations continues.