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Rent To Know: Using Car Rentals To Compare Cars

Can't decide? Rent for a long-term test-drive

(updated April 30th, 2009)

You've done your car-buying homework and created a short list of cars you like. But the test-drive lasts only 10 minutes, and that's just not enough time for you to choose a car. Depending on the cars you're considering, there's a better way to evaluate such a big-ticket purchase: Rent to know.

If you've got your list down to two or three cars, renting one or more of them will tell you loads more than a quick test-drive.

If you've got your list down to two or three cars, renting one or more of them will tell you loads more than a quick test-drive.

That's right. Rent the models you're seriously considering before you buy a new car, and put them through their paces in your everyday life. Do the carpool or the grocery run; commute in heavy traffic; parallel-park in a tight spot; estimate your real miles per gallon. If you ski, rent that AWD vehicle and see how it climbs the mountain; if you boat, see if that truck's tow rating really makes the grade.

It's money well spent. U.S. rental car companies charge $33-$60 per day for a midsize car depending on model and location; rent for multiple days and the price drops. If you were to rent three midsize cars for one day apiece, that's $96-$180 out of pocket. Even though rental car rates are expected to rise a bit, that's a whole lot cheaper than the cost of a bad decision. A rental allows you to better experience the car than a short test-drive with a talkative salesman.

"There are a lot of intangibles in our reactions to cars," said Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed. "That's why the 10-minute test-drive just doesn't work for everyone. Renting a car for even a day will really open your eyes to the true nature of the car you're considering."

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Enterprise has a very wide selection of brands. As with all rental companies, you may have to call several local branches to find the model you're looking to test.

Enterprise has a very wide selection of brands. As with all rental companies, you may have to call several local branches to find the model you're looking to test.

Reed was considering buying a used Mazda 626 several years ago and decided to rent one first for an extended test-drive. "I can't say exactly what changed my mind," he said, "But I lost interest in the 626 and bought something else instead. But it took time before my true reaction to the car surfaced. I was glad I did it."

What about model selection?

The major rental car companies have traditionally relied on domestic automakers to supply their fleets. But now, Detroit's Big Three are reducing their fleet sales because they're less profitable than retail sales. As a result Asian and European cars are now more common at your local rent-a-car.

Obviously, not every car on the market is available for rent, but a little digging can prove fruitful. It's actually quite easy to see which cars the rental companies have in their fleets by checking their Web sites.

Employees at rental car companies are trained to say that they cannot guarantee a specific model for your reservation, except for Hertz, which has special "collection" models that you can reserve. Finding, say, a Ford Mustang or a Chevy Malibu will likely never present a problem. To locate and reserve something less common, though, make sure to call the local office (not the national reservation number) and ask if the car you're interested in is available on their lot that day. If it is, you may want to jump on it right away. And if you can't get satisfaction from the first person who picks up the phone, ask to speak to the manager, who will consider it a customer satisfaction issue. If you use a particular company with some frequency, mention that.

Once you get your vehicle of choice, determine whether its trim level (the designation of a model that includes specific equipment) is the same as the exact vehicle you're considering buying. A difference in the trim level might be minor, such as chrome vs. aluminum wheels or leather vs. cloth seats, but it could also mean the difference between a four-cylinder and six-cylinder engine. Don't make color or specific features an issue; the goal is to see how the car functions and drives in a variety of day-to-day situations.

U.S. rental car fleets

Listed below are the major U.S. rental car companies and the makes of cars featured on their Web sites as of March 2007. We mention models where appropriate. (All makes and models are subject to change; manufacturer concentrations are from company SEC filings.)

Alamo and National Owned by the same company (Vanguard Car Rental), Alamo and National buy 83 percent of their fleet from General Motors and 16 percent from DaimlerChrysler. The remaining 1 percent is a smattering of foreign makes like Kia, Toyota and Volkswagen. The cars below are typical of a domestic rental car fleet; much the same can be found at Avis.

Avis If you're considering buying a General Motors vehicle, Avis is the place to go for a rent-to-know test-drive; it carries a full line of GM models.

Budget Although Budget is owned by the same company as Avis (AvisBudget Group, Inc.), the majority of vehicles at Budget's corporate-owned locations are Ford and Lincoln-Mercury. There is a mixture of other brands at many locations.

Dollar and Thrifty Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group is a unit of DaimlerChrysler, and some 83 percent of its fleet comes from Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles. The small fry in the fleet, the Kia Rio, is odd man out. Dollar will soon have a Style Series at six major international airports whose fleet will include BMW, Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Corvette, Hummer, Jaguar, Mercedes and Mini. Thrifty offers the Dodge Ram 1500 pickup.

Enterprise The largest buyer of new cars in the U.S., Enterprise is one of the few rental car companies that sells its cars to the public after their term of use. Judging by the cars for sale on its Web site, it carries possibly the widest selection of brands. In addition to the brands found elsewhere, it carries Mitsubishi, Saturn and Volkswagen. Enterprise is the only site where we saw the well-reviewed Mazda 6 and Nissan Altima listed. Enterprise also makes an effort to stock its fleet with hybrids and ethanol-powered vehicles.

Hertz — Hertz has a wide variety of makes: 37 percent of its fleet is Ford; 22 percent is GM; most of the rest is Asian and European. Hertz is the only place where we found the Nissan Xterra, Toyota Avalon or Toyota Corolla listed on the company's Web site. It's also the only rental car company that lets you reserve a specific model within three special "collections" — Prestige, Fun and Green:

The Prestige Collection: High-performance vehicles come with Hertz's NeverLost system and include several models each from Audi, Cadillac, Hummer, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Volvo.

The Fun Collection: Sporty cars equipped with Sirius Satellite Radio.

The Green Collection: Includes four vehicles that have EPA estimates of 28 miles or more per gallon: Buick LaCrosse, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry.

For this, and other buying and leasing strategies, pick up a copy of Strategies for Smart Car Buyers, by the editors at

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