Economy In Gear

10 rental cars that don't measure up and the models to rent instead

While it's true that there aren't any truly terrible cars on the road today, it's just as true that some are definitely better than others. 

A customer checks in at a Hertz car rental counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, in Atlanta (Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013). Most car rental reservations can easily be canceled or changed up until you pick up the vehicle. If prices fall, you can rebook at the lower rate.
David Goldman/AP/File
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Rolling the dice at a rental car counter requires a strong stomach.

You've reserved a "mid-size sedan" and there's a picture of a Ford Focus, but the keys that the friendly folks at Generic Airport Car Rental hand you may be for an entirely different car. 

After all, none of the major car rental agencies use the same terminology as the rest of us. A "mid-size sedan" should be a four-door for four adults and their luggage, but you're holding the keys to a compact coupe. Wait, what?

These days, some major firms—like National and Hertz—let certain renters walk onto the lot and pick out their car of choice. It's a nice perk, but like craps, one roll can end it all—especially with one of these cars.

We've compiled this list based on cars that we know are popular with rental fleets and don't do particularly well in our testing. Our testing looks at a variety of factors—not only how well a car drives, but also how comfortable it is, how much space there is for humans and their cargo, its fuel efficiency, and its safety. While it's true that there aren't any truly terrible cars on the road today, it's just as true that some are definitely better than others. We've picked some alternatives that should be easy to find and are definitely worth seeking out. 

One thing we've kept in mind is that the car stocked by Avis probably isn't the most desirable specification. It may not have the most fuel efficient or the most powerful engine, and it may be light on features compared to the high-end ones we're usually provided for evaluation purposes from an automaker. 

In short, pick this and not that when you're on your way out of the parking garage at Phoenix-Sky Harbor, Lambert-St. Louis, or Chicago-O'Hare. 

1. Subcompact: Nissan Versa

Few cars feel built down to a price these days, but the Nissan Versa is certainly one of them. Both sedans and hatchbacks (called Versa Notes) are common in rental fleets and with their continuously variable transmissions, gutless but not especially fuel efficient 4-cylinder engines, and a dearth of features, they're as humble of a car as you'll find. The Chevrolet Sonic, meanwhile, features a fairly trick touchscreen infotainment system that pairs easily with your smartphone so you don't have to seek out a lousy radio station in Nowheresville, Nebraska. 

Rent insteadChevrolet Sonic

2. Compact: Mitsubishi Lancer

Let's put it this way: The Lancer was just OK when it went on sale in 2008. Nearly a decade and not many changes later, it's laughably behind the times. You'll find a less-than-inviting interior with chintzy materials and low-tech infotainment, and its crash test scores aren't much to write home about. On the bright side, plenty of good compact sedan alternatives exist and are commonplace in rental fleets—like the far fresher Hyundai Elantra, which has been through two redesigns since 2008. 

Rent insteadHyundai Elantra

3. Compact: Nissan Sentra

One upon a time, the Nissan Sentra was a zippy little sedan that wanted to be a budget BMW. Today, it's the definition of an appliance sedan—the kind of thing that fades into the background and works, but doesn't do anything especially well. It's not that the Sentra is inherently a bad sedan, it's that every other compact you could pick out at the rental lot does at least one thing better without doing anything worse. 

Rent instead: Mazda 3

4. Mid-size: Chrysler 200

Despite its classy looks, Chrysler's mid-size sedan is the definition of mediocrity. The one you're likely to rent has an anemic 4-cylinder engine mated to a confused 9-speed automatic and its interior is remarkably cramped given how big it is on the outside. It's no surprise, then, that Chrysler has already confirmed it will be canning the 200 soon to focus on what it does best—bigger sedans, SUVs, and minivans. 

Rent instead: Nissan Altima

5. Full-size: Ford Taurus 

Sure, Ben Stiller might have rented one in "Meet the Parents," but that doesn't mean that you should. The Ford Taurus might go down as the world's most rented car, but the 2017 Taurus is a massively outdated sedan that isn't nearly as roomy as its hefty proportions suggest. In reality, there's only slightly more usable interior space than you'll find in the smaller, more manageable, more efficient, and more modern Ford Fusion. 

Rent instead: Dodge Charger

6. Compact Crossover/SUV: Jeep Compass/Patriot

Rental lots are chock full of Jeep's dated crossover twins. Beneath their unique styling—the Patriot channels the boxy old Jeep Cherokee from the '80s and '90s and the Compass appears to have been brought here by aliens—these two date back more than a decade without a major redesign. They're not "vintage" in a hip or well-aged way, either. Instead, they are loud, slow, and inefficient. On the other hand, an all-new Compass is arriving and is much better. 

Rent instead: Hyundai Tucson

7. Standard Crossover/SUVDodge Journey

Were you paying attention when we described the Jeep twins above? The Journey trades on its affordability when offered at dealerships. When you're renting, does a car's propensity to offer  rebates and discounts matter? Not when there are far more modern vehicles that will deliver more comfort, better fuel economy, and vastly improved safety scores sitting across the lot. Don't be wooed by the Journey's minivan-esque style, either, since its interior isn't minivan-flexible. 

Rent instead: Ford Edge

8.Large Crossover/SUV: Toyota 4Runner

There are plenty of reasons why you might want to rent an SUV: most are four-wheel drive (but check to be careful), they're rugged-looking, and they can take you down a dirt road comfortably. The Toyota 4Runner is a particularly good example of how SUVs have evolved, but it prioritizes off-roading above all else. That gives it a bouncy ride, ponderous handling, and a cramped interior. Those are acceptable compromises for some buyers, but nearly all rental agreements prohibit off-roading, so why not get something that will be comfy on the pavement, too? 

Rent instead: Jeep Grand Cherokee

9. Minivan: Dodge Grand Caravan

There is no better rental car than a minivan. They do a far better job of delivering seven passengers and their luggage from point A to point B than anything short of business class in a Dreamliner. But if you're going to go for a van, walk right past Dodge's dated Grand Caravan for the Chrysler Pacifica. They'll both seat seven in decent comfort, but the Pacifica is basically an iPhone 7 compared to the Grand Caravan's Nextel push-to-talk walkie-talkie. We've moved on.

Rent instead: Chrysler Pacifica

10. High-end: Anything

Yeah, you can rent a compact car for $40 a day the next time you land in Southern California for a big business meeting. But you want to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway in a luxury-laden Maserati? Most major rental car companies will let you have one—for a price that's eye-watering, especially if you include the optional insurance. You're looking at upwards of $300 per day. Who's footing the bill? Skip it, we say—for plenty of reasons.

Rent instead: Something more modest

This story originally appeared on The Car Connection.

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