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Choosing a Rental Car - Which To Avoid and Which To Pick In 3 Easy Steps

We break down the common choices for rental vehicles and explain how to make a selection that will make your trip a success.


The summer season will be here soon, and with that comes road trip season. Many of us will be headed out in rental vehicles we pick up near our destination. At the rental counter, or in the lot, there are often a few choices that you the renter can choose. But which is the best pick? How can you possibly know? There are two main qualifications we suggest that can make a big difference. We also offer a third qualification that excludes many of the luxury models. Here is how to pick a rental car when given a choice.

IIHS RAV4 scoresRental Car Choices - Start With Safety
Nobody wants to think about safety, but when choosing a rental car it makes sense. You will be tired. Traveling in a vehicle unfamiliar to you in an unfamiliar place. Along with many other tourists, you will have one eye on the road and one on the scenery. Picking a vehicle with standard active safety and top crash test ratings just makes sense. But how can you possibly know which vehicle is best?

It turns out you don't really have to compare the vehicles to one another. Just use your phone's browser and search "IIHS Make Model Year." For example, "IIHS Dodge Journey 2019." When the results come up, see if the model earns the Top Safety Pick designation. If it does not, try the next vehicle. The Dodge Journey has a rating of Poor on an important crash test and headlights rated Poor. By contrast, the Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 earn the Top Safety Pick designation. This will take you less than 1 minute on your phone. Here is a quick lookup tool for IIHS safety ratings.

Related Story: Choosing A Rental Car? Here's Why The Nissan Rogue Crossover Is The Perfect Pick

Rental Car Choices - Android Auto and Apple Car Play
Aside from safety, navigation is the most important tool you will need on your trip. Would you like to have real-time navigation with traffic info and speed trap location alerts? These are available using Google Maps and Waze. If your vehicle has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay you will be able to integrate your phone easily and completely with the vehicle. Here's how to use Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in 3 easy steps.

To see if your rental car choice offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay simply use that browser again and use the keyword for your phone's integration. For example, if you have a Samsung Android use "Android Auto make model year." If you have an Apple phone, use "Apple CarPlay make model year." Do so using Dodge Journey and you will find it does not offer this important tool, but the Roge and Toyota RAV4 do. Here is a quick lookup tool for vehicles that have Android Auto. Here is one for Apple CarPlay.

Spare tire image by John GorehamSkip The Luxury Rental Brand - Here's Why
Many luxury models we test lack a spare tire. On a road trip, you may be far from help. You may also be far from a replacement vehicle or tire shop. A spare tire will keep you on the road until the rental car company can replace the tire or the vehicle for you. Your stuff is going to be packed into the rental and getting towed to a closed dealership or tire shop is not going to solve your problem, particularly with kids in tow. Skip the luxury models, or at least verify with your own eyes that the vehicle has a spare tire. Almost every mainstream model still has a spare (including the RAV4 and Nissan Rogue).

Nail in tireLast Minute Rental Vehicle Checks
As you approach the vehicle you are choosing, do a quick walk around. Look at the sidewall and tread you can see on every tire. Look for damage to the rim, damage to the sidewall, bubbles on the sidewall, and any visible nails in the tire. Do not depart in a vehicle with any signs of tire or wheel damage. Next, open up the door of the car, stick your head in and take a deep whiff of the interior. Does it smell like smoke? If so, you make a decision on whether to just report that to the rental car company, or skip that vehicle if it will bother you. Rental car companies have stiff fines for smoking in the vehicle. Why should you have to tolerate or possibly pay for someone else's bad behavior?

When choosing a rental car, a quick search for these few things can take less than three minutes. Why not start your trip with a vehicle that is safe, offers you the best navigation tools in the world, and has the peace of mind of a spare tire?

Have you rented a car lately? Tell us which vehicle you had and how it worked out in the comments below. Your experience may help a fellow traveler.

John Goreham is a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin.


digitaldoc (not verified)    March 10, 2020 - 11:15AM

Good plan, and the advice applies to buying a car as well. I would also suggest a 4th step: don't get the Nissan product, as most of them drive pretty janky these days with underpowered base engines, and CVT's.