Renting a car can feel a lot like shopping for a bottle of wine. You never want to get the cheapest one, if only to prove something to yourself. The second cheapest one, though? Fair game. Oh, and it has to look good—because it’s a reflection of your taste, right? While this is how most of us approach rental cars, there are so many different factors that deserve consideration, especially if you need the vehicle for more than a ride around town. In this way, renting a car really is like hunting for the perfect wine. You wouldn’t rent a sports car for an off-roading adventure, just like you’d never serve a cabernet with flounder, right? (Right…?)
So, which vehicle is best paired with your upcoming vacation? To steer you in the right direction, we spoke with Andrew Maness, editor-in-chief of The Motoring Journal, the official magazine behind The Motoring Club.
Here are Maness’ tips on picking the best rental car. Note that we’ll try to keep this as universal and as ageless as possible. We won’t pick specific models. Instead, we’ll suggest the types of vehicles and their features that serve each type of driving experience. It’ll be up to you to apply his advice to the options you have at each rental location. His advice applies to car shopping, too, should you want to tailor your purchase toward the same criteria.
Best Rental Car for Driving in the Mountains
If you can drive manual, then you should opt for that option here, whether it’s with three pedals or two, says Maness. “The ability to take it easy on your brakes when going downhill, especially in inclement weather is ideal.” He also says that an all-wheel-drive system, plus a torque-toting engine are your best bets for the constant elevation changes.
“You’re spoiled for choice, from compact trucks, crossovers, and even most mid-size sedans,” he says. But his favorite remains the ever-reliable station wagon (or a crossover based on one). “It strikes a balance between being comfortable and economical on long drives, and is great for hauling people and stuff, too.” If you can, get one with a premium all-season tire, he says. “One that’s rated for mud and snow, while also having a good water siping tread, is the best do-it-all tire for mountain terrain. Unless you’re regularly getting after it on off-road trails, you can leave the 33s and 35s, you don’t need a wildly aggressive tire.”
Best All-Terrain Rental Car for Off-Roading and Varied Landscapes
Believe it or not, bigger is not better with all-terrain vehicles. “While they look cool all built up, light and heavy duty trucks aren’t great in most off-road trail situations, due to how large they’ve become,” Maness says. “It’s now the compact truck segment where the best options are found, though the market is still catching up on including all the features you’d hope to find in these vehicles considering the price of admission.” Among those ideal features, Maness lists a good approach and departure angles, manually operable gears, and a locking rear differential (if not front and center as well).
Don’t forget that your vehicle is not simply a vehicle; it’s a tool, especially as you push into alternate terrains. “Ground clearance, breakover angle, and underbody protection are also important considerations. But don’t be fooled by body cladding over wheel arches and some fancy badging…that won’t help you over rough trails,” Maness adds.
…As for Navigating Winter or Inclement Weather
“Perceived toughness counts for nothing when contending with foul weather,” Maness says of the vehicles that boast brawn. Really, it all comes down to the tires: “I’ll take a rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive vehicle with snow-rated / all-season or winter tires, over an all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicle on regular tires any day.”
Best Rental Car for Easy, Breezy Coasting
Let’s say you’re driving down California’s Highway 1, some windy stretch like Big Sur’s curves. You don’t need to worry about speed, but should instead prioritize how it handles. And don’t worry—a lot of convertibles stay in contention. “If you can’t get one, a ‘pillarless’ coupe with the windows rolled down is a great alternative,” Maness says. (That’s where the b-pillar, or the physical divide between the front and rear-seat windows, is removed.) “If all else fails, a hatchback with a peppy engine will do the trick. Avoid SUVs, trucks, or anything else with a big footprint that will have a lot of body roll.”
Best Compact Rental Car
Whether you’re saving on gas or simply want more places to parallel park, a compact car is an obvious choice for the solo (or even duo) traveler. “I usually go for a compact hatchback over a sedan for more cargo space, but the most important consideration overall should be visibility (your number one safety feature) and then active safety systems, driver assistance systems,” Maness says.
Most Eco-Friendly Rental Car
“Every automaker out there is talking about how eco-conscious they are and their plan to save the planet, but remember, bluster and best-laid plans don’t always yield results,” Maness reminds. “It’s important to consider the whole picture, or as much of it as you can see when evaluating how environmentally friendly a vehicle is. Hyundai and KIA lead all automakers in the number of EV and hybrid models offered and they’re legitimately great products. Subaru, Volvo, and GM also offer a number of efficient vehicles that use sustainable materials and are built using environmentally friendly production methods.” Beyond that, he stresses the importance of knowing where and how a vehicle was built, what materials were used, and how those materials were acquired. “That’s how you get a real understanding of just how environmentally friendly it is.”
Best Rental Car to Satiate Your Need for Speed
Three qualities are imperative for those long stretches of interstate: Stability, braking power, grip. “There aren’t many slow vehicles out there anymore, since pretty much everything new is quick and there’s plenty of vehicles that are fast,” Maness says. “However speed isn’t worth a thing if you can’t control it. The sports cars (or SUVs for that matter) that I enjoy the most are the ones with the option for snappy manual transmissions, but are smart enough to automatically choose the right gear for me, depending on my driving style and the selectable mode I’m in.” Maness says he would choose a light vehicle with less power and a manual transmission over a heavy vehicle with lots of power and an automatic transmission.
“Mazda, Subaru, and Toyota are the only brands currently offering what I would call a pure sports car at a reasonable rate,” he says. “Step up to a higher price point and your money is best spent with Porsche. I know it’s predictable, but nobody does a reliable and capable performance car that ticks all the enthusiast boxes like they do.”
Best Rental Car for Families
Safety should always be the top priority, but when you’re toting the kids, its importance magnifies exponentially. “Nobody does safety better than Volvo, Subaru, and Mercedes-Benz,” Maness says. “All three offer excellent three-row SUV options. Visibility and stability are major considerations here, and these brands tick both boxes.”
Best Rental Utility Vehicle
This question is as simple as “SUV or pickup”? Maness says it really boils down to whether you want to toss something in the bed or arrange it neatly inside. “Is the stuff you move regularly dirty, mildly dangerous, or otherwise not ideal to have inside a space shared with people? If so, get a truck. If not, get an SUV. Towing is a consideration too, but most new full size SUVs share tow ratings with their pickup counterparts. In many instances, a commercial van is the better choice for job site work that doesn’t involve serious payload. But vans are typically overlooked because they don’t fit the aesthetic people are looking for. Just be honest with yourself about how much utility you truly require so you don’t end up with more vehicle than you actually need.”
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