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RideLust Top Five: Worst Rental Cars Ever

Posted in driving, Lists, Rankings, Rants & Raves by Kurt Ernst | June 16th, 2011 | 9 Responses |

My God, we sent these to Europe? I'm so sorry. Image: Ruben de Rijcke

Back in the days when I worked for big companies, business travel was a way of life. I spent a lot of years missing birthdays and anniversaries, and I’ve driven hundreds of rental cars in the United States and Europe. Most are just like the hotels you stay in on business, and by that I mean over-priced and utterly forgettable. The days of scoring a rental car that your co-workers will envy are long in the past; these days, you lucky if you get a rental car that’s been vacuumed since entering the fleet.

As forgettable as most rental cars are, some stand out in my mind as being truly, epically bad. One, in fact, was so bad that I returned to the counter before leaving the lot, and I remember shaking my head at the attendant and just saying, “No.”

Here are the ultimate failures of the automotive world, made even worse by their time in rental car fleets. No matter what your drive (unless it’s one of the five cars below), count your blessings.

1989 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible

Mmmmm, acres of rattly plastic. Image: Hkw2121

The late 1980s / early 1990s may be the pinnacle of automotive mediocrity, yet one car stands out in my mind above all else: the 1989 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible. By any definition, the car was sub-standard. It was underpowered, with steering that hoped to achieve “numb”. Brakes were marginally better than opening the door and dragging your feet, and the utterly gripless tires didn’t help improve handling. I distinctly recall interior pieces shedding off on my hands, much like fur from a wet dog. Even 30 years from now, I seriously doubt anyone will have an interest in collecting these cars, and mankind would be better off if every last example were scrapped.

2009 Chevy HHR

Image: Rich Niewiroski Jr.

It was cramped, underpowered and virtually defined “vague handling”, but on the plus side the air conditioning worked. Under the right circumstances, Chevy HHRs can be made to go reasonably fast (in SS trim, at least), turn fairly well and stop with some authority. Hennessey Racing has campaigned HHRs in the last few One Lap of America Events, so they’re evidently stout vehicles. Still, if you like to drive, I’d recommend you pass on this at the rental car counter.

2006 Dodge Charger (with the 2.7 liter V6)

Hemi Chargers, like this Daytona, rock. Chargers with the base V6 do not. Image: IFCAR

I’m generally a fan of the Dodge Charger, but only with the Hemi engines. Anything less than a V8 in a car with the mass of Cleveland is going to be disappointing, and the 2006 Charger with the (then) smallest engine in Dodge’s lineup was completely underwhelming. The steering was vague and more than a little numb, but it didn’t matter: this particular car was going nowhere in a hurry.

2007 Dodge Caliber

The 2007 Dodge Caliber. Image: Chrysler Group LLC

The 2007 Dodge Caliber has the distinction of being the first rental car I ever returned to the counter. Five minutes behind the wheel, in the rental car company parking lot, was enough to convince me that I needed another option. The interior was an exercise in de-contenting, as if the accountants completely disregarded the engineers design specs. Despite only racking up a few thousand miles on the odometer, the car rattled and wheezed like a dying man, and an intermittent stumble at idle convinced me that the car would leave me stranded, probably as I was rushing back to catch a flight out. If you need an example of the worst American car built in the last 10 years, the Dodge Caliber gets my nomination.

2005 Ford Freestyle

Image: IFCAR

On the plus side, it was roomy and relatively comfortable; on the down side, it had the worst CVT in the history of the automobile, coupled to a noisy and gutless V6. The brakes were stunningly bad from what I remember, but since the engine didn’t produce much in the way of thrust, that was a moot point. It did, however, produce lots of vibration and noise, and not the good kind. A cross-country trip in the Ford Freestyle would turn the Dali Lama into a serial killer, as the drone from the engine is enough to eat your soul.

Surely you’ve had a few bad rental cars as well. You know the drill – let’s hear your stories.

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9 Responses

  1. Werty says:

    I thought I was going to die a terrible death when I tried to merge into 75 mph traffic in a Kia Rio rental. I had my foot flat on the gas from 100 feet before I even started down the ramp. I barely hit 55 by the time I needed to merge. That was the most under-powered car I had ever driven, until I had the displeasure of driving a Smart ForTwo.

  2. Seth says:

    My in-laws always get the pleasure of driving a base model Impala when they visit the states. And I can remember going on family vacations and getting a lovely Ford Taurus for the whole family.

  3. Taylor says:

    You forgot the variety of greentreehuggerweeniemobile hybrids out there.

    I had one of those, think is was a Toyota, and it had to be the worst driving experience I’ve ever had and I actually owned an AMC Eagle 3 door (not the kickin 4X version either) at one time.

    On a side note, I hope that pic of the LeBaron is from some old dealer photos and not someone out there trying to keep it in pristine condition.

  4. Dominik says:

    Unfortunately, all of these cars didn’t really make it as rental cars in Europe. All of them would be better rental cars as what there is to rent in Europe. Go and rent a car there – You’d be amazed how wrong you can be on rentals. And if you worry, exporting LeBarons to Europe, get in touch with the LeBaron fan club of Germany, they’d love to tell you how good cars they were – Compared of German cars of that time, and compared to whatever there was coming from around the world.

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Dominik, I’ve always had good luck renting cars in Europe. My last one was a Skoda Octavia TDI, and it was cleaner and better maintained than any car I’ve ever rented in the U.S.. I suppose it makes a big difference (as it does here) which airport or city you rent from.

  5. crispy says:

    While I generally love German cars (owned a variety of BMWs and VWs), my worst experience in recent memory was renting a very bright red VW Beetle a couple months ago in Indianapolis. I should probably be more secure in my manhood, but there is zero chance of redeeming any sense of masculinity driving that thing. It’s not a bad car per se, just unbelievably feminine and quite slow. What’s with the dash that goes on for two zipcodes? Talk about wasted space in an already small car.

    That said, my best rental experience was also a German vehicle, rented at the Stuttgart airport a few years back for a 3 week business trip in Germany – Audi A6 3.2. Awesome car on the Autobahn, not bad on windy roads, tons of room, luxurious, looked great and Peterbilt-like torque. We got a deal on it (compact price) from Hertz and basically ran the hell out of it for 21 days. My co-worker racked up about 7 photo speeding tickets in town, and I got 3 or 4…and yes they catch up with you in the form of additional charges to your credit card along with a nice letter (in official, “yes we can do this and no, there’s nothing you can do about it” German) from the nice Hertz people.