"There's no bad new cars anymore"

We’ve all heard it before, and with increasing regularity: “Twenty-thousand miles? That’s just getting broken it! It’s practically new!” In the times of once unimaginable engineering and manufacturing processes, 20k truly is nothing these days. But where twenty-thousand miles isn’t “new” though is with the machines that so regularly get treated with reckless abandon, the vehicles that take a licking and (usually) keep on kicking: rental cars.
A twenty-thousand-mile rental is one that usually shows signs that it’s at, or nearing, the point of hating its own existence. Dying seats, a tired engine, interior and exterior panels that look like they were subject to a demolition derby, and invariably a smell you can’t place coming from a location you’d rather not examine. Twenty-thousand rental miles are tough on a car unlike any other because, after all, most people treat a rental like the damage-waiver-bearing piece of machinery it is, not the personal possession of your own that you love and care for.
Recently I spent a day in the Hyundai Accent pictured above and came away with some thoughts on the car itself and on cars as a whole. The little sedan had more of an impression on me than I anticipated, so read on to see what came of my time with the “Nissan Versa or similar”, as Enterprise calls it. 

Rental-spec cars are, usually, almost unbearably basic. They exist to serve the sole purpose of bare-bones transportation for those in need of it, the absolute minimum to get you where you need to go. Options are usually scarce if present at all, the engine the smallest available. In reality, a rental-spec car is one of the last things you want to drive. They’re notoriously resilient things, but luxurious they are not.
By that definition, the 2015 Hyundai Accent I recently had for a day was exactly that: a rental. It was slow, in no way sporty, poorly appointed, and beaten up. The nearly nineteen-thousand miles showing on the odometer might as well have been the equivalent abuse of one-hundred-and-nineteen-thousand under the care of a traditional owner.

But after commuting in the car for a day and logging around 150 miles in the Accent, it struck me that the machine was nowhere near as bad as I expected. For as horrible as I thought the two-year-old car would be, it was actually holding itself together better than I ever would have guessed. Not that it felt anywhere new in any regard, but fundamentally it still felt “together,” something that would have been difficult to say about a rental with this number of miles as recently as even five years ago. Don’t let me fool you into thinking the Accent was in any way a great car, as it certainly wasn’t, but it was nowhere near as as it could have been.
In fact, it was a surprisingly decent vehicle. Not good, but by no means the punishing shitbox that these used to be. Power was adequate, interior material quality sufficed, the seats were comfortable enough, gas mileage was good, NVH was fine, and it was moderately practical. But when it comes down to it, this low-tier and inexpensive car was, taken as a whole, in actuality a pretty solid car overall.

The underlying mantra that I’m getting at is another one which you’ve probably heard a lot of in the last couple years: there are no truly bad cars on sale in the States today. Sure, there can definitely be individual crappy examples (the Lemon Law exists for a reason), but even the most basic of offerings, like a rental-spec Hyundai Accent, has a solid chassis and genuinely solid engineering at its core, and will hold up really well when subjected to even some of the hardest miles you can throw at them. The Accent I had felt strong and like it had a lot of life left in it despite the worn out surfaces and suspension. Though it might be beaten and battered, it in no way gave off the impression that it was anywhere in the neighborhood of nearing death. That’s a lot to say about a rental car, and especially one that’s lived its life in the Northeast.

So the next time somebody says, “there are no more truly bad cars on sale,” I’ll remember the Accent. Just a few years back, a small economy-minded sedan from a Korean manufacturer would have been a quality nightmare, a car you pleaded with a friend not to buy if they said they were shopping for one. But today, it’s capable of withstanding even the murderous life that is that of a rental. If that doesn’t show how far cars have come, I don’t know what does.

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27 responses to “"There's no bad new cars anymore"”

  1. 0A5599 Avatar

    A friend rented a car as an 18th birthday present to himself. After picking it up, he hooned the crap out of it. 30 minutes later, the parking brake was worn out from all the Rockford turns. He was two miles away from the rental counter, so he went back to exchange it.
    They gave him a new car, and an apology. I think maybe even a discount.

    1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      When was an 18-y.o. last able to rent a car? You must be even older than me, and I’ve been driving (legally) for almost 31 years.

      1. 0A5599 Avatar

        A few places still do it.
        The rental company was selected specifically because they would rent to him. I think he might have had his mom do the paperwork and use her credit card, then list him as an “additional” driver, even though she never got into the car. I wasn’t with him at the counter, so I don’t really know, and while the brakes started boiling in the parking lot of my work, I was still on the clock and was back inside during the car exchange.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      On my 18th birthday, a friend picked up a then new Volvo V40 at my local Volvo dealer, free of charge, for me to drive anywhere that day. They did, of course, know me well, and I might not even have hit the red line once.
      Poor, rational kid.

  2. Papa Van Twee Avatar
    Papa Van Twee

    I rented a 2015 Kia Rio last summer (Ford Focus or equivalent? Yeah, right!) Instead of exchanging for something the right size or larger, they forced me into this. It wasn’t half bad, just kinda small with two kids, a wife, and two weeks of stuff.
    That said, we didn’t beat the heck out of it (although it did kinda witness a murder at a Kentucky rest stop), it returned 29 mpg, and it felt pretty good for a 10k+ rental. It even had bluetooth, which I paired my iPod (not my iPhone) to. If I had ordered a “Nissan Versa or equivalent” I would have been very happy with it. As it was, even after a $50 refund for the error, I came away pretty unwilling to go back to that rental location, and may never rent from Budget again, too.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Budget is dead to me, too, thanks to several incidences. I’m a sworn Hertz customer and have been for years. Good prices, good cars, and often the better service in the business. Two years ago, we even got a V70 as a “Focus or similar”-replacement.

      1. Papa Van Twee Avatar
        Papa Van Twee

        In the past I had driven my wrong rental to the airport and exchanged it, so I was okay with them for that, can’t easily keep all local counters stocked, was my opinion. But not giving me my size vehicle, lying about the size of this vehicle, and overstating the MPG my 10… the $50 refund was not enough.

    2. LeaksOil Avatar

      When we last moved we tried to rent a Budget truck. Their website quoted the best rate vs Uhual and similar. Literally on the way to get the truck we get a call from their office saying they didn’t have anything. Nothing? Not even something smaller? Not a single vehicle available. Called Uhual, got a better deal than initially quoted from Budget and they said come and get it. Brand new truck on less than an hours notice.
      Meanwhile Budget charged me $60. When I called the branch I was told because I improperly cancelled my reservation. I explained that no, through no fault of my own Budget overbooked their vehicles and cancelled on me. I can’t help that Budget made a commitment to rent a vehicle to me that wasn’t available. Guy got all mad and rude and acted like he was doing me a favor by refunding a charge for receiving absolutely nothing but a headache. Two weeks later? Still no refund. Called the 1-800 number a few times? Nothing. Went on Facebook and blew up their page about how terrible they have been treating me? Boom. Refund. Screw Budget.

      1. HoondavanDude Avatar

        Completed an 800 mile move in a Budget truck (the biggest size) during Hurricane Irene. Caulked the roof bolts, loaded up and left town driving straight towards the storm. Quickly realized the AC was broken. Budget offered to upgrade our trailer from a tow-behind to a flat-tow. There was no way I was going to try to hitch and unhitch my car in their parking lot. It was a hot, steamy, terrible drive with rain pouring in through the cracks in the window.
        At the end of the drive I think they wound up crediting back $150 or so. Always do a thorough check of your rig BEFORE you load it up with all of your belongings.

  3. neight428 Avatar

    The least forgivable failures these days seem to come from the more expensive cars. Who would be surprised to hear that a BMW, Mercedes, or Range Rover was rendered immobile and had to be towed to the dealer in its first 20K miles of life?

  4. jeepjeff Avatar

    I got one of these when I went to Utah for FPRS back in September. It seemed well-enough put together, but it was quite possibly the most boring car I’ve ever driven. The NVH was damped out to the point where it provided almost no sensation of movement*. The engine was responsive enough to not be annoying, but still in that bland 75ish Hp/ton econobox sweet spot. It could just get out of its own way and no more. The gear box was largely unnoticeable. I have no strong impression of it. The seats were comfortable-ish (I think it had a forward jutting head rest, which messes up my back posture and is super uncomfortable for hour or longer trips, but I didn’t drive it for more than 20 minutes at a time). The interior was bland but well put together.
    Finally, the one gripe I have about that car. How did that paint get into production? I had one the same color. It’s drab-beige. It’s singularly the most boring, awful color I’ve seen on a car (I like vibrant paint or legit patina).
    I didn’t hate it. It was just kind of an appliance, and it was playing second fiddle to me driving a manual 2015 Mustang GT on a closed track. I’m kind of glad it was unnoticeable tofu rather than an off-flavor. Honestly? An M/T version with a different paint job and a bit of the #bradsport treatment to get rid of some of the insulation and it would be fun enough.
    * Fair warning: my NVH Overton Window is shifted pretty badly, “normal” NVH in my vehicle fleet is “you might want ear plugs.”

    1. cap'n fast Avatar
      cap’n fast

      ok. drab and unremarkable. my thought is: were you required to have theft insurance to rent the car?? i believe you could not pay someone enough to steal this kind of car.
      did you get a speeding ticket while driving this car? or, did the cops give you a pass as they thought you were in a rush to turn it in and only wished to help speed you trip back to reality?
      my last thought was about the rental company. last time i used national and was comped upgraded to a 300C as the 200 and i did not fit at all. couldn’t get the door shut on my legs and my head was laid over on my shoulder and against the roof. when i reserved the car i had specifically ask for “NO DART OR 200” as i knew the damn things were a poor fit.
      my conclusion on rental cars was: it’s my money. if you want it give me what i ask for or i go else where.

      1. jeepjeff Avatar

        I don’t remember there specifically being theft insurance or what the requirements were (I opted for enough insurance that I wasn’t worried about anything).
        I did get a speeding ticket though. It was a dumb ticket, mostly because I wasn’t used to the car and hadn’t figured out there was no fixed spot to hold the throttle to get it to cruise at the right speed (off the pedal: slow down, barely touch the pedal, cruise at 10 over; the ticket was for 5 over, I was maybe 10 over indicated, which probably was 5 over in reality). I’m pretty sure Deputy Jockstrap targeted me because I was driving an obvious rental car. I was in Tooele County, Utah, and none of the locals drove these. I’m also pretty sure he was on a “fund the department on the backs of tourists” mission (he barely talked to me).

  5. Lokki Avatar

    …Even more important than being drunk, however, is having the right car. You have to get a car that handles really well. This is extremely important, and there’s a lot of debate on this subject – about what kind of car handles best. Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind. You can also park without looking, and can use the trunk as an ice chest. Another thing about a rented car is that it’s an all-terrain vehicle. Mud, snow, water, woods – you can take a rented car anywhere. True, you can’t always get it back – but that’s not your problem, is it?
    Excerpted from P.J O’Rouke’s
    How to Drive Fast on Drugs
    While Getting Your
    Wing-Wang Squeezed
    Not Spill Your Drink


    1. Vairship Avatar

  6. outback_ute Avatar

    I’d agree with this, although my last experience of B-segment cars was that they aren’t great for highway use (surprise!). 8-10 years ago I did a 6-hour round trip in a Hyundai Getz, and halfway through the return journey I was couldn’t wait to get out, the seat became uncomfortable and the NVH levels were high. Apart from that they are a good solid car, not bad fun for a run in the hills; the low-grip tyres meant that entertainment is available at moderate speed. Since then I’ve had a couple for urban driving, which is where they are fine. A late 2000’s Kia Rio was pretty basic with noticeably worse NVH; I’d buy a Getz if I needed a car like that, but not a Rio.
    The A-segment cars like the Mitsubishi Mirage are probably where those B-cars were 10 years ago.

  7. Maymar Avatar

    The “stripper as rental-spec” thing is a bit overblown – resale is a massive consideration when you’re typically going to sell something off within two years (especially with the ex-rental stigma), so they frequently have equipment that’s pretty in line with what civilians buy (the buybacks – leased stuff – especially often come in pretty loaded as per the manufacturer’s specifications). I mean, there’ll be the odd thing that’s basic (as this Accent proves), but it’s getting rare.
    Also, the Accent’s not bad, but I find it a little too bouncy. On the other hand, I had a Soul for a few days earlier this month, and liked it more than I expected to (disappointed it couldn’t break 30mpg though).

    1. salguod Avatar

      Agreed. In 2010 I bought a former rental 2010 Saturn Outlook. XR trim, heated, umpteen way power leather seats, 3 zone climate control, 6 disc changer, backup camera, 120v outlet, remote start and towing package. Probably a $40K truck against what was likely a mid $20K base price for the XE. At 6 months old with 12K miles, I paid just under $30K.

  8. stigshift Avatar

    I drive an assortment of ’13 and ’15 Hyundai Accents for work. They beat the hell out of my other options, which are slightly older Corollas, or if all else is gone, Priuses. Prii? The Corollas ride a little better, a Prius is a vile excuse for a car, and the little Accents, ranging from 80k to 200k, all drive the same. You can’t tell the highest mileage one from the lowest. I don’t like any of my choices, but I always go for an Accent at the key board. Except for today. For some unexplainable reason, we have a 2005 Grand Marquis Ultimate Edition in our fleet. The guy who normally drives it is on vacation this week. I’m on it.

    1. discontinuuity Avatar

      The official Latin plural of Prius is “Priora.”

  9. Sjalabais Avatar

    My seven seater started its life as a rental. The surprising tendency – for a Honda – of interior bits tending to come off might have its origin here. Other than that, what I bought from the second owner after that, is a mechanically sound, quite well cared for, little van.
    The only car rental epiphany I have ever had was in a Cinquecento in Greece. Due to my height, I’ve never liked small cars. Realizing that the inner rear wheel will lift in every second corner at what I considered half-civil mountain road speeds gave me a second physical argument against vehicles with a wheel base shorter than myself. It was fun, but it felt like death was watching.

  10. Zentropy Avatar

    On a business trip in the late ’90s I was given an Oldsmobile Alero as a rental. It had less than 3k miles on it, but to this day it is the absolute worst car I have ever driven. No power, terrible fit/finish, interior squeaks and rattles everywhere. A couple of years prior I drove a Pontiac Grand Am. It wasn’t quite as bad, but as a platform mate, it still sucked. I have since never considered any GM car for purchase.
    In contrast, I haven’t driven any notably bad cars within the last 5-10 years.

  11. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    Our late and lamented Mazda5 was a rental car, and was no different than any other Mazda5 Sport. The funny one for me was finding a used rental car. A few years ago we rented a Mazda2 from Dollar, and found a Hertz rental contract in the glove compartment.
    Regarding the headline, by 80s or even mid 90s standards nothing I have seen is truly bad in the sense of poor function and likely to self-disassemble. There are certainly lots of crap cars in terms of driving experience but even the worst of those like the Chrysler 200 are still competent enough as transport appliances.

  12. boxdin Avatar

    I had booked online a Maxima. Showed up at rental and they had Mustangs, Camaros, and some Challenger RTs. Goodbye Maxima, Hello ChallengerRT. Its was a great 3 days for only 100 more. A great investment in my happiness !! I hate maximas.

  13. boxdin Avatar

    A year ago I bought a new Hyundai Elantra and put 20k on it as my Lyft/uber car. I love this car, it is the best handling front driver I have ever driven. Power is amazing for a 1.8 but elec PS etc adds up to 34 mpg city w the AC on. Amazing car I will buy another Hyundia/Kia product. I understand my model, a 2016 was the first to be re-done by the engineering team w the guys they got from Mercedes and BMW and it feels it. Car has been trouble free for my first year, I hope to run it to 200k as my Lyft car.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Our 2015 Kia Sedona is so much better than the 2004 model it replaced that it feels like it was made by a different manufacturer 30 years later. The old one was a reliable mule, but the new one looks and feels nice. It’s still a minivan, but for a family hauler it’s no penalty box.

  14. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i rented a Dodge Dart with ~17k on it recently. the oil pressure light kept coming on around corners, and the engine stalled out on me once. the car rattled and squeaked. its only redeeming features were the styling and the stereo.