Monday, June 24, 2013

A tale of three rental cars.

As I'm still waiting for my new car to be delivered, I've been driving rental cars a lot over the last couple of months. Most recently I got to drive three different rentals within four days of each other and the differences were quite a surprise. Before I go any further, a quick diversion to talk about the first big difference: the rental companies. I don't know what the hell is going on over at Hertz but their customer service sucks now, and their cars are in terrible condition (the one we rented had over 75,000 miles on it) - I switched to Avis a couple of years ago but two weekends ago I had to deal with the big yellow H and it was a miserable experience. But anyway - the cars themselves.
The first one I had was a Nissan Maxima 3.5 V6. That was a strange beast. The driver's seat has a distinct bucket shape to it that you can't tune out through adjustment, meaning you sort of fall into the car, and then it always feels like the car is higher up than you are. Even with the seat on it's highest height adjustment I felt like I was having trouble seeing over the hood (and I'm over 6ft tall). The drivers view was sort of fun though - with the hump in the middle of the hood and the two flared quarter panels it was like looking out of the batmobile. Sadly that's largely where the fun stopped. For a Japanese car, it's clearly been built for the US market. The power steering was massively over-sensitive which made it exhausting to drive because it would follow every minor imperfection in the road on it's own so I spent the whole time trying to steer it in a straight line. The engine was super lazy, responding as if I'd sent the accelerator commands via the postal service, and the CVT - whilst a fantastic idea in principle - seems to have been implemented in the strangest way in this car, to the point where it was quite unpleasant to drive. It was like permanent turbo lag - only the engine never caught up with the throttle input. Driving at 30mph was OK but then if you put the boot in, there was no real 'downshift' or change of ratios in the CVT. It was like a 6th-gear low-speed roll-on - quite slow and lazy. The interior was a bit drab and I wasn't a fan of the keyless entry - more on that in a later blog post - but I suppose I'm going to have to get used to it - my new car will have it.
The second car was a total surprise - I had a Chevy Cruze. Long-time readers of this blog will know I pretty much despise most American cars. But the Cruze was oddly enjoyable. The version I had was an LTZ which I think is about as top of the line as they come - it seemed to have everything from nav to bluetooth audio, USB inputs, flappy-paddle gearbox, power everything - the works. The steering was firm and at speed it felt like I was actually steering the car instead of stirring milk (ahem - Nissan?). The interior had some properly decent fabrics and touch-friendly plastics (not like the scratchy, rattly old crap they used to use) and the transmission was very responsive. The car I drove had 36,000 miles on it but felt like it was a lot newer. There were a couple of things I didn't like though; as with most American cars, there was silver/chrome bling inside, which is utterly pointless on a sunny day because you just end up dazzled by it (not what you want when you're driving). And I didn't like the positioning of the heated seat/AC controls low down on the centre stack - the left one was exactly where my knee falls when I rest my leg against the console when driving. Oh - and the keyless entry system again.
The third car was a current-generation Subaru Impreza. My problems here started with the design. We owned two Subarus in the early 2000's when the design was still distinct and clearly a Subaru. The current Impreza looks like a Daewoo, or any other generic far east box. It's truly terrible and there's no longer anything unique or edgy about it. Things got worse inside - the interior was essentially exactly the same as the one I owned 10 years ago, and it was dated even back then. Hard squeaky plastics, smooth controls that are hard to grip, cheap-feeling steering wheel, cheep-feeling fabrics, and a central dot-matrix display straight from the early era of videogames, that made Space Invaders seem high-res. This one was similarly loaded - like the Cruze - but nothing seemed to work. The bluetooth wouldn't connect to my phone, the nav didn't work (could never find the satellites) and the power seat had about 2mm of adjustment in any direction. The CVT transmission was - not to put too fine a point on it - shit. Oddly, it had flappy paddle gearbox controls, which makes no sense given that CVT transmissions have no gears. That might explain why the paddles didn't do anything. The steering was connected to the front wheels via bush telegraph, the accelerator was like pushing on a poorly-baked sponge cake, the brakes had no feel and the whole package drove like it was always 3 seconds away from a crash. Now I don't know if this is the car itself or because of the mileage - this was the one with over 75,000 miles on it. But if you'd blindfolded me and taken me for a drive in the Subaru, I would have guessed it was a mid 70's American land yacht from the way it behaves.
So I guess I've found an American car that I like now - the Cruze - which is a total left-field thing for me because if you'd asked me to pick a US car that I'd want to drive, the Cruze would have been pretty much last on the list.