Monday, July 03, 2006


Sweet rental rides

My mildly horrendous train trip from Chicago to Albany ended with the inconvenient fillip of a transfer -- via $30 cab ride -- from the Amtrak station to the airport to pick up our rental car.

The car rental is usually the last travel hassle you have to go through after a wearing trip. You negotiate the rental car desk, which is just as fun as the airline check-in desk, and designed to look exactly the same: frustrated patrons leaning forward, legs crossed, and folded arms resting on the chest-high counter while the customer-weary counter clerk tappity-tappity-taps on a computer keyboard.

With age, I've gotten pickier about rental cars. The American-made cars they offer really suck: Chevy Malibu, Pontiac Grand Am. I always wind up at the rental desk trying to negotiate a better car, often unsuccessfully, and I was preparing myself to swallow the bitter pill of a week in a Ford Taurus -- a fitting end to a disappointing journey. But a pleasant surprise awaited me.
"We're giving you a free upgrade," said the Hertz counter clerk. "Would you like a pickup truck or a Volvo S60?"
"Okay..." I eyed her suspiciously. What was the catch? "I'll take the Volvo."
"Would you like a blue one or a silver one?"
The Volvo S60 is for all intents and purposes a luxury car. Not top of the line, perhaps, but a sweet ride. Roomy, ergonomically designed interiors, buttery leather seats the color of ... well, butter, actually. Nice power and handling. Definitely a car that makes you feel a tad cramped and dissatisfied when you get back into your own car after the trip.

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Volvo S60. Mmmmmm.

This was my second really good rental experience in a row. In Vancouver, we were able to substitute a Toyota Matrix for the Ford Taurus. Technically a downgrade, and therefore a cut in price, the Matrix was also a smooth ride. It was comfortable, decently powered, and had two features I really liked.

Toyota Matrix.

One was the "old knees" feature. You may know that a lot of older people are drawn to minivans and SUVs, not because they want big-butt vehicles, but simply because the higher chassis enables riders to get in and out of the seats without doing deep knee bends. Well the Matrix offers high seats in a normal sedan-sized station wagon. I don't know whether this means the car is dangerously high-centered like SUVs -- I hope not. I like the idea of a high-seated alternative.

Second, the Matrix offers what I call the "ABSD" -- or "Anti-Back-Seat-Driver" -- feature. Technically, the design deters annoying kibbitzing from the passenger seat by making it impossible for the front-seat passenger to see any of the dashboard dials.

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Toyota Matrix ABSD dashboard indicators, front and side views.

Neat, huh?

oscar, dahlling -- as an employee of the univ of X, you are entitled to a discount for National rental cars, replete with full insurance coverage at no cost. join the emerald club (free) and you need not stand at the counter -- just go the emerald aisle and pick whichever car you like from those in the class (lux, mid etc) you reserved. yes they have grand ams, but they also have some VWs.


nyxonr -- new york's honor
Same thing happened to me at an Enterprise in San Diego. The desired size had sold out, so they offered me the Volvo... or a minivan.

Terrific ride, especially now that they're no longer boxy. The Volvo, not the minivan.

mfrdet (muh-FRED-ette): my female Fred.
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