Whether you're renting a vehicle for a family vacation, or you just need a set of wheels to get you from between the airport and a business meeting, shopping purely on price probably isn't the best idea.
The assumption at the rental counter might be that these are all new cars--and new cars are all safe, right? Well, all rental cars aren't created equal, and there's no guarantee that a brand-new rental car is safer than your years-old luxury vehicle, for example.
As we've reported, some rentals, surprisingly, don't include essential safety features you'd expect would be included in all vehicles, and might not carry the sort of safety ratings you'd look for in your own vehicle.
Here are some quick tips on how to choose a rental car that will better protect you and your loved ones:
- Check safety ratings in advance. If the Web site won't give you the specific model, call, as many rental companies and locations will let you specify a particular model. Then check with the IIHS and NHTSA to see how the model fares.
- Verify that the vehicle has stability control, anti-lock brakes, and side airbags. Check under the hood; check the brake pedal; ask counter people; and do what it takes to get a vehicle with these features. Also look for a stamped 'SRS' emblem on the door panel or the side of the seat's backrest, to verify those side bags.
- Don't rent a tipsy vehicle. Even though a taller vehicle might handle perfectly well, and have stability control, you're still at a greater risk if you have have to swerve quickly—especially if it involves steering out onto the shoulder. And if you're not used to driving an SUV or other tall vehicle, don't choose any vehicle that gets just three stars in the federal rollover ratings.
- Choose a model with good visibility. If, when you first get into the vehicle and are backing out of the spot, you're having trouble seeing out or changing lanes, consider going back into the office and asking for an alternative. It's not going to get any better, especially when you're maneuvering through traffic in unfamiliar environs.
- If in doubt, don't go with the smallest, cheapest option. It's true the larger, premium choices cost a little more, and use more gas, but the laws of physics, along with fatality facts, prove that in multiple-vehicle collisions you're generally better off in something mid-size or larger. Trying to cram a family of four, and luggage, in a Chevy Aveo or Hyundai Accent might not be altogether worth the $5 a day it saves you.