There’s something strange about this rental car

During a recent visit to Atlanta, Sixt Rent a Car upgraded Samuel Ventola to a Jeep Patriot instead of the subcompact he had reserved. Maybe it wasn’t doing him a favor.

“It was night,” remembers Ventola, a lawyer who lives in Denver. “So the lights came on by themselves when I turned on the ignition.”

Near Athens, Ga., the flashing blue-and-red lights of a patrol car signaled Ventola to pull over. His tail lights were out, an officer said. And sure enough, they were.

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“Apparently, when the headlights come on automatically, the tail lights don’t — unless you turn the knob,” he says.

Ventola was lucky. The officer let him off with a warning.

Car rental mix-ups can range from amusing to dangerous. If you’re about to travel somewhere and rent a car for the holidays, particularly if you’re traveling internationally, here’s what you need to know to avoid ending up with a ticket. Or worse.

Let’s get straight to the pyrotechnics, shall we? They come to us courtesy of Sean Snodgress, a physician from Santa Barbara, Calif., who recently rented an Audi A4 with a manual transmission from Europcar in Paris.

Snodgress knows how to drive a stick shift, but this car was different, as European cars sometimes are. He wasn’t even 30 yards out of the parking garage at the Gare du Nord when the car ground to a halt.

“Smoke started to pour out of the engine,” he remembers. “I pulled the car into a parking space on the fourth floor and turned it off. One of the parking attendants in the garage, who worked for another rental car company, ran over when he saw all of the smoke. Another actually threw the hood open and doused it with a fire extinguisher!”

Europcar charged his credit card $2,013 for the mishap. I contacted Europcar to find out whether it was really possible to destroy a manual transmission so quickly. (I’m a consumer advocate, not a mechanic.)

Dorothee Djian, a Europcar spokeswoman, said that Snodgress was charged for breaking the gearbox of the car he rented. “He is responsible for the damage caused to the vehicle, because of bad use and not for mechanical failure.” It happened on his watch, so he had to pay — even though he doesn’t know how it happened.

It’s difficult to quantify the number of incidents and accidents that result from driving unfamiliar rental cars. A recent analysis of traffic accidents in New Zealand suggests that overseas drivers are nine times more likely than native ones to be involved in a car accident. In New Zealand and many other countries, the steering wheel is on what Americans consider the passenger side. Not the easiest concept to wrap your head around after a long trans-Pacific flight.

Industry efforts to educate drivers are informal, at best. For example, Auto Europe’s website cautions inexperienced drivers against renting a manual transmission vehicle in Europe — “especially if you are visiting England, where the cars drive on the opposite sides of the road and the car’s gearshift is located on the driver’s left side.”

Of course, the most common car rental problems are mundane. How do you turn the headlights on and off? How do you operate the windshield wipers? The internal lights? And, perhaps most irritating: How do you open the trunk, the hood and the gas tank?

When I rented a car in Paris recently, I discovered that I couldn’t shift into reverse before I left the lot. I also discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help, a problem my better half diagnosed as Male Ego Disorder. With her encouragement, I eventually asked a Hertz representative, and he demonstrated: Push down, then shift. My kids had a good laugh at my lack of driving savvy, but I’m glad I asked. I could have destroyed the van’s transmission.

It was an important lesson, and it raises the question: How many drivers don’t ask because they think they should know? Or because they only have one X chromosome?

Maybe there’s a middle way, if you can find it. Karen Howell discovered it recently when she rented a car from Avis in Mesa, Ariz.

“It was loaded with tech,” she reports. “I could not figure out how to work the radio.”

She opened the glove compartment to check the manual. It wasn’t there. Finally, with the help of a younger cousin, she fired up the radio and found her favorite station.

“When I returned the car, I reported my only complaint being no manual in the car,” says Howell, a retired postal worker. “The attendant showed me where it was — under the spare tire in the trunk.”

Well, of course. Isn’t that the first place people look?

12 thoughts on “There’s something strange about this rental car

  1. Franky, I’m surprised that the NHTSA has not mandated that cars with Daytime Running Lights and dashboards that are always lit MUST have automatic headlights. I’ve seen a LOT of people driving down the road in pitch black without their taillights because other than the dash being brighter than it should be at night, they can see just fine.

    1. I agree. My Honda has settings that allow me to manually control the lights or set it to AUTO (automatic) and the Daytime running lights are on and as it begins to get dark the regular headlights come on. When I had my Toyota Camry, it did not come with that. It was available but at an additional cost and had to come from the factory that way – not a dealer add on, or so I was told. Too many people forget to turn on their headlights at dusk.
      So, I leave my lights in the AUTO setting and then I do not have to worry.

  2. Good article. Recently in Spain I rented a car and there were several things I couldn’t figure out. I went back inside the airport twice to get instructions, and they were pretty annoyed with me by the time I finally left 40 minutes later, but better safe than sorry. At the gas station later, a friendly local had to show me how to get to the gas tank. I’m always particular about knowing the operational and safety features before I pull out of my parking space. I agree the lack of an easy to find manual is a problem. I imagine in some places they figure it wouldn’t help anyway because of language barriers.

  3. The quick guide would be better than the full book as there is a lot of info in the full book that I never use even on my own cars. The rental companies could ask the car companies to make a couple pages of the most used areas and laminate that to put in the glove box of the vehicle and let the renter know it’s there for their use about the lights, gas tank location, etc. I think there would be less theft as it wouldn’t cover everything about the car and have the agent check to see if it’s in the car when returned each time to then ask the person where it is. Charge them a replacement cost and be done with it.

  4. That is one benefit of the cheap economy level cars I end up getting when I rent…no fancy bells and whistles to figure out! Simplicity!

  5. I may be at a disadvantage here, not being a motorist myself, but it seems to me that if one rents an automobile, the rental should include an user’s manual which explains how the vehicle works. That is, how to turn on the lights necessary to drive at night, how to go backwards, etc. Yes, it might take some time to read the manual before using a rental vehicle, but motor vehicles are inherently dangerous, and the slightest mistake in their use can result in the death of an innocent pedestrian (like me). Please, if you haven’t used that type of vehicle before, read the instructions first.

    1. This assumes there is a manual with the car and it isn’t full of numerous drawings of every option under the sun. I don’t want to sit in my just renting car for 30-60 minuets trying to figure out which drawing applies to the model I’m in.

      1. A motor vehicle is inherently dangerous, and instructions ought to be provided to its users. True, it may take some time to read those instructions, but the user’s rush to drive would likely be of little solace to the family whose loved one was killed by that user who did not want to take the time to read the instructions.

      2. Another poster had the idea – as you say, you don’t want an owner’s manual that has every detail about every car in that manufacturer’s fleet – just a quick start guide published in the main languages understood by renters at that site, which highlights the main features that apply to someone who will have this specific car a few days. Those could be published without that much trouble and would definitely make me look at a car rental firm positively.

  6. In Orlando, back in 1988, before I bought my own Plymouth Voyager, friends and I rented 2 cars. A Voyager and a Taurus. The Voyager’s rear side panels were already opened when we left the airport and when I got to the hotel, I wanted to close them. I knew they were powered, but none of us could find the switch to close ’em. Ok, so maybe they weren’t powered, we noticed that pushing on them to see if they snapped close didn’t work (didn’t seem like that would be a great design, considering you wouldn’t then be able to close ’em from the inside). Finally, after what seemed like forever, one of us (it was me and the other driver) found the levers on the ceiling touch-panel and voila, we were able to close the windows. A manual or quick-start guide certainly would have saved us some aggravation.

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