The Car Rental Rant

June 30, 2010

I disregarded my own oft-offered advice this trip, and drove my own car a long distance in a short time, rather than renting a vehicle for the trip. I had several reasons for this, chief among which was that there was some service required for my three-year-old Honda before the warranty ran out, and I wanted to take it back to its home dealer to get it done. Also, I have managed to put fewer than 20,000 miles on the car in all that time, so it was a good chance to blow out the cobwebs.

Normally, though, I would have rented a car for a trip of this duration and length, because it makes huge sense economically. Current statistics suggest that it costs 50 cents a mile these days to operate a car; this will of course vary depending on whether you drive a Prius or an Escalade, but it is a good round figure to work with. Thus, a trip of 3000 miles could be expected to cost $1500 all in. This is perhaps a bit simplistic, though; let’s break it down a bit.

A car’s drive train is exceptionally long-lived in the early 2000s; many cars are capable of 200,000 miles over the run of their lives. One car editor remarked that “200,000 is the new 100,000” in regard to expected longevity of the modern automobile. So, let’s use that figure; thus, our 3000-mile trip represents about 1/70 of the lifetime of the drivetrain. If it were to cost, say, $4000 to rebuild both engine and transmission (a very conservative estimate), then the portion allotted to this trip would be about $57. Tires and brakes last, on average, around 30,000 miles, so 1/10 of the price of a new set of tires and brakes should be factored in; let’s call it $600 for both, so the portion allotted to our trip would be $60. Three thousand miles of depreciation adds in another $75. An oil change, which should be done once every 5000 miles or so, adds in another $18 (60% of $30). A tune-up, required every 100,000 miles, runs about $300, so our trip costs allotted to that would run about $10. These are not all the costs of operating a car, of course, but it should serve as a baseline (I didn’t include insurance, gas, and so on, as those would be a similar issue whether using your own car or a rental). So, our subtotal for using the family car:

$57 drive train wear

$60 tires and brakes

$75 depreciation

$18 oil change

$10 tune-up

$220 subtotal (an exceptionally conservative subtotal, I think)

By contrast, using figures I just looked up online this morning, a mid-size rental car (or what passes for mid-size these days), a Toyota Corolla or similar vehicle, rents for between $164-$216 per week, with unlimited miles included. Note that even the more expensive figure undercuts the distinctly simplified numbers attached to running one’s own vehicle.

Equally important, if you have a flat tire, mechanical breakdown, or an accident en route, you simply call the car rental company, and shortly thereafter you are back on the road, either with a fixed car or a replacement vehicle. No cooling your heels at the dealer awaiting repairs (or back-ordered parts). Also, as your car ages, it becomes more likely to require such repairs; the rental car, by comparison, typically has fewer than 12,000 miles on its odometer, and would be comparatively unusual to encounter problems at that stage of its life.

I mention all this now, because last night two rocks hit my windshield within ten minutes of one another, either of which might have caused a serious crack, although for some reason neither one did. If they had, the insurance deductible would have set me back $100, and would have occasioned another minor-to-moderate internal rant about the manifold virtues of car rental.