Published July 26, 2013
Whether you don't want to put a lot of miles on your family car or are flying and need transportation when you arrive, renting a car makes sense. In the spirit of family getaways as a warm-weather tradition, Bankrate assembled the seven best rental cars for summer vacation.
Because daily rental costs vary wildly based on the rental company, location and season of the year, rental rates didn't factor into the picks. Bankrate advises shopping around among rental companies for the best deal. Each pick, though, received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest crash-test score of "good" in crash tests. All are also an IIHS "top safety pick."
Comfort is a key requirement for any vacation vehicle. Each of these picks earned a rating of "good" or better from the testers at Consumer Reports for ride quality and interior noise, as well as front-seat and rear-seat comfort.
Finally, Bankrate considered fuel economy as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. All provide very good mileage for their size. The EPA-estimated miles per gallon are based on 2013 models with automatic transmissions.
Rental car companies have their own methods for defining compact, midsize or large. Sometimes, this involves making customers think they are getting more car than they are. Bankrate used EPA classifications. Bankrate also included at least one rental company offering each car.
Rental companies: Hertz and Enterprise
City - 26
Highway - 34
As simple, straightforward transportation, the Corolla offers controls and systems that won't confound drivers unfamiliar with their operation -- an important point for renters. Thanks to a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and six-way adjustable driver's seat, finding a comfortable driving position isn't difficult for most. A well-rounded sedan, it delivers decent fuel economy combined with a Consumer Reports rating of "very good" for ride quality, noise and front-seat comfort. A 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission deliver adequate performance for typical vacation duties.
Toyota loaded the Corolla with all sorts of storage cubbies, as well as 20-ounce bottle holders in all four doors. The 60/40 split-folding rear seat provides extra cargo room. An auxiliary audio input jack allows the use of iPods and other personal music devices.
Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Rental companies: Hertz
City - 30
Highway - 42
Earning big points for the Jetta TDI is its high-mileage, turbocharged, 2-liter, four-cylinder, clean-diesel engine that develops 140 horsepower. A driver-shiftable, six-speed automatic transmission drives the front wheels. Fun to drive, it cruises effortlessly on the freeway yet shines on curvy mountain roads.
Rear-seat passengers will appreciate the Jetta's surprising amount of rear legroom -- nearly 5 inches more than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. Consumer Reports rated rear-seat comfort along with ride quality and front-seat comfort as "very good." If not needed for passengers, sections of the 60/40 split-folding rear seat can be collapsed for additional cargo capacity.
All controls are intuitive and simple to operate from the get-go. The six-speaker audio system has iPod integration.
Rental companies: Hertz, Avis and Budget
City - 28
Highway - 38
Depending on the company, you will find the Focus as either sedan or hatchback rental cars. Although there are some differences in terms of cargo space -- the sedan has plenty, but the hatchback has considerably more -- the two styles are much more alike than different.
A responsive 160-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine turns the front wheels via a driver-shiftable, six-speed automatic transmission. Consumer Reports assigned ratings of "very good" to its ride quality, noise and front-seat comfort.
Because of its highly stylized exterior and interior, the Focus doesn't look or feel much like a rental car. The interior is particularly good looking. Most controls are simple to operate, even for a first-time user. The cabin is exceptionally quiet.
Rental companies: Hertz, Avis, Enterprise and Budget
City - 27
Highway - 38
You will find both two-door and four-door versions of the Altima as rental cars. If your rental needs include transporting more than two people, you will probably want four doors.
Renters unfamiliar with a continuously variable transmission will need to adjust to the absence of shifting in the Altima, which uses a CVT to usher output from the 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine to the front wheels. Nimble, easy to handle and redesigned for 2013, the Altima is well-suited for long freeway rambles and crowded city streets.
Consumer Reports rated ride quality, noise, and front- and rear-seat comfort as "very good." Consumer Reports also awarded a "very good" for the Altima's cargo space. NASA helped design the front bucket seats for improved comfort over long distances.
Rental companies: Avis and Budget
City - 17
Highway - 28
Fuel economy isn't as good with the XTS as the smaller cars on this list, but it is also the only sedan using a V-6 for its get up and go. Generating 304 horsepower from a 3.6-liter V-6, the XTS is armed with a driver-shiftable, six-speed automatic transmission to turn the front wheels.
The largest car in Cadillac's stable, the XTS has a cabin that is positively cavernous. Consumer Reports rated noise and front-seat comfort as "excellent." Ride quality, rear-seat comfort and cargo space all received "very good."
Built for touring, this sedan will leave you feeling as refreshed after a six-hour jaunt as when you started. Dual-zone automatic climate control and a Bose audio system with iPod connectivity are part of the package.
Dodge Grand Caravan
Rental companies: Avis, Hertz and Enterprise
City - 17
Highway - 25
Apparently the minivan workhorse of the rental companies, the Grand Caravan is a remarkable blend of passenger/cargo-carrying capacity, convenience and comfort. Consumer Reports scored it as "very good" in ride comfort, noise, front- and rear-seat comfort, and cargo space. It's tough to beat when you need to carry several passengers and their luggage.
Under the hood is a 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6. A driver-shiftable, six-speed automatic transmission ushers the power to the front wheels.
You won't find a lot of bells and whistles on Grand Caravan rentals, but all will have second-row as well as third-row seats that easily fold flat into the floor, remote keyless entry and seven air bags.
Type: standard SUV
Rental companies: Avis and Hertz
City - 17
Highway - 24
The EPA calls the Traverse a "standard" SUV, but you may think of it as a large crossover. Still, the Traverse has room for seven and comes with a 3.6-liter, 288-horsepower, V-6 engine with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Consumer Reports rated the Traverse as "very good" in all measures that Bankrate considered in assembling this list. Among its air bags is a first-ever front-center side air bag that inflates between front-seat occupants for added protection in a side-impact crash.
Providing a car-like ride, the Traverse is a terrific choice for longer road trips.