A few times over the course of this year I have been granted the exciting and amazing opportunity to drive some, well, rental cars! Now, these may not be as prestigious or enticing as the Jag or the Macan from a few posts ago, but I’ve been known to take just about any chance I can to drive other peoples cars.
The first car I want to talk about is the Nissan Sentra. My wife and I rented this for a journey that totalled 2,712 miles in a trip to Indiana and back via the scenic route. Ours was a 2015 model, hailing from an era before the 2016 refresh. Let start with talking about what I liked about the car: It had lots of rear legroom and the trunk was big enough for all our junk. It was reasonably comfortable, quiet, and on a trip that included Detroit traffic, Philadelphia traffic, and driving my poor wife insane in Manhattan for a few hours, returned nearly 41 mpg. To top off the thumbs up section: for a rental-spec car, it had a proximity key, bluetooth and cruise...which is more than can be said for another car in this post.
Sadly, that’s where my praise comes to an end. The engine and the transmission are perfectly matched in such a way as to make this the slowest and least responsive car I’ve driven in a long time. Nissan kindly fitted this car with a 1.8L 4-cylinder engine but tuned it to provide a similar horsepower rating as my wheelbarrow. It also quickly became apparent that the transmissions job is solely to make the engine louder. It doesn’t really aid in acceleration or anything, it just makes more noise. The CVT’s usual rubber-band effect is probably even more pronounced here as it is in any other CVT I’ve ever driven. The procedure goes as follows: First, put your foot against the floorboard with as much force as you can muster. Then, sometime in the next couple minutes, the engine starts to rev higher while you remain at the same speed. Then the engine reaches maximum thrust and you expect to be slung-shot into the next county. Depressingly, all that actually happens is you sit there, deafened by 4 unhappy hamsters, and watch the speedometer climb slower than you could teach a mailbox to count. As an example, in the middle of Indiana I was following my father. He, my mother, grandmother and uncle were in front of us in a rented Tahoe. The light turned green, so, he proceeded in the same manner as most people would when their mom was riding shotgun. With my foot mashed to the floor, I couldn’t keep up. Not only would this lose in a drag race against it’s competition, it would lose a drag race with fossilization.
I have it on good authority that the word “uninspired” was initially created to describe the interior of the Nissan Sentra. The seats may be comfortable for spending all day on the highway, but, lateral support is missing. Fortunately they were made of cloth instead of leather, otherwise we could’ve been sliding all over the cabin on the twisty roads. Not that that the engine, transmission, steering feel, suspension dynamics, or indeed any other aspect of the car encouraged anything resembling “sporty driving”. I can picture how the design meeting went when they gathered to discuss the interior:
Boss: “Hello everyone, there is room temperature coffee and a box of leftover donuts on the folding table over there. Help yourselves!” “In the meantime, let’s discuss this new Sentra. We need to design a dashboard for it.”
The team: “Are there any frosted donuts left?”
Notice how the donuts are all that is important? Also, notice that the boss did not ask for a functional but stylish dashboard, or a crazy dashboard, or a competitive dashboard, he didn’t even ask for a nice dashboard. Their market research team uncovered the incredible fact that the Mitsubishi Lancer is a competitor for the Sentra. However, I’m pretty sure that’s where the research ended.
Buy a Mazda3, or a Civic, or a Focus, or an Elantra, or an Impreza. Hell, go buy a Corolla. But, please, when you start to approach the Nissan dealer, don’t forget the Mitsubishi at least has a long warranty.
The Chevrolet Tahoe from the story above hauled the remainder of my family to Indiana. While we were all in town together, we rode around in that instead of taking both cars everywhere. Though I didn’t really drive it enough to get an impression of it, I was able to at least make a few observations. The first row is nice and comfortable, great for long drives half-way across the country. The second row was comfortable too - for the few seconds I was allowed to sit there. The downside was that my wife and I were the youngest of the crowd and were therefore banished to the rear-most seating. I can say for certain that the third row of a Chevrolet Tahoe wasn’t designed for things like “adults”. Thankfully we were only shoved back there for short stints around my father’s hometown while we visited. The room behind the seats was surprisingly dismal as well. A Mazda CX-9 may not be as wide as the Tahoe, but, it feels roomier in the back and gets way better fuel economy. So, if you don’t need to tow your big boat around, a nice normal 3-row SUV isn’t really compromising on space or comfort. All of that said, it has been confirmed that even with 4 people on board and without trying, it will outrun a Nissan Sentra from the lights.
Then, this fall, I managed to strike a deer with my Mazda3. While it was in the shop I was forced to rent a car. In talking with the rental agent, I had only two requests. As someone who puts a significant amount of miles on a car every day, much of which is spent on the highway, cruise control has become a very close friend of mine. If I was going to be stuck with whatever rental-grade econo-box was available for a couple weeks, I at least didn’t want to overtax my right foot. My other criteria was that I was hoping for something I hadn’t spent time with yet.
What I was presented with was a Kia Rio with a suspiciously stained interior. Seriously, this thing looked like the windows had been left open during monsoon season. The agent promptly assured me that I wouldn’t be responsible for this and that they knew about it. The odor was unpleasant so I grabbed an air freshener to help mask the smell of waterlogged cloth seats.
Through the miracle of a non-CVT transmission, a 130lb diet and an entire 8 more horsepower, this car would easily out-pace the Sentra. Although, since the same could be said about continental drift, I suppose that’s not saying much.
While its engine is much more responsive than the one in the Nissan, it does kinda fall flat from there. I suspect “driving dynamics” is not a buzzword commonly used around the team responsible for this car. It crashed and bounced over bumps, rolled in the corners like a submarine with a stuck ballast, and while it managed to not kill me, I found myself not actively searching for the fun road.
From the inside, the view forward is filled by an enormous dashboard, presumably intended for impromptu table tennis matches while stuck in traffic. Beyond the dash and windshield, I have no idea. From the vantage point of the drivers seat there is no front on this car. This would explain though why they are all either parked a mile from whatever they’re pulling up to or suffering from front end damage.
My time with the car was thankfully short lived. As I merged onto the highway for the first time I settled back in my grubby seat and reached for one of the plentiful buttons on the steering wheel only to learn that none of the buttons present would activate anything as posh as cruise control. The following morning my agent kindly set me up with a Focus instead. I will save my thoughts on that car for another day since I spent a couple weeks with it.
Holy shit! Did I do a bad job with pictures on this one or what? I’ll try harder next time, I promise.