Finding deals in SUV rentals

vibeWhen I went to book a rental car for a family vacation up to the Adirondacks yesterday, I was surprised to find SUVs renting for less than small cars.

Last week ABC News had a story about how rental agencies were pressuring customers to take the SUVs off their lots. At an Avis in Manhattan, the midsize SUV is the cheapest vehicle available ($421 a week), followed by the standard SUV ($451), then the compact ($501). Oddly the biggest gas-guzzler, the full-sized SUV, is still the most expensive at $854 a week.

In other words, rental car prices have become even more irrational. That means if you're smart you may be able to get yourself a deal. I don't know the exact model they're offering (how many cylinders, etc.), but I could still take a guess at what the cost would be. A midsize SUV at Avis is the Pontiac Vibe, which according to carseek gets 26 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. That's pretty good mileage. The Vibe actually resembles your common station wagon. In fact, I bet Pontiac gets around to rebranding it that sometime soon.

The mid-sized SUV is a Chevy Trailblazer. We're moving into real SUV territory here. It only gets 16 mpg city / 22 mpg highway. The full-sized SUV is a GMC Acadia, which gets 17 mpg/city -- 26 mpg/highway.

Back to that compact car -- how does that do on gas? Avis uses a Chevy Cobalt. It only gets about 22/33. So, the Vibe SUV gets better mileage than the compact.I know that there are lots more reasons to conserve gas besides money, but let's just ignore them for the moment and do some math. Even with a big lunker like the Chevy Trailblazer, which gets one-third less mpg than the compact, it costs $6 more per 100 miles to drive. So if you were just driving locally, you're fine. If I were just going to drive up to a cabin in the Adirondacks and back (about 500 miles round trip), the extra gas would cost me $30. That's less than the $50 extra I would have to pay to get the compact.

People are so frightened by the very notion of an SUV that they are irrationally fleeing even small, high mileage SUVs. Rental car prices are being driven by the factors that drive any market: fear and greed. Last year we greedily all wanted SUVs, this year we're afraid of them. The big catch, of course, is that rental car companies don't really guarantee a certain model. They say X model or similar. Still, I made my reservation for a Vibe.
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