Many years ago, when I was in college, I took a physical education course that was sponsored and led by the Army ROTC. It offered everything an outdoorsy, 20-yr old boy could want - shooting rifles, repelling buildings, and co-ed camping. And the opportunity to earn college credit while doing these fun activities. It all sounded glamorous...and it was! In retrospect, the class was all about marketing. They wanted attendees to sign up for the army. The class offered all the things you might expect from a marketing brochure. When camping, we even played games to build teamwork and camaraderie. We grilled our food - fresh from the grocery stores. There were no MREs; no talk of war or extended deployments in hostile areas. It was all rosy.
And this is the way most things are presented to us in today’s consumeristic environment. Everywhere we turn, we are presented with all that is right and good about products with promises of how they will improve our lives and make us happy. The automotive business is no different. Never before have we had so much choice in what we drive, with auto manufacturers creating new niches to provide us with types of vehicles we never knew we wanted. But, by the time the marketing is complete, we can’t imagine living without them. And then there are the options. In many cars, you can spend over $50k just on options. But we are told that we need them. Manufacturers promote a base price but always show images of the top models. In fact, for many cars, you may never find a base model on a lot, as they are all optioned up - to maximize profits.
However, there is one industry where this trend has not caught on - rental cars. Automotive giants inflate their numbers by building thousands of new cars for the rental fleets but, in this case, they are not the nice, well-optioned vehicles. This is where the base models exist. But why? Yes, I know, it is because the fleet companies, that are buying thousands, are paying bottom dollar, so financially, it makes sense for the car companies to go as cheap as possible...or does it?
I would argue that this strategy is costing auto manufacturers consumer sales. Case in point: the 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. I recently had to rent a car for one day and was very pleased when the counter agent offered me a new Camaro. I have read so many great things about this car from car journalists that I was excited to get behind the wheel.
The outside looked nice. I wouldn’t choose the white color, but I won’t judge a rental by its paint. Inside, it was a sea of plastic. Everywhere I touched was plastic. Every knob, every surface, the basic cloth seats, the car just felt cheap. And the driving experience was no better. Of course this was the 4-cylinder version, but all that I had read stated the engine still came with nearly 300hp. You would not know it in this car. It had no power. Wether I was trying to pass someone on the highway or pulling out from a stop, I could not coax power out of this car. I don’t know if the engine and transmission just have bad ratios (likely rated for fuel economy), or if the rental versions actually come with less power, but this car just had no giddy-up. It did still have the world-renowned blind-spots that newer Camaros are known for. It did have a loud engine noise - though one of an under-powered 4-cylinder, not the growl of a V8 or even a whine of a turbo V6. In the end, everything about this car disappointed.
So, Chevrolet sold a car - lots of them - to rental fleets. Cars that they produced as cheaply as possible. And they left an impression on this renter - an impression that I have no desire to drive another Camaro. It’s a shame. I know that other trims and versions must be good cars - everyone says they are. But once you get food poisoning, you never want to eat that food again. This rental experience left that same sick feeling about the Camaro - and to some degree about Chevrolets in general. As I am looking for a new vehicle, I doubt I will even entertain a new Chevrolet, and especially not the Camaro.
And it isn’t just this experience. Two days later, I got a 2019 VW Passat as a rental. It had more options than the Camaro and, sadly, it’s 1.8 liter turbo felt much quicker. It had their (faux) leather seats and nicer interior. But, the power seat was already broken (leaving me to drive in a terrible seating position) and the door squeaked when it opened. The build quality was quite suspect - and that is something I really hated to see since I live in the town where they are built.
In the end, car renters are probably destined to languish in the pits of cheap plastic and poor performance from basic econoboxes that give not a single fleeting thought about purchasing said car. Or, the car companies could take a page out of the Army’s playbook - and from marketers in any other segment of consumerism - and offer us a glimpse, a taste, of something special. They could offer us something from the top shelf (or at least the middle shelf) that leaves us turning in the rental with a burning desire to go straight to the dealership, and to tell our friends and family about the experience. That is what the Army ROTC is doing. Of course, I didn’t join the army, so there is that!