Rental Car Revelation

Rental Car Revelation

Andrew Markel, editor of Brake & Front End and Underhood Service, discusses life on the road behind the wheel of today's rental cars.

The past few months have been a whirlwind of travel for me. I have seen St. Louis, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and many others destinations in between. On these journeys, I have found myself behind the wheel of many rental cars.

In June, I had a late flight into LAX. After signing the rental car agreement, I found myself in front of a non-descript 2015 Chevy Malibu. It had a little over 2,000 miles on the clock. Tired, jet-lagged and promising myself that I would never set foot on another airplane, I pulled out of the lot.

After a quick trip down the 405 to Torrance, I found myself at the bottom of the exit ramp when the car did something completely unexpected. It shut down the engine. No check engine lights or change in steering effort.

If this were one of my everyday vehicles, it would mean I ran low on gas and the pick up for the fuel pump sucked in some air. It was late, so I reached for the keys in the side of the steering column to restart the engine, nothing was there. Then I spotted a glowing “ECO” light on the display and it hit me: This is a stop/start vehicle. As I waited for the light to turn green, I was wondering if I would notice the starter engaging. I never felt a thing. If I had the radio on, I would have never noticed a thing at the bottom of the exit ramp. During the rest of the trip, it was almost a game to see if the engine would shut down at a light.

In July, I traveled to Detroit to attend the ASA CARS/NACE conference. This time my rental car was a Ford Edge with only 500 miles on the clock. Under the hood was an Ecoboost 2.0 direct injected turbocharged engine. For a 4,000 lbs vehicle with the A/C on full blast, it did not feel underpowered on the Ohio Turnpike that moves at 77-80 mph.

During the downtime on trips, I typically go out to the hotel parking lot and have a look under the hood. Sometimes I will remove the engine covers and marvel at the clean engines that have only been touched by the assembly line workers.

Recently, a revelation hit me after removing an engine cover. Engine bays are actually becoming less complicated (at least on the surface). When I started working on cars, some of the 1980s vacuum hose routing diagram and emission stickers under the hoods of these vehicles were huge! They were filled with sketches of EGR valves, vacuum sensors and cruise control modulators. Today, the stickers hardly take up any room. Also, when was the last time you saw a late-model car with plug wires?

I would even go as far as to say that even wiring harnesses have been reduced in size thanks to serial databases and multiplexing of the modules and sensor. All of it is making for a lot neater presentation under the hood.

On the downside, that .3 hours for changing a spark plug wire or .5 hours for replacing an EGR valve are all but gone in most markets. But, what has replaced these services is even more profitable — diagnostic labor.

Diagnostic labor is not an easy item to sell, and profitability can be subject to many variables. But, it is an item that needs to be viewed on the same plane as both inventory and an investment portfolio. It needs to be replenished and some of the profits put back into the existing capital by not only the technician, but the shop.

Looking at modern vehicles does not scare me anymore. While I do pine for the days of setting up points, valve adjustments and setting idle speeds. These new cars offer service and repair opportunities my father and grandfather could only dream of. But, I am sure they could not imagine the horrors of modern travel.

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