The Silvercar Experience

In Los Angeles last summer, we walked past the Hertz Porsche 911s on the way to pick up a hair-shirt Toyota crap-can and thought there must be a better rental car option out there. Now there is: Silvercar. From Austin Ventures comes a new way to rent cars. The CEO of Silvercar is the former CTO of Zipcar and they’ve greatly improved the entire rental experience.
Audi 4S

For about the same you would expect to pay for a Nissan Altima or Ford Focus ($59/day), Silvercar only has one type of car for rent: The Audi A4 Quatro. The cars are nicely appointed with leather seats, 3G wifi, and Nav. Download the Silvercar app for iPhone or Android, create your account, choose your destination and go. Cars are currently available in Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Francisco and Los Angeles. GeogeCo rented in Los Angeles. When you arrive at LAX, head outside to the LAX parking shuttles and board the bus for Lot C. When you get on the bus, use the Silvercar App to text the concierge that you’re on your way and someone will meet you when you step off the bus. On the way back to the office they will explain the features of the car, help you scan the QR code to start your rental and away you go. (Be sure to ask how the #$% electronic e-brake works.) The return location is already loaded in the Nav system. You don’t have to remember to gas the car when you return — for a five dollar service charge, you pay regular pump prices for gas. The concierge then drives you to the airport and drops you off at your airline.
interior

The A4 was very comfortable on my 200 mile trip up the coast, even on California’s click-clack expansion joint freeways. The A4 accelerates well and is very sure footed even on slippery roads thanks to Quattro all-wheel drive. Steering is somewhat heavy, but not burdensome. It feels like a front-wheel drive car thanks to the engine which is well in front of the front axle. The front doors are quite narrow, however, and might prove challenging to some.
engine

There was plenty of space for two real adults in the back seats. In the photo below one seat is almost all the way forward, and the other all the way back.
back seats

The trunk is fairly deep, but might be tight for four suitcases. Two sets of golf clubs should not be a problem.
trunk

Visibility from the driver’s seat is good. Audi interior materials and surfaces are excellent. The controls are logically laid out (mostly). The eight-speed transmission was very smooth and combined gas mileage was good at 28 MPG. The Audi MMI Navigation Plus Package is one of the better infotainment systems on the market. Pairing of Bluetooth devices was easily accomplished. We liked both the large Nav screen in the center as well as the turn by turn display between the gauges in the main cluster. I really have only three nit-picks with Audi about this car: the electronic e-brake is just a dumb idea; the seats were a bit hard and lacking decent side-bolsters; and in the normal operating mode, the eight-speed transmission would not hold a gear on a seven-percent grade. The last one is minor; just switch over to sport mode, select the gear you want, and never worry about touching the brakes on your descent. The seats were not the optional sport-seats and probably make sense in a rental car as you have to account for the large backsides of most Americans. The electronic e-brake is just engineering hubris.
rear

Overall, the Audi A4 and the Silvercar experience both get a big thumbs up. When we get to choose which car to rent, we will be going back to Silvercar. (Like Silvercar on Facebook and get $50 off of your first rental as well as discount offers.)

FIAT 500 Rental Car Review

8560158366_d94a81f629_s (1)When I got to the airport in New Orleans this week, I was quite surprised to learn that my “mid-sized rental car” was in fact a FIAT 500. Since my car last week was a completely uninspiring Nissan Altima with “Pure Drive” (whatever that means), I thought I’d give it a try, especially since I hadn’t driven a FIAT since 1985. Here’s my (totally unbiased) review of the rental-car version of the FIAT 500: It stinks.

This car has 1.4 liter multi-air inline 4 cylinder engine. Multi-air is FIAT’s variable intake valve technology used to improve the fuel economy of the 101 hp engine. (The car should be called the “Mila Quattrocento” instead of the “Cinquecento”, no?) Unlike the original 500 cc engines, this one has enough grunt to get you up to and beyond legal speed limits. That’s the good news. The bad news is that once you’re there, the tall, slab-sided shape makes the short wheel-base car very susceptible to cross-winds. Visibility is surprisingly bad for a car this small. The seating position is more mini-van than MINI cooper. And the split outside mirror is just confusing.
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The front sloping wind shield moves the very thick A-pillar forward and blocks much of the view from someone pulling into your lane from the front. The thick B-pillar blocks most of the view over your left shoulder.
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The interior fit and finish is good; the materials feel solid and not cheap; and the interior lay-out is very clean. The tachometer within the speedometer is confusing. The information screen in the center of the binnacle is all your really need even if the controls are not very intuitive. Leg room was good and the interior comfortable.
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The rear seats seem to offer about as much room as the MINI, but the space to get in and out seems tighter.
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Luggage room is about the same as the MINI.
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Under the hood is a master class in packaging, though it’s not a friendly place for the do-it-yourselfer. Surprisingly, the FIAT 500 got an overall rating of “good” from the Institute for Highway Safety. There must be some serious crumple-zone engineering going on there. One thing to note: don’t sit too close to the steering wheel. The crash test dummy registered a significant injury to the head and neck as the head went through the airbag to contact the steering wheel.

The one thing that did remind me of the FIAT of old was the strap on the rear deck. It has a sort of “you want a strap, here’s your damn strap…” quality to it that reminds me of 1970’s Italian craftsmanship. Another odd feature was the size of the brake rotors and calipers. They appear to be the same size front and rear. That either means that the rears are seriously over-sized, or that the fronts are seriously under-sized. Let’s hope it’s the former and that FIAT figured it was easier to stock one part than two.
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FIATs of the 1970’s were notorious for coming pre-rusted from the factory. Quality of workmanship was spotty, panel fit atrocious, and reliability non-existant. The exteriour design of the cars (or at least those that carried over from the 1960s), however, was glorious. This car is just the opposite: Build quality is excellent, materials used and fit is equal to or above it’s price segment, and the car has the speed and safety features demanded of a modern car. The design, however, is insipid. There is not a good angle at which to view this car. It seems as if it were designed by a committee whose members were not allowed to talk to each other. FIAT has some wonderfully designed contemporary cars. This isn’t one of them. For those enthusiasts counting on a long-term return of FIAT to the US, this one was a swing and a miss. Your experience may vary.