Rental car size for touring Southwest US

I started a thread about our travel next year in the western US, but just read a travel article about renting cars in the US which prompted me to ask here, what size car would people recommend? I was going to go for a Toyota Camry size, so we have enough luggage space for three persons’ bags. Any recommendations, bearing in mind we will be travelling about 2,500 miles in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in desert and mountains in Spring.

Maybe something like a Subaru Forrester or Outback. This gives more as you might want room for a cooler so you can picnic lunch or have cold drinks. Plus you’ll pick up trinkets and souvenirs along the way.

We rented an Outback and liked it a lot.

You might want to do a little mini-SUV instead of a bigger car. If you’re at all tempted to leave the paved roads on your trip, you’re probably not going to hit anything that’s not passable with a normal car, but a higher-riding vehicle will handle it better. Plus depending on where you’re going in New Mexico and Utah and when in spring, you might actually still have a chance of hitting some snow at the higher elevations.

If you can find a rental Subaru, that would actually be ideal.

If you rent anything smaller than a Camry, the third person in the back is going to feel pretty squooshed over the course of a long trip, especially since stuff tends to accumulate in the back seat.

I would tend to stay away from the SUV/van class as those vehicles often have a harsh ride. You’ll be traveling a fair amount of secondary roads, so comfort is important. Also, since the Imperial Gas Rapists, er, oil companies, tend to impose their harshest penalties on all of us in the spring, and who knows what they have plotted for next year, you might prefer to be driving something that gets better gas mileage than a Ford XL Mastodon Plus.

Edit: Even in the desert, in spring, most unpaved roads will be impassable or close to it, so you shouldn’t expect to be doing much offroading.

Camry should be fine for 3 people.

I guess it depends on how much stuff you’re planning on taking along. A Camry might be a little tight if you’re bringing much more than suitcase and a daypack each. Some places have a “midsize SUV” or “crossover” class (Ford Escape, Rav4, for example) that would give you a little extra room/comfort without sacrificing too much in the way of gas mileage. If you haven’t already, consider joining a car rental loyalty program for possible free upgrades and special rate deals.

Also, if you have an American Express card, they have a car rental insurance program that gives you decent insurance coverage for something like $19.95 per rental. I’m not sure if that program is available to cardmembers from outside the USA though.

Rental Camrys are likely to have the 4-cylinder, and it’s been my experience that the air conditioning in cars with 4-bangers isn’t up the standards of those with larger engines. I also feel that American cars, or at least cars designed in America, have better air conditioning than Asian or European cars, where climates tend to be less brutal. The gold standard is the air conditioner they strapped to the old GM 3800 V6.

For that reason, I’d consider stepping up to a full-size car, which will probably have at least a V6 standard. I rented a Buick Lucerne a couple years back in Texas in August, and it was fantastic for that.

Have you ever actually been to a desert? In the US? :dubious:

The vast majority of “unpaved” roads out there are gravel and in most of the region are passable year-round. They often have horrible washboards and car-swallowing potholes, but nothing that will actually stop a normal passenger car, although you may have to slow to a crawl in places compared to someone driving something with a hair more ground clearance.

AIR CONDITIONING Trust me. [some rental agencies get the least expensive model vehicle, and I have ended up with cars with no AC. very nasty in warm areas.]

I rented a Ford Kuga [EU] Echo [US] a couple years back for a road trip in Germany for 3 adults [5’5 me, 5’7 mrAru and 6’ Jin’Ente] and we packed in a wheelchair, a full sized rolly suitcase, a very large backpack, and another suitcase into the ‘trunk’ area, and a rolling computer case, a backpack computer case and a cooler for munchies in the back seat and we were very comfortable. It has the rails on top for one of the softcases that ties on top if you wanted to go that way as well.

We got a pretty dependable 38 MPG diesel, comfortable ergonomics inside, comfortable ride. Decent amount of power. [Hertz EU rental model kuga.] Not sure if any US agency rents echos, but the crossover SUV is available at some companies. I know that Enterprise has something or another.

We have rented a Chrysler Town and Country van from Enterprise, and it was very comfortable, decent power and a gas/automatic. I would consider renting that for a road trip in the south west if there is going to be a fair amount of luggage.

The Camry should be fine, but a crossover SUV will give a little more room and possibly more ground clearance.

I’ve never seen a US rental without AC. The rental contract will prohibit use of the vehicle on unpaved roads, but in New Mexico they know you can’t strictly abide by that. I have been known to wash the car a few hours before returning it to quell suspicions.

US rental agencies are looking hard for damage upon return these days. Take digital photos before you even get in the car. Mark every scratch and have the agent initial the form.

One thing that happened to me using a rental on a long road trip: the oil change indicator went off with a week and a couple of thousand miles left to go. It was pretty annoying hearing that damn buzzer/bell thing go off…every.single.time I started the vehicle. Not to mention the warning light staring me in the face. I would have gotten the damn oil changed myself except it was brand-new (Jeep Grand Cherokee–nice vehicle!) and nobody had filters for it yet.

Another caveat: most companies advertise “unlimited mileage!”, but some of them (in my area, Enterprise) charge extra if you go out of state.

Thanks for that. Another question to ask the company.

An anecdote from previous experience. I rented a 4x4 in Australia for a week. On about the second day, the air con compressor gave up the ghost. We were about 350 km from the rental headquarters, so returning wasn’t a good option. We continued on our trip across the savannah to the Gulf of Carpentaria in temps up around 38 degrees in the daytime (100 F), windows wide open to catch the breeze at 100-110 km/h :stuck_out_tongue: I tried to get a rebate for the a/c not working, but the company wouldn’t budge. All I could get was a 10% reduction on my next hire! Needless to say, I haven’t hired from them again.

Get something with enough power for long hills. If you are going to be going desert to mountains (like I-17 through AZ) there are some long climbs that are brutal if you car can’t hack it. In my 20s I had a 4-cyl Jeep that would slow to a crawl on these hills. Seriously, I think I could have walked up faster. The semi’s were passing me. Ugh.

Regarding the poster who recommended a Buick Lucerne: if you have never ridden in a GM vehicle, I would avoid them. Their suspension is squishy and boatlike and they can make people motion sick (like, me.)

I think Camry recommendations are spot on. Bigger vehicles will just hog more gas, and with the distances between gas stations in some places of the southwest, you’ll breathe easier with the better fuel economy. But you need room to stretch out, too.

Mmmm. tough one. I think most visitors greatly underestimate the distances in the US and set themselves up for more driving than they’re really expecting. If you’ve toured around Australia though, you’re probably more in tune with that.

If you are going to be doing a great deal of driving then think of the rental as being your environment for however many hours per day. Do you want to cramp into the tiniest space that will work, or might it be nice to be able to stretch out int he back seat, or keep a suitcase where you can reach it?

I’m not an advocate of big cars for day-to-day driving, but a person should be comfortable on vacation, and there’s nothing more divisive to a group than the “Who has to sit cramped up in the back” argument.

Also, make sure that whatever you rent has A/C vents in the back seat. Otherwise somebody is going to be uncomfortable at all times.

Also, be sure y

I wouldn’t go any smaller than the Camry. US rentals will almost always be automatics and while you can get away with mountain driving in a manual econobox it will be a nightmare in an automatic weighted down with three people and luggage. Most rental compaines let you cancel with no penalty so you can always reserve something that looks good and then keep watching for a better deal or promotions. Some 3rd parties like Costco sometimes have agreements where if you rent with, say, Hertz, via the Costco website, you’ll save a certain % or get a free upgrade.

I don’t know about other chains, but with National’s Emerald Club you pick your own car out of whatever’s on the lot. In my case, I had a reservation for a SUV and got to choose between a Dodge Journey, Ford Explorer or Ford Edge. I think there are a couple of places that will let you reserve a specific model–but if you show up and they don’t have one available you’d be out of luck.

I think we’ll go with something that is no smaller than a Camry. I’m not a fan of SUVs of the Ford Escape/Toyota RAV4 type. Their ride isn’t great and road-holding is worse than a car of similar size. Also, luggage capacity is worse than a similar sized car.
Our present car is a Subaru Legacy station wagon, and one of them or an Outback would be good, but not many companies have them for rent and the ones that do charge a premium of about 50% over a standard car.

We did 3 people through Arizona and Utah in a Corolla last October. I even got pulled over for speeding in Utah, so getting up to speed wasn’t an issue (got out of a ticket though, just got a “slow down” talk). We just travel with carry on luggage. If you have carry ons plus full bags you might want a bigger car.

Yes, actually, I lived there for eight years.

A lot of the desert southwest is at a relatively high elevation. It receives snow and rain well into the spring. And you give a pretty accurate description of the roads, which is to say that while some might be technically “passable,” they would be very slow going and not any fun at all to drive on.