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Rating the Car Rental Companies

Rental Which car rental company is the best? Only a few come close to that sweet spot of tech innovation, cool cars, a price you can handle, and a frequent renter program that gets you off the lot as fast as possible. But remember, what works for large corporations with corporate travel departments doesn’t necessarily synch with your plans. So I’ve rated the seven major outfits, with branches at every major airport and city in the country.

ALAMO

TECH AMENITIES: Garmin GPS system ($10.99 daily) in some vehicles, satellite radio in certain vehicles.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Quicksilver offers a dedicated counter and is free. But use the OnLine Check-In (at selected airports) and you choose your car at the lot and drive off without waiting in line.

COST: Moderate

COOL CARS: PT Cruiser, Cadillac Escalade, Toyota Camry

SECRET WEAPON: Price. And drive green by paying an extra $1.25 for a carbon offset for your rental.

VERDICT: Alamo is a no-frills, price-driven rental company. They’ll get you there. Period.

GRADE: B-

Rental5 AVIS

TECH AMENITIES: At selected locations, you can get a vehicle equipped with Avis Connect, a device that is powered from your cigarette lighter and allows you to connect to the Internet from your car. It’s compatible with all Wi-Fi devices (no cards are needed) and costs $10.95 per day. The revamped Where2 GPS service ($11.95 per day or $49.75 per week) not only offers audible directions and real-time traffic updates from a Garmin nuvi 780 navigation device, it can be paired with Bluetooth capable phones for hands-free calls. Plus, you get real-time traffic alerts, as well as news, stocks, and weather from MSN Direct. Avis is rolling out airport delay information, too. Some cars are equipped with the EZ-Pass toll system ($1.50 per usage).

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: The lowest tier is the Avis Wizard Number, which basically offers faster rentals. The next level, Avis Preferred, is free, with faster reservations and access to cars without waiting in line. Avis First is free but only for those who rent at least 35 days a year. It gives you the above perks along with upgrades, when available, and free two-day weekend rentals with every third rental. Avis also offers Avis Corporate Awards Programs, for small and mid size businesses, which is also free.

COOL CARS: Chevy Suburban, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Mustang Coupe

SECRET WEAPON: Avis International is the go-to company when you’re overseas on business.

COST: High

VERDICT: The most forward-thinking choice for tech travelers, with a good loyalty program and excellent GPS option. But it helps to love plain vanilla GM vehicles, which come at a price that rivals and occasionally outstrips Hertz.

GRADE: A

BUDGET

TECH AMENITIES: Last-generation Where2 GPS system with audible directions and real-time traffic updates, which can be paired with Bluetooth capable phones ($11.95 daily), but it doesn’t offer MSN Direct goodies like Avis. Some vehicles at some locations have iPod docking stations. Others offer satellite radio and some cars come equipped with a built-in E-Z Pass, for a $1.50 charge per use.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Starts with RapidRez, for faster online reservations and less counter time. FastBreak, the next stage, is free. And there’s no counter wait. You survey the fleet, choose a car in the category you’ve booked, and drive away.

COOL CARS: Toyota Prius Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Suburu Outback

SECRET WEAPON: They rent cars you actually want to drive

COST: Moderate

VERDICT: A solid combo of value, neat cars, and a frequent renter program that does what it promises, getting you off the lot in record time. But Budget lags Avis in the tech arena.

GRADE: B+

DOLLAR

TECH AMENITIES: The Garmin nuvi 660 GPS costs $11.95 daily at select locations. The Pass24 system speeds you through tolls for a flat $8.95 a day charge, but only in a few locations.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Dollar Express is free and gets you through lines faster, though you still must wait in line. The Dollar Express Renter Awards gives you one free day for every 16 days of rentals.

COST: Moderate

COOL CARS: BMW 3, Mercedes Benz E350, Mini Cooper Convertible

SECRET WEAPON: Price

VERDICT: Low-priced rentals, but you still have to wait in line and techies won’t be wowed by the offerings.

GRADE: B-

ENTERPRISE

TECH AMENITIES: Garmin GPS System available for $8.95 per day.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Enterprise Plus is free and offers faster reservations, faster rentals and a member’s-only line at some locations.

COOL CARS: Nissan Maxima, Nissan Altima, Chevy Suburban

SECRET WEAPON: Green ambitions. Pay an extra $1.25 for a carbon offset for your rental and drive green. They offer E85 Flex Fuel at selected locations in Washington DC, Cincinnati, OH and St. Louis. MO.

COST: Moderate

VERDICT: Customers love them — Enterprise has ranked number one 20 out of 21 times in the Market Metrix survey of car rental customer satisfaction. But they have a humdrum selection of cars with a minimum of tech bells and whistles.

GRADE: B-

Rental8

HERTZ

TECH AMENITIES: Hertz NeverLost is an in-car navigational system that directs you with audible step-by-step driving directions (mid-size and up only, for $10.95 daily). You’ll find SIRIUS Satellite radio in certain cars. Some vehicles are equipped with EZ-Pass toll system ($2.50 per usage).

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Hertz #1 Club is free and offers faster reservations, faster rentals (you still must wait in line, however), and discounts. You can earn one Hertz #1 Awards point for every dollar you spend. One free Awards Day is worth 500 points. But you must pay $60 to join the higher tier, Hertz #1Club Gold, which gives you all of the above and eliminates standing in line.

COOL CARS: Audi Q7, Volvo V70 XC, Hertz Shelby GTH

SECRET WEAPON: Hertz offers a pick up and return service from select locations, great if you’re stuck at a corporate park.

COST: Typically the priciest

VERDICT: Hertz may offer some sexy vehicles, but its’ prices are geared for corporate travelers. Individuals and small business owners may find them too expensive. And there’s no reason to pay for a loyalty program.

GRADE: B

Rental6 NATIONAL

TECH AMENITIES: Garmin StreetPilot GPS ($10.99 daily), satellite radio in some cars (more expensive models).

LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Emerald Club is free, and at some locations, membership allows you to bypass the counter and choose your own car on the lot. You get one free rental day for every seven rentals. Reserved rentals are charged are midsize rate.

COST: Moderate

COOL CARS: Toyota Prius Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Kia Sportage

SECRET WEAPON: Pay an extra $1.25 for a carbon offset for your rental and drive green.

VERDICT: Not only the greenest car company, but one with moderate rates and a no-standing-in-line policy.

GRADE: A-

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