There is a motoring condition known as “Rental Car Syndrome”, which will henceforth be known as RCS.
No, it isn’t related to P.J. O’Rourke’s assertion that “nothing handles better than a rental car”. I’ve driven enough rental cars to know that even with tongue thoroughly planted in cheek and the accelerator pedal given no mercy between my foot and the bulkhead, a Chevrolet Spark is still an execrable vehicle.
Instead, RCS refers to the almost Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship you form with a vehicle driven abroad, on holiday.
No matter how terrible a car might be, you’ll still look upon it more favourably than you would if you were to drive it on your commute. With sun, sea and sand, and perhaps even a whip of wind through your locks if you’ve been lucky enough to snag a convertible, you will literally see your rental wheels in its best light. It leads you to completely overlook glaring errors because you’re far too busy being your Happy Holiday Self to care.
It is why I have an odd fondness for the Chrysler PT Cruiser. I’ve only driven one once, and while I had several hundred miles in which to assess it, those several hundred miles were spend driving up and down the coast of California. So besotted was I with the country on my first acquaintance I’d have been lucky to have noticed a buck-naked Natalie Portman thumbing a lift on Highway 1, let alone minor deficiencies in a thoroughly average retro-pastiche 2007 Chrysler hatchback.
These days, I’m not so lucky.
Not because I’ve still not had the opportunity to save Ms Portman from blistered heels and a sunburned behind, but because as a motoring hack I can no longer climb into a car without immediately assessing it from every conceivable angle.
For this reason I know that the mid-90s Chevrolet Astro van I spent two weeks in, camping around California with a friend, is one of the worst vehicles I’ve ever driven in my life, and therefore have not developed RCS on this occasion.
I know this because it was made by GM in the 1990s, and while Britain was enjoying the charms of Vauxhall Cavaliers and the wonderful Sintra, Chevy was doling out even more atrocious heaps to its loyal American customers, many of which coincidentally also carried the Cavalier name.
The Astro allowed me to sample some of this for myself. Designed in the 1980s and based on a truck chassis with roots from an even earlier time, the concept of handling is unbeknownst to the Astro. It was even less beknownst to me, the driver, steering as I did through a wheel connected to the tyres by a string of intertwined socks and a rim seemingly made from the same material used in nerf gun ammo, with approximately equal ability to flex.
Body roll was as bad as you’d expect, which is actually a compliment as your mind automatically prepares you for even worse. But resultingly, every corner was punctuated by the “THUNK… shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh THUNK” of our luggage rolling port to starboard and back again on the camper’s plywood floor. After thousands of corners, I now hear such noises in my sleep.
Similar attention was paid to the Astro’s brakes as to its handling, which is to say absolutely none. They did bring our vehicle to a halt, but I was left with the feeling the decision was more the car’s capacity for human mercy than my own input.
The engine was a little better – a 4.3-litre V6 producing 190 horsepower through a four-speed automatic gearbox. I suspect some of those horses had bolted their stables over the year though, and in the process they’d managed to damage the cooling system, which didn’t like hills, and the automatic gearbox itself, which left a three-count between your column-mounted gear selection and its actual obligation. It also responded with a healthy crash upon selection if you were brash enough to apply any throttle before it had shuffled a suitable gear into place. The engine itself had the aural qualities of one of those automatic floor-polishing machines if accidentally run over a carpet.
Then there’s the interior quality. Oh, lordy. I’ve driven a lot of vehicles with naff plastics before but the Astro had some really neat tricks.
One was being able to reach into the van’s central glovebox without actually opening it, thanks to over an inch of free play along its shut line. The other was the sun visor, which drooped by half a foot when moved to cover the side window, neatly obscuring vision and having an amusing habit of getting eaten by the electric window aperture if you buzzed it up too quickly.
The headlights provided less illumination than a new moon, and above about 60 mph, the entire vehicle adopted a disgruntled speed wobble. We generally stuck to this velocity and no more, which did have the positive effect of reducing the engine’s vast thirst. This was also mitigated by America’s hilariously low fuel prices compared to the UK, and in reality I never managed to squeeze more than £40 into its vast 22 (UK) gallon tank.
But despite all this, despite the steering and the brakes and the build quality and the droning engine and the wobble and the lights, I absolutely bloody loved it.
First there’s the paint scheme, which was definitely created by somebody on drugs. Just look at the sodding thing.
Then there’s the high driving position. In the UK, it usually just means lording it over plebs in a Range Rover or gurning at people with a 50-point IQ in a Transit van, but in the Astro it meant wonderful views of some of America’s most beautiful scenery from a sort of serene, magic-carpety and blue velour-covered perch.
And it really was comfortable, once you’d tuned out the wind noise. Comfy in the back too, which was highly important when you’re spending a night in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a forest full of bears wanting to eat your head.
The poor handling, loping ride and low outright velocity allowed us to enjoy the country at a more relaxed pace. In America, with seemingly unlimited space around you, you never feel like you’re holding people up by traveling slowly. Ironic that in a country so suited to traveling quickly on its vast, straight roads, driving slowly is equally pleasant and equally easy.
And sure, the interior was crap, but the front cabin was also hugely spacious and packed with storage cubbies, both those you could reach into without opening and those already open. There are several, huge, cupholders, and big switches that do feel more long-lasting than their appearance gives them credit for.
And it really isn’t RCS that has made me feel this way. I know for a fact it’s a goppingly bad car, rather than just suspecting so.
I simply loved it regardless, and while I’ll never have the desire to purchase one in the UK – much as they’re relatively inexpensive when they appear – it was perfectly suited to its American road trip role. And despite the RCS effect of the Hyundai Elantra I’d driven for the first two weeks of my month-long jaunt, a car I took to Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, and drove over the Rocky Mountains, I never warmed to the perfectly capable Korean saloon in the way I did the ‘Merican heap.
Chevrolet Astro then. Terrible car.
You absolutely must rent one.