Over the past year it has been our pleasure to rent a range of low-cost cars. Notwithstanding the moment in Cornwall when we almost drove a Jaguar F-Type off the lot for forty quid a day. In the end there was nowhere for Marlon to sit and we rented a VW Golf instead.

Basking in the twilight of the infernal combustion engine, most of the kinks in small cars have been worked out. It’s only taken a hundred years or so, but today’s compacts are reliable, functional, and cheap to hire. Some are even fun to drive.

What follows are my entirely subjective reviews of five popular rental cars, beginning with my least favourite:

Fiat 500L

If there were ever a bulwark against ironing out automotive kinks, it is Fiat Motors. In an attempt to make their retro go-kart the Fiat 500, or Cinquecento as the Americans call it, a more practical vehicle Fiat supersized it. The result is driving misery.

Where shall I start? Well, I liked the air conditioning controls. They were big and chunky and intuitive. Whoever did that work should take over designing the rest of the car. Although, the air never got quite cool enough in Spain’s roiling summer heat.

Let’s go through the gears:

  • First – Awful. I want it to start in second.
  • Second – it’s what first could have been if first had a little more top end.
  • Third – Getting there, except uphill when you want to be in second, or third, or second.
  • Fourth – Skip it! Go to fifth.
  • Fifth – a granny gear for cruising when you forget to go into sixth.
  • Sixth – the only useful thing about this gear is turning off the annoying shift warning light on the dashboard.
  • Reverse – Hah! Now you want to go backwards? Good luck and happy grinding!

The interior is all high ceiling and no storage. The door pockets can’t accommodate a reusable water bottle, the centre console has no place to store a telephone navigation device, and the glove box buzzes plastically. Seating is adequate. Yet, the driver’s position is bus-like enough to warrant an arm rest. There is none. Dash controls, speedo, tacho, are generally unreadably twee. The small LCD dash display harbours a creaky old TomTom GPS system that requires a manual to figure out. There’s no practical means of connecting an Android or iPhone. Luddites!

Outside, the car looks like what it is. A bloated version of the 500 squashed onto a sub-frame inadequate for the job. This makes the car top heavy and handling laughably pedestrian.

Bottom Line: Avoid this clunker at the rental counter. Ask for anything else – even a mule.

Citroën C4 Cactus

citroen-c4-cactus

Citroëns are known for their quirks. The Deux Cheveux (two ‘tax horsepower’, or a blazing 9 hp when released in 1948) was an incredibly low-cost car designed to get rural French off their horses and into the 20th century. Rail thin tyres, corrugated steel and execrable suspension made driving exciting – in a death-defying kind of a way. It’s a good thing it was vastly underpowered.

Citroën means lemon (no it doesn’t – ed.) and the company went bankrupt eons ago. It was bought by Peugeot in 1975. Modern Peugeot (Groupe PSA) recently merged with Fiat Chrysler to form Stellantis. A trademark that sounds like something Ex-Lax might cure.

After driving the Cactus for a week or so I found it a pleasantly dull car. Marketing would have you believe this is a sub-compact cross-over vehicle. In other words, a small, slightly tall station wagon. Styling, with its plastic side panels, was vaguely avant-garde. Shutting the door sounded like sheet metal thunder rattling in a high school drama rainstorm.

Inside the ergonomics were unremarkable. In a good way. Everything was about where it should have been. The LCD panel accepted my Android app and the gears shifted acceptably. It’s a boring, but capable enough vehicle. Now, let’s see who wins the battle for Stellantis design post-merger. It’s possible there’s a functional 500L out there in the future – somewhere.

Bottom Line: Bitch slap the rental agent if they give you a Fiat 500L instead of a Cactus.

Opel Mokka

opel-mokka

How does one say Mokka? Do you say, mocha? Like you do in Starbucks? Or do you say, mock-ah? Like you say rock-ah, or fock-ah? Who knows? This mini-SUV cross-over (insert meaninglessly long marketing descriptor here) is OK. Rental agencies generally supply the ones with small engines, mostly the base model 1.4L. It will get you there eventually, but you really want the 1.8L if you’re going places.

Because the Mokka was originally designed by Opel, there’s a German stolidity about it. Everything is in order. The doors close with a thunk and the throw on the driver’s seat is long enough that at full stretch I couldn’t reach the pedals. Gotta love tall engineers! The dashboard was generally legible, and while the LCD panel linked with my Android phone, it found Carol’s iPhone more agreeable. Today, the Mokka is built in Spain. So, if you rent one in Spain, they tend to be tricked out with leather seats and lots of extra buttons on the dash.

Opel is part of Stellantis, too. Perhaps there’s a more solid Cactus in the future?

Bottom Line: While not roomier than a Cactus, it’s got a bit more style.

Ford Focus

A bit of tin, a bit of board, put ‘em together, you’ve got a Ford! – Anonymous

2017-ford-focus

Ford’s little runabout is surprisingly competent. The base three cylinder, 1.0L turbo-charged engine has some pep. Handling is good; the Focus feels planted at speed and shows acceptably little body roll when carving around bends.

While I enjoyed driving this snug little car, I’d never buy one if I needed entertaining on the road. Let me explain. My main issue with Fords is their interior design. They’re universally ugly. That’s it. Just ugly. Ford fell into Honda’s design trap of emulating a Transformer with interior lines that might appeal to a pre-teen boy, but don’t convey quality. It’s probably a result of too many focus groups.

Meanwhile, research has shown that touchscreens in cars are far more distracting than single function buttons. Fair enough. But Ford’s passion for dedicated buttons, and lots of them, is unrivalled. By the time you’ve found the fan control you’ve reprogrammed the door locks and tuned the radio to Tierra del Fuego. Worse, our base model’s tiny LCD screen did little more than glow blue – unhelpfully.

Bottom Line: Fun to drive, but with unfathomable ergonomics.

And the Winner Is…
Volkswagen Golf

vw-golf-gen-7

The Golf remains in a league of its own. First released in 1974 and now in its eighth generation, it is nothing short of an icon. In the past year we’ve hired both diesel and petrol powered versions of the seventh generation Golf, and driven them for extended periods of time (weeks). Both engines barely sipped gas, averaging around 50 miles/US gallon, or 5.6 litres/100km.

Solid and stiff, the car feels light and yet stable. The gears are snappy and well separated. The handling is, for this price point, precise. No, it’s not a Porsche, but it goes around corners more nimbly than any of the other cars we drove.

Inside things simply work. Being German, there’s plenty of leg room for a tall driver. A large LCD is standard VW fare these days and there’s no pretence about it. It wants to connect to your smart phone and display your favourite mapping app. The fit and finish is modest, think Bauhaus following function. Dials are legible and logically placed. Air conditioning, thankfully standard fare in Europe nowadays, is frosty.

I will admit to a bias. I’ve owned several Volkswagens over the years. They’re a working man’s Audi. A car of the people that benefits from hand-me-down technology from both Audi and Porsche. Yes, it’s got a messy corporate history, but no messier than most. The cars work and work well for the money. There’s a reason VW is the biggest car maker in the world.

Bottom Line: Farkengrüven

Farkengruven


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10 Comments

  1. I drove a Rabbit from about 1984 until 199x when I swapped it for a Jetta in an oddball deal with Caroline’s classmate Karen. At the time, I heard that the Rabbit was really a Golf, only somebody thought “Golf” was too European, and that Americans would prefer “Rabbits.” Go figure. Anyway: gut wagenen for this aging Volk!

    Unk
  2. I want to read your review of the mule! I can see it now… “She was smooth on the straight-aways, but cornering was a bit dicey since she had a mind of her own and basically wanted to go straight or just stand still. The ears were a nice touch, although they didn’t seem to help with reception at all. The mileage was decent, however, it took a long time to fill ‘er up.”

    Wade

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