Here’s a can’t-lose way to get the most useful rental car: Ask for a Chevy. Chevrolet in particular and GM in general have been out front delivering useful technology that can’t be taken away from you, no matter how cheap the rental company is when it comes to buying its fleet of cars. If you rent a Chevrolet, you’ll get a car with a color LCD in the center stack, and compatibility with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Most importantly, through Android Auto or CarPlay, you’ve got access to a navigation system you already know how to use — Apple Maps or Google Maps — that displays up high on the car’s 7- or 8-inch center stack LCD. No longer are you reduced to taking quick glances down at the map on the phone display that’s precariously perched in the cupholder or balanced atop the steering column, resting (until you hit a bump) against the instrument cluster.
On a recent trip to the West Coast, I had a day of downtime between two sets of meetings and rented a car to drive the Pacific Coast. My criteria for renting typically starts and ends with price. Unfortunately, the cheaper the car, the less likely it is to have an on-board navigation system. That’s especially the case when you choose an economy or compact car. If you want navigation, you use your phone’s GPS maps or pay up to $15 per day for a windshield-mounted GPS unit.
At the rental counter, where you find out exactly which make and model you get, I thought the woman in front of me lucked out landing a Kia Soul, a fun car to drive. When it was my turn, I got upgraded to a Chevrolet Malibu and hit the jackpot: It’s the best midsize car you can buy today. It supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That meant I was able to use Apple Maps, on an 7-inch screen, located high up on the dashboard.
For car buyers, across the Chevrolet line as it is with most every other automaker, there’s a reduced-features entry trim line (the industry term for a model variant) that serves mostly to present a low teaser price to buyers. Dealers sometimes only stock enough to satisfy the customer waving the newspaper ad that offers a Malibu for $22,000. (Or to prove they had one or two in stock, but it’s “just been sold.”) Some corporate fleets are built around these cars. On most Chevrolet lines, that’s the L trim line, followed by the LS, LT, and sometimes LTZ or Premier.
With the LS trim line, you typically get the Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system that includes a 7-inch color display (trim lines with built-in navigation have 8-inch displays), control of phone-based apps, and access to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. In a word, again: jackpot.
What keeps you from getting a stripper Chevy, an L without MyLink and CarPlay / Android Auto? A Chevrolet spokesman says, “Chevrolet only sells LS [trim lines] and above to rental fleets.”
As a bonus, when you rent a car with MyLink or a similar color LCD infotainment interface, it’s easier to control your phone’s music playback capabilities with a graphical interface than with a tiny two- or three-line text display. Virtually every car sold today has at least one USB jack, so with a rental car you can at least connect your phone for hands-free calling and also play music from your phone or music player.
The cost of adding a color LCD display to a car isn’t much – well under $100 (to the automaker), even for automotive-grade displays that have to hold up at the least for the duration of the three- or four-year warranty. It’s not much more than the cost of keeping a CD player (now 34 years old) in the dash. USB and a color LCD is a satisfier for renters.
It’s also a satisfier for people who buy used rental fleet cars when they reach 6 months to 2 years of age (or reach a mileage cap). It’s easier to sell a used rental car with a color LCD, electric windows (some entry trim lines are still hand-crank), nicer upholstery, access to CarPlay and Android Auto, and sometimes the more affordable driver assists: blind spot detection and lane departure warning. It’s what buyers want.
Look for more automakers to follow the lead of Chevrolet and General Motors over the next year or two. Ford, for instance, will make Sync 3 (the one that really works) available on all models for 2017. Typically, there’s an entry trim line Ford with the legacy Sync 2 (it won’t run CarPlay or Android Auto), a middle trim line where Sync 3 is optional, and one or two high trim lines where it’s standard. On the Ford Escape (photo inset), Ford’s best seller that isn’t the F-150 pickup, if you get the entry Escape S as a rental car, you’re out of luck. If you get the high end Escape Titanium, it’s always there. If you wind up with a mid-grade Escape SE, it may or may not be there depending on whether the rental company opted to go for the 201A Equipment Group ($1,395 list) which has Sync 3 and also Sync Connect (OnStar-like telematics), blind spot detection, backup sonar, rear cross traffic alert, and a 110-volt outlet.
A Ford spokesperson said, “Sync is available in 100% of car rental fleets, which includes cars and SUVs. Within the rental fleet, 40% of vehicles have the basic SYNC system and 60% have the premium SYNC 3 system.” In other words, you’ve got a 6 in 10 chance you’ll be able to use your smartphone’s maps and guidance renting a Ford. That beats a flashback from about five years ago, when an ExtremeTech editor and spouse went on vacation in Hawaii, rented a Ford assuming basic Sync was near universal, and discovered the car lacked even a USB jack. The rental agent noted they could still play all the CDs they brought along. “All the CDs?”
The Ford spokesperson added, “Sales for the car rental fleets closely mirror retail sales. For example, retail sales for vehicles with Sync 3 is around 64% compared to 60% of car rentals with Sync 3. Generally speaking Sync is offered on our base series, is standard on the mid-series with an option for the premium Sync 3, and Sync 3 is standard on the premium series.”
Availability of infotainment interfaces with access to Apply CarPlay and Android Auto remains spotty. Honda has done an excellent job with the 2016 Honda Civic, both for rental fleets and individual buyers. Other than the entry Civic LX, all trim lines (EX, EX-T, EX-L and Touring) have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and only on the Touring is navigation standard, which is fine with the many buyers who just need navigation occasionally. But when they do, they’d like the display to be big and easy to glance at.
The problem is, it’s difficult to know which trim level awaits you. The odds the rental clerk knows about AirPlay / Android Auto compatibility would be next to nil, as are the odds they’ll give you a bunch of keys and let you walk the parking lot until you find a car to your liking. So you’re better off asking for a car brand where you know you’re likely to get what you want.
For the 2016 model year, companies not offering CarPlay or Android Auto include BMW, Fiat Chrysler (Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram), and Toyota (Lexus, Toyota, the soon-to-depart Scion). Toyota has said it won’t offer CarPlay or Android Auto for the foreseeable future; instead it will develop an open standard called SmartDeviceLink that is based on Ford Sync.
Among other automakers, those with at least some 2016 models with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto include Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Volvo. For GM, every brand offers CarPlay on the majority of its models.
Bottom line: As of 2016, the odds of your rental car having USB for music playback are good. For navigation via your phone using Android Auto or CarPlay, that’s still a couple years off from being universal. And that’s why it’s worth asking for a Chevrolet when you rent, starting with Malibu. Just remember that cars in the rental fleet may still include some 2015 or 2014 models.