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Car Rentals: Not Just for Vacations
Renting Cars to Fit Your Lifestyle, or Just Because!

by Mike Marsden

Car Rentals

Have you ever wished you had a car that's different from the one you own and use on a daily basis? How about an SUV for a weekend trip to the lake or a family vacation to the coast? A sporty car for that special occasion? Or, maybe you need a pickup truck to haul home improvement materials or a minivan to comfortably transport you and your relatives to a family reunion.

If so, then you're hardly alone. More and more Americans are jumping into the driver's seat of an emerging trend — renting automobiles in their hometown neighborhoods to meet a number of lifestyle and transportation needs.

In fact, according to a recent consumer survey — the "Poll of the American Driver" — more than half of U.S. drivers, representing 95 million Americans, say they need automobiles other than what they own to satisfy numerous needs. For many, renting a car for special occasions has become like renting a tuxedo for a formal event. Reasons for renting vary, but popular choices include getting away for the weekend, celebrating a special night out, driving kids to a weekend sports tournament, attending a high school reunion, bonding with family members on an extended vacation, or simply hauling home improvement supplies.

Auto industry expert David Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), explains the emerging trend this way: "Decades ago, ownership was the only choice when it came to automobiles; then leasing became a practical alternative. Today, renting offers consumers tremendous flexibility when their lifestyles create a short-term need for a different vehicle. It's the latest step in the evolving relationship between consumers and their vehicles."

And it's big business, too. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, with thousands of branch offices in neighborhoods across the United States, is reporting double-digit growth in this particular segment of its business.

As you might imagine, there are a number of factors fueling the trend, including changing lifestyles — we all lead busier and more varied lives than prior generations, creating the need on occasion for vehicles other than the ones we keep in our garages.

In addition, years ago we typically borrowed vehicles from relatives and friends for special occasions, like a prom. But borrowing is taking a back seat to renting these days … in fact, the survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of Americans prefer to rent rather than borrow a vehicle.

Availability, convenience and affordability also account for this growing trend. Rental cars are available in some markets for as little as $9.99 a day on weekends, and rental locations are increasingly found in the neighborhoods where consumers live, so there's no longer a need to go to the airport.

June Strasinger of Cincinnati is a typical frequent renter. Strasinger usually rents sedans, but has also rented minivans for different needs. She rents about once a month for traveling to visit her son and his wife, who live about three hours away.

"Renting is a great way to test drive vehicles, too," Strasinger said."It gets me familiar with different models so I know what I like before it's time to buy. Renting also saves wear and tear on my own car, and I like driving a new, clean and reliable vehicle."

It is easier than ever to change cars like we change clothes. Many people rent formal wear to attend special events. And as the "Poll of the American Driver" reported, the majority of those surveyed were more concerned about the car they drove to their high school reunion than they were about their marital status at the time. While there are plenty of practical reasons to change cars, there are also psychological ones. Cars are extensions of ourselves and so we can match our mood to our wheels with the help of accessible and affordable car rental options.

The two key qualities of American automotive culture are freedom and mobility. Renting allows us an added freedom from the duties of ownership. The American love affair with automobile can at times be a love/hate relationship when it comes time for service. The rented car is the liberated car, and the driver of the rented car is the liberated driver.

The American love affair with the automobile is well over a century old and the ardor has never cooled. But what has changed is our willingness to seek serial relationships with a variety of cars after decades and decades of monogamous relationships. If we had large enough garages and could afford to, we might even keep a stable of cars for our many highway experiences.

We want to have many choices to fit our many moods, and renting gives us that freedom to choose the car to fit our particular mood at the moment. Need to feel the freedom of the open road again with the wind in your hair? Need to recapture a wonderful youthful highway memory? Need to treat yourself to the feel of new wheels? Well, rent it.

There is a lot to be said for these temporary automotive relationships after decades of monogamous ties to daily transportation. The lure and freedom of the open road is all about leaving limitations behind. The open road is a journey of self-exploration where we seek to test our automotive limits. So if you're considering a new long-term automotive relationship, why not first give it a trial rental run and see how it fits your emotional as well as physical needs.

In short, America's love affair with the automobile is alive and well as we move into its second passionate century. And renting is adding some spice to the relationship, by removing limitations and liberating motorists all over the country.

Michael Marsden is a nationally recognized expert in Popular Culture Studies with a focus on the automobile. A Professor of English, American Studies and Media Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, Marsden also serves as the Dean of the College and Academic Vice President. He has developed a course on "The Automobile And American Culture" which he has taught at both Bowling Green State University and Eastern Kentucky University. He has co-edited 10 books and authored or co-authored more than 60 scholarly articles and has developed a scholarly focus on automotive history and trends. You can reach Mike at michael.marsden@snc.edu.