An open letter to Avis

I am no longer your customer. I used to be. In fact, I rented with you enough to reach Avis Preferred Plus status, not that that matters.

I have found better alternatives. Individually, at airport rental locations, the experience was wildly variable – from the best service I’ve ever received to by far the worst. This, I accept, is down to the local employees.
But the reason I left? Your customer service is the worst customer service I have ever received, from any company. Every time I had to call, whether to book a car, change a reservation, complain, or even just find out some information… Every time, I had a dreadful experience. Regularly, I would end up stuck in a circular path where an advisor redirected me to ‘the right phone number’ which just booted me back to the menu at the start of the phone call, meaning I’d have to go around again – with an average of 20 minutes waiting every single time. Trying to call a rental desk would almost always result in being redirected to the call centre, where nobody could help.

The single worst experience I had, and the one that started my dislike of your company, was when I was forgotten for an hour and a half. A staff member put me on hold, and I ended up driving back to the rental agency to continue the conversation in person – when she hung up the phone after I had arrived, the call ended on the phone I held in my hand. Then I called to complain. I was redirected to several different people, and eventually determined that the only way my voice would be heard – that Avis would listen – was to write a letter to HQ. I still have that email. I never wrote – it seemed if Avis were that scared of feedback they’d simply dispose of the letter and pretend it never arrived.

This was the beginning of the end, but the final straw came when I asked Avis to move my account (with its status and perks) to the USA, because I had moved from the UK and it made no sense to have an account in a different country. I was told by three separate people including managers, that this could not be done. My account would need to be recreated and my loyalty status would be erased – I’d have to start again. This is appalling. A global company should not have ‘regional’ loyalty programmes. I have not rented with Avis again.

In fact, and I feel this is required, I now rent with Hertz. They have a global loyalty programme. This meant when I contacted them to say I now lived in the USA, they just changed my address. Same loyalty level, same level of reward points, just a new address. Equally, when I need to contact Hertz – which is very rare – there is always someone on the line within 10 minutes and they are helpful, supportive, and clearly attentive to the fact I’ve called a phone number.

This is how a rental company should operate. Your customers are the most important part of your business – how they’re treated at the rental counter is only part of the relationship. Learn from your mistakes, Avis. It might stop others from leaving.

Škoda Fabia

The Skoda Fabia I drove in Qatar
The Skoda Fabia I drove in Qatar

Another different review week this week – older cars that I drove many years ago. First in line, the 2014 Škoda Fabia.

When based in Qatar, one weekend I rented a car and was given a 2014 Fabia – the last year before a new version of the car was released in 2015. This Fabia I had was powered by a 1.6l engine making 103hp (77kW) and 113lb-ft (153 Nm) of torque. This was mated to a 6-speed automatic gearbox. The Fabia’s 0-60 time is around 11.1s and has a top speed of 115mph (185km/h).

Before I start in detail, a caveat. With these older reviews, I drove the car a long time ago (in this case, 3 years), often not for all that long, so there will be much less detail than my recent reviews.

So, the bad:

The car is underpowered. 105bhp is not very much, and it’s noticeably not very much. The car accelerates slowly (a 0-60 time of 11s is almost unheard of in 2017, and feels sluggish) but it does get there.

Fuel economy isn’t great – because of that 1.6l engine, fuel economy is not particularly good. By 2014, Škoda had actually addressed this and most Fabias came instead with a 1.2l turbocharged engine, making the same power but with better economy and much lower emissions. However, the car I had with the 1.6 didn’t experience these benefits.

Manual shifting was laggy – if the car was in manual, it was possible to shift gears yourself rather than let the car do it. However, the car I had used a 6-speed auto ‘box, not the 7-speed DSG that replaced it. This was laggy when manually shifting, so I just let it do its own thing.

The good:

The car was remarkably nice to drive. The 6-speed gearbox shifted nicely in D, and could be put in S to eke more out of the rev range. The car handled very well and was planted in corners – the fact it didn’t make much power meant the power it did make could be used to its full potential, which was a lot of fun.

Practicality was good – comfortable seats, a decent amount of space for the rear passengers and a good-sized boot.

Equipment was not bad for the age – the replacement model in 2015 had many more techy things included but the outgoing model wasn’t especially bad for its place in the market.

+ Driving more fun than expected

+ Practicality

+ Equipment level

– Underpowered

– Fuel economy

In summary – from what I recall of driving the Fabia, I remember enjoying it. It was a nice place to be, and it drove well. The swansong of the mk2, my particular car was equipped with the worst engine and gearbox and still was fun, so a 1.2l with either a manual or the DSG would improve my view considerably.

Tesla Model S

The one on the right is the Tesla I drove.
The one on the right is the Tesla I drove.

Hello everyone! This week, it’s the Tesla Model S.

In early 2016, I had the chance to test drive a Tesla Model S. Specifically, the 90D. Tesla model names are pretty straightforward: ‘P’ before the number indicates a performance model, the number is the size of the battery in kWh, and ‘D’ after the number indicates AWD, provided through dual electric motors, one at the rear, one at the front. I had, as can be surmised, the 90kWh car with AWD. This car makes 518bhp (386 kW) and 485 lb-ft (658 N·m) of torque, making it by a large margin the most powerful car I’ve ever driven. Because the car is electric, it can out-accelerate almost anything except supercars, and has a 0-60mph time of 4.2s, with a top speed of 155mph (250km/h). And this isn’t even the performance model!

So, let’s talk bad parts. The car is expensive. There’s no getting around it – the Model S is a BMW 5-series competitor, and therefore sits at a comparable price point.

It’s also electric, which means no quick stop at a petrol pump to fill up and you’re on your way. Even at a Supercharger, you’ll have to wait a while to charge enough juice to continue your journey, and if you’re not using a supercharger, that wait time gets exponentially longer.

Range isn’t great compared to a modern turbocharged petrol, and especially not compared to a diesel. A Model S will get 200 miles from a charge on the highway, but a new turbocharged petrol will comfortably go 400+ miles and a diesel even further. Range anxiety is a thing of the past, mostly, but that doesn’t mean the range is all that great in comparison, especially coupled with the fact you must plot stops at Superchargers or overnight stays to charge up on long journeys.

However, that about covers is for the bad parts, so, the good?

It’s electric. This has to be the headliner, because the fact that car is electric changes so much about the driving experience. The car is insanely fast at accelerating. But not only is it fast, it’s also completely silent. It is an incredibly eerie experience to put your foot down and accelerate to 70mph without really hearing any noise. Additionally, because of that electric motor, there is no such thing as a torque curve – it’s a straight line, from 0rpm. The second you press the accelerator, you’re already at peak torque, and remain there forever. This means that, no matter what speed you’re doing, you can always accelerate at an absurd pace because there is always so much torque available. Driving the Tesla Model S has been rightly described as like driving a spaceship – it’s silent, absurdly fast, and it seems impossible that 4-door sedan of that size could ever accelerate that fast. Getting your head around that is unexpectedly hard.

Aside from the driving experience, being electric does afford the car one additional giant benefit over traditional cars – cheap driving. No more fuel costs. The car can be charged at electric charging stations all over the place, often for free. Charging it in your own home adds to your electricity bill, but is still cheaper than buying petrol. Additionally, with no emissions at all, the car is exempt from emissions based charges in places like San Francisco and London.

So, the driving experience is like nothing else on the road, what about the interior? Thanks to the fact the Tesla Model S has a giant touch screen instead of a centre console, this just adds to the spaceship feeling. There is a huge portrait touchscreen where the radio, climate control, navigation, and car settings are accessed. The screen is responsive and quick, and features intuitive menus as well as Google Maps for navigation. The car also features radar cruise control, whereby the cruise control can set a maximum speed, but will slow the car down if the car in front does so. There is a myriad of technical wizardry here, all within the touch screen’s giant glow.

There is one feature that deserves a section all to itself. Autopilot. Autopilot is Tesla’s autonomous driving mode, which enables the driver, on highways, to almost remove themselves from the driving experience. It’s essentially a super-advanced version of cruise control, where you set your speed and following distance, then enable Autopilot and the car will stay in the current lane, at the appropriate follow distance or the speed you defined, until you turn it off. It will steer the car around bends and slow down/speed up as the situation requires. It is an unbelievably surreal experience to remove your hand from the steering wheel and pedals and watch the car continue on, entirely automated. If you indicate, the car will even change lanes for you automatically, without disabling Autopilot. This is an incredible feature, and it’s starting to be seen in other high-end luxury cars across the market now, but Autopilot got there first.

Finally, in brief, automatic updates. Like your computer, the Tesla will automatically update itself with the latest from HQ. This is how autopilot was added to the car, as well as Ludicrous Mode in the Performance models. The cars continuously improve themselves.

+ It’s electric. It’s like driving a spaceship.

+ The interior is incredible

+ Autopilot

+ Cheap fuel costs

– It’s electric. Charging takes time and requires special equipment, and range anxiety is not 100% resolved.

– It’s expensive.

In summary, if you live in a place where you can charge one for everything you need, and you have the money to buy one… The Tesla Model S is a phenomenal vehicle. I cannot emphasise enough how different the driving experience is compared to traditional vehicles.

Nissan Versa

Nissan Versa
Nissan Versa

Ok, so I admit, I’ve managed not to achieve two blogs a week. Sorry. I’ll manage one a week though. Promise. Kind of.

A few months ago, I was given a Nissan Versa as a rental car. I’ve not driven a Nissan for many years, and it seemed fine from the outside. The Versa is equipped with a 1.6l petrol engine making 107bhp (80 kW) and 107 lb-ft (145Nm) of torque, sent to the front wheels. This might seem like not a lot compared to my previous reviews, and you’d be right. The 0-60 time is around 9.2 seconds, and the car has a top speed of 110mph. The engine was connected to a CVT (continuously variable transmission – a ‘gearless’ automatic) gearbox. The model I had was the SV, which is the mid-range vehicle.

So, the bad. Unfortunately, that can really be summed up with three words: The whole car. Let’s elaborate on that point, though, else this wouldn’t be much of an article.

Let’s start with that engine. A 1.6l motor making only 107bhp is not a good start. Coupled with a CVT transmission, this means the entire driving experience feel sluggish. Acceleration is poor, and accompanied by a lot more noise than one would expect is possible. With no gear control, the car spends a lot of time not going anywhere very fast, and in simulating gear shifts, spends a lot of time at high revs and making a very loud noise. This makes driving a really miserable experience. The brakes are spongy and ineffective, which is not what you want out of any car, even one that’s not going very fast. I’m not sure if this was just the particular car I had, but it was not pleasant to need to slow down. Finally, as regards the driving experience, the steering is light and very disconnected – there is very little feedback from the wheels, and occasionally I actually lost their position and couldn’t work out whether they were turned or not, which is very disconcerting when parking. Adding to the steering’s weightless feel is the enormous amount of body roll in corners. The best summation I can come up with is ‘spongy’: the entire car felt like everything was being dampened enormously for some reason, like I was driving a giant sponge.

Next, let’s talk interior. ‘Bare bones’ is an accurate statement. There is A/C and cruise control, but that’s standard on every car I’ve driven in the USA. The closest to modern tech I could find was the fact I could Bluetooth my phone to the radio, but only as a phone. No music streaming facilities at all. Beyond that, there were no features to speak of, and the interior feels incredibly cheap – accurately, since the Versa is one of the cheapest cars on the US market. The car’s interior is very bland, with lots of cheap plastic and hard surfaces. There is a higher trim level that addresses some of these concerns, but that does not help the overall package very much.

Finally, fuel economy around town is not especially great, and I found that I was averaging around 25mpg (30mpg UK, 9.4l/100km) on most of my driving with the car in a combination of city and highway driving.

Ok, so that’s the entire car written off in the bad section, so what’s good?

Price. The Versa is cheap. One of the cheapest cars on the market.

Space. Because the car is so bare bones, there is plenty of space for both passengers and luggage – there is a large boot and four people can fit easily into the car.

+ Spacious

+ Cheap

– Spongy to drive

– Very little equipment in the cabin

– Cheap feeling interior

– Not great fuel economy

In summary… If you have no interest in driving and want the cheapest possible new car, this is it. Alternatively, if you want to drive a sponge, this is your car. For everyone else on the planet, look elsewhere.

Mazda MX-5 NC

It’s a new week, and a new blog post. The first car this week is the Mazda MX-5 Mk3, also known as the NC.

I had the MX-5 with the 1.8l engine – there were very few trim levels in the UK – although it was also available as a 2l, which featured a few other upgrades. My particular car was a 2007, making it an original Mk3, not what would later arrive, the Mk3.5 or the Mk 3.75, which were facelifts to the model. The 1.8l car made 126 bhp and 123 lb-ft of torque (94 kW and 167 Nm), sent to the rear wheels. With this engine, the 0-60 time is around 7.9s with a top speed of 122mph. The car was mated to a 5 speed manual gearbox.

As usual, the bad parts come first. The NC, particularly the early versions, have an incredibly sparse interior that feels really cheap. This was improved as the car was facelifted, adding padding and soft touches here and there within the cabin, but the first version of this MX5 is very utilitarian, especially as the 1.8l base model without extras. There are no fuel economy measures or anything of the sort here, just a simple trip-meter in the dash. The radio also shows its age, with just AM/FM and CD playback. A/C was not standard either in the base model, so I didn’t have that, nor did the car have cruise control. It was very back to basics. Much of this was improved for later generations with cruise control and A/C more or less coming as standard, and the interior was improved.

Additionally, albeit obviously, the car is incredibly impractical. A small boot with a large lip around it made getting items in or out awkward, although it could fit a medium sized suitcase if you could get it past the lip.  As a roadster, the car only had two seats, although there were two tiny storage areas behind the seats and a reasonable size glovebox. But two people and one suitcase was pretty much it, storage wise. Visibility is highly restricted with the roof up – not appalling, but nowhere near as good as with the roof down for obvious reasons!

 

So that’s the bad. What about the good? Well, first and foremost, the MX-5 is an absolutely superb car to drive. As a small, light, rear wheel drive roadster, the MX-5 is at home in small twisty European roads. It’s a blast to drive, and is light and nimble in the corners while being able to be pushed harder than you’d expect – because it’s not overly powerful, anyone can use its full potential on a country road. This makes it a really nice car to play with, even for a less experienced driver. Fun is the name of the game with the MX-5. The manual shifter in the MX-5 is an absolute joy to use, with short, snickety shifts that are very satisfying. The car’s seats are also comfortable and, although not particularly adjustable, well suited for most people. The seats are also bolstered relatively well so they hold the passengers decently in the corners.

The other main positive is the roof. The MX-5 is one of the last cars on the market with a manual soft top roof, and the NC model has a roof that can easily be operated with one hand. Unlock the large middle catch and throw the roof back, and you’re done. It’s beautifully simple and brilliantly fast. Once the roof is down, the car really comes into its own. There’s very little wind buffeting in part due to the little diffuser between the seats that does a lot to reduce backdrafted air after it’s come over the car. With the windows up, the car is remarkably windproof, although of course there is a lot of wind noise. Putting the roof up is a similar experience in simplicity, and can even be done one handed from within the car, although that requires a bit of stretching. Driving in the sunshine with the roof down is one of the most gloriously sublime driving experiences I’ve ever had.

One small addition to the good list is that even the first NC had media controls on the steering wheel, which continued to work after I replaced the radio. That was definitely a plus.

Finally, fuel economy was better than I’d expected. I would achieve around 25mpg (30mpg UK, 9.4l/100km) in city driving and 32mpg (38mpg UK, 7.5l/100km) in freeway driving.

 

+Glorious to drive

+Manual gearbox is one of the best gearboxes I’ve used

+Convertible top is superbly simple

-Impractical

-Mk3 suffers from very bare bones equipment and cheap trim.

So, in summary. The NC is a great car to drive that’s incredibly fun to drive, and works at its absolute best when the roof is down and it is flying through the countryside. It’s not practical, but it doesn’t pretend to be, and the equipment and trim was improved over the years.