When is a Ford Focus not a Ford Focus?

The Ford Focus is a terrific car. But anyone who's driven one knows that while it may be economical, reliable and peppy, there is one thing that it is not: intermediate sized. Even if Enterprise Rent-A-Car calls it that.

That's just one example of the confusion consumers face when trying to find the right car to rent. Unfortunately, the rental industry continues to struggle with product standardization so you're often left scratching your head when comparison shopping from site to site and weighing one firm against another. To make matters even stickier, with a few exceptions it's virtually impossible to secure a specific make and model at most rental companies.

Class warfare

On its website, Enterprise defines the intermediate class as "Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus, or similar" and provides this description: "Larger than an economy and compact car rental, our standard cars [sic] balance the space and budget to give you a great deal on your car rental."

The problem is that Budget and Hertz—which both feature Ford vehicles—list the Focus as a compact, one step below intermediate or midsize. Similarly, the Cobalt is called a compact by Alamo, Avis, and National.

But it doesn't stop there. Enterprise defines the standard class as Pontiac G6 and Ford Fusion, but the G6 is an intermediate or midsize at Alamo, Avis, Budget, and National (Budget agrees with Enterprise that the Fusion is a standard, however). Such confusion reigns at many rental companies, both here and abroad. At Dollar Rent A Car, for example, a Chrysler Sebring is an "intermediate" but a Sebring convertible is a "standard convertible."

Nomenclature is also tricky with rental cars. The terms "intermediate" and "midsize" generally are used interchangeably. You might also be confused by Avis' use of the term "sub-compact" for what the other major domestic rental firms call an "economy" vehicle. And both Dollar and Thrifty have no "standard" class, even though their six largest rivals do.

Travelers probably shouldn't expect relief on this anytime soon. Enterprise spokeswoman Laura Bryant notes that "I don't know of any effort to ensure that all car rental companies are 100% consistent on this issue...we're a pretty competitive and fractious group, as you know."

Seeking benchmarks

In many ways, it would seem renting a car should be the easiest component in the very confusing universe of booking one's own travel. But anyone who has comparison shopped undoubtedly has grappled with the loose terminology used to describe rental vehicles.

Even the leading travel mega-sites don't always speak the same language. For example, Expedia uses the following classifications:

Economy Compact Midsize Standard Full-size Premium Luxury Convertible Minivan SUV Sports car

If you substitute "van" for minivan, and "specialty" for sports car, Orbitz uses basically the same system.

Travelocity, however, offers a total of 30 vehicle classes in all, broken down into four subdivisions: cars; SUVs & trucks; vans & wagons; and specialty. Within the car class, the site substitutes "intermediate" for midsize and also offers the additional class of "mini" below economy, but this is designed for foreign rentals, not domestic bookings.

What's more, the rental industry and the United States Government don't always see eye-to-eye. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy provides definitive car classifications compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); they're available at fueleconomy.gov. The size classes are defined by "interior passenger and cargo volumes" as measured in cubic feet. So for sedans, there are five classes:

Minicompact: less than 85 cubic feet Subcompact: 85-99 cubic feet Compact: 100-109 cubic feet Mid-Size: 110-119 cubic feet Large: 120 or more cubic feet

However, these classifications might confuse you even more. For example, the EPA ranks both the Focus and the G6 as compact and the Fusion and Pontiac Grand Prix as midsize (as noted, Budget and Enterprise call the Fusion standard size and Alamo calls the Grand Prix full-size).

Meanwhile, in Europe an organization known as ACRISS (Association of Car Rental Industry Systems Standards) was formed to "develop common standards for car rental services" on that continent. Its roster is familar: The organization's principal members are Alamo, Avis, Hertz, and National/Europcar and its associate members are Budget and Enterprise.

The ACCRISS "industry standard vehicle matrix" consists of the following codes:

M (Mini) E (Economy) C (Compact) I (Intermediate) S (Standard) F (Full-Size) P (Premium) L (Luxury) X (Special)

However, two years ago ACRISS began implementing a new and expanded matrix that doubled these nine categories to 18 categories, so there's greater potential for both clarification AND confusion.

As ACRISS points out, the vehicle category can be just the first step in the selection process, because you may need to make additional choices, particularly when renting outside the United States. These choices include basic vehicle types, such as 2-door, 4-door, station wagon, four-wheel-drive, etc. And some Americans might be confused by terms such as "estate" and "cabriolet" and "minibus" so it pays to inquire about such issues. In addition, automatic transmissions and air conditioning are not as common in some countries as they are here, so you may need to specifically select such options.

What all this is means is that—surprise!—the rule of caveat emptor is alive and well within the car rental industry, and it's up to you to make sure you're booking the right car class.

Two key words

The inherent confusion about comparing apples to apples is compounded by the renter's inability to order a specific kind of apple, since every rental firm reserves the right to substitute a McIntosh for a Granny Smith.

In a Traveler's Aide column two years ago, Linda Burbank addressed this issue when a reader complained of receiving a Toyota Camry from Thrifty after booking a full-size "Dodge Magnum or similar," and then the same reader received a Nissan Sentra from Thrifty after booking a midsize "Dodge Stratus or similar." Burbank pointed out that "or similar" are the key words when you book a rental car.

On Budget's site, if you click on the words "or similar" next to the featured vehicle in each class, you'll find these words:

"Because Budget offers each customer [flexibility to return cars at a later date], please understand that we can't guarantee a specific make, model, or color since some of our customers undoubtedly will decide to keep their cars longer than they originally planned. However, we can promise that, if you reserve in the intermediate car class, for example, we'll have an intermediate available for you—and if we don't we'll upgrade you to a larger vehicle at no extra charge."

In fact, many rental companies have an automatic upgrade policy if a vehicle is not available in the class you booked. However, that may not be a good thing for many renters, who for a variety of reasons may not want a larger and/or more expensive vehicle. During the recent holiday season, I reserved a midsize car for a seven-day rental because I planned to log quite a few miles visiting family. When I went to pick up my midsize at a very small local facility, I was told the only vehicle available was a full-size four-wheel-drive SUV. It's true I was not charged extra (and my son dubbed the small tank with the state-of-the-art audio system "sweet wheels"). But I wound up paying twice as much as I had budgeted for gas that week.

Rental industry insiders say the bottom line is that in most cases you just can't be guaranteed you'll get a specific make and model.

The fleets are in

So you're looking to rent a car and you've finally decided on say, a midsize (fine, call it an intermediate). Now what are your statistical chances of actually receiving a specific make and model? That can be difficult to say.

The domestic rental industry has a long and complicated history, and many of the largest firms were once owned by auto manufacturers. For example, sister companies Dollar and Thrifty were once owned by Chrysler. While that has changed, you may not realize that eight of the nation's largest rental firms are now controlled by just four parent corporations. In addition to the eponymous Avis Budget Group, three other large firms—Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental, and Alamo Rent A Car—are sister companies, leaving Hertz as the lone giant.

What hasn't changed is the continuation of terms such as: "Hertz rents Fords and other fine cars." Many rental firms still advertise that they feature specific car makes. So despite severing financial ties to Chrysler, Dollar and Thrifty still feature that automaker's vehicles. And although they are sister companies by merger, Avis still features General Motors vehicles while Budget still features Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles.

Exactly what "features" means can be hard to pin down, since some rental companies are reluctant to share the details of their fleet mix. But what's clear is that for many rental firms, that mix has changed in recent years, and there's more diversification as these companies rely less and less on exclusive suppliers. Even so, many of the details are sketchy.

For example, Enterprise/National/Alamo's Bryant says she can't provide any specifics on this issue, and notes, "We work with most of the manufacturers and the percentages vary year by year, and sometimes even season by season. We also work closely with the manufacturers to ensure that we provide 'like-kind' replacement vehicles when consumers are having maintenance and body work done."

However, Avis Budget Group's Alice Pereira says, "There are more than 100 makes and models that serve both Avis and Budget customers, which is a broader selection than in past years." Budget's website adds: "While the majority of cars at corporate-owned locations are made by Ford and Lincoln-Mercury, after you select your car in the reservation process, look in your rental summary to see which make and model car that you are likely to get in your selected car class at your chosen location."

Hertz is a little more forthcoming. Spokeswoman Paula Rivera notes that as of year end 2007, the rental giant purchased approximately 25% of its fleet from Ford. Yet during the five-year period ending in December 2007, Hertz had purchased an average of 40% of its fleet from Ford. According to Rivera, "While Ford and the other 'Big Three' manufacturers have cut down on their fleet sales, Hertz has not had any problems acquiring the fleet it needs to meet customer demand. In order to give our customers the utmost in selection, Hertz's fleet has become diversified over the past few years. In fact, we purchase cars from approximately 30 different manufacturers."

As far as narrowing your chances of securing—or for that matter avoiding—a given make or even model, it really comes down to percentages. In rough terms, seven of the eight largest domestic rental companies still seem to lean on one manufacturer more than on other automakers. Alamo, Avis, and National retain fleets heavy with GM vehicles; Budget and Hertz feature Fords; Dollar and Thrifty specialize in Chrysler products; and Enterprise offers more of a mix. Let this be your guide when searching for a specific car to rent.

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Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.