Rental Car Lottery: Fleets Full of Fords
While I haven’t had the chance to devote time to writing for Autosavant lately, I have had the opportunity to spend plenty of time in airplanes, airports, hotels, and rental cars. Sadly, I’ve been covering way more miles lately on commercial airline flights than behind the wheel – the latter of which I would prefer.
Avis is my employer’s rental car company of choice. Despite the fact that Avis has historically been associated with General Motors vehicles (due to a partial ownership by GM in the late 1980s through mid 1990s), Avis’ national fleet in the US as of Q1 2013 is heavily populated with Ford’s latest vehicles. Due to this fleet makeup and my travel schedule, in the past 2 months, I’ve spent time in a current Edge Limited, Fusion Hybrid SE, and two Escape SEL EcoBoost AWDs, and in all but one case I’ve come away impressed.
Ford’s current lineup makes their MyFord Touch (MFT) infotainment system available across most models, and each of the Ford vehicles I’ve rented this quarter have been equipped with the system. While it has been much maligned by Consumer Reports and the automotive press alike, the latest versions of MFT actually have reasonable good response time. Only the system in the Ford Edge, which was Ford’s launch vehicle for the MFT system when it debuted in 2011 model year, had unacceptably slow response times.
The first vehicle I used was an Escape SEL AWD with the 1.6 liter EcoBoost motor, rented in Denver. I was impressed by the high-resolution screen in the instrument cluster between the analog speedo and tach (all of which are appear to be shared with the Focus) which displayed some setup info as well as trip odometer information, and was also impressed with the assembly and materials used throughout the front of the passenger cabin, including the comfortable, electrically-adjusted heated driver’s seat. The automatic climate and audio controls use physical buttons which have a high-quality appearance and feel, and the MFT system was very responsive. The Escape handled well, and the turbocharged 1.6 punched above its weight, quickly getting to speed and cruising effortlessly at 80 MPH on Colorado’s E470 toll road. Overall I found the Escape to be a lot more fun to drive than I had expected, and its controls were user-friendly.
The week following the Escape, I picked up an Edge Limited AWD in Boston, on the very day that Boston’s airport had opened following Winter Storm Nemo. Climbing in to the Edge, I immediately sensed the bulk of the SUV as compared to the Escape. When pairing my phone before even leaving the Avis lot, I noticed lag in the response times with this older MFT system, as well as the lag associated with the capacitive touch HVAC controls on the console; the MFT system did crash on me once (while listening to music through my Bluetooth-connected iPhone 5). After having driven the Escape, the Edge felt heavier, less nimble, and less “engineered” in general, as though less thought overall had gone into the design of the Edge than had gone into the Escape. While the driver’s seat was comfortable, the driving experience was much less engaging, with worse visibility, and less tactile feedback through the steering and suspension. With the Escape and the Explorer as smaller and larger siblings, the unexciting Edge seems redundant and not at all compelling.
After a couple of weeks respite from business travel, I found myself at the Avis garage in San Francisco, assigned to a new Fusion Hybrid SE. I’ve liked the looks of the new Fusion since its introduction and have been anxious to drive one. That said, in the past I’ve rented Toyota Prius and Camry Hybrids, and found both the regenerative brakes and the transition between electric and combustion propulsion to lack refinement. Climbing in to the good-looking Fusion Hybrid, I was immediately impressed by the handsome, comfortable seats and the attractive overall cabin layout, using nice materials and assembly which are an order of magnitude better than in the previous-generation Fusion (of which I’ve seemingly rented dozens), and reminiscent of Volkswagen or Audi products. Both the MFT and the capacitive-touch HVAC controls responded readily to my touch. Features like one-touch automatic window actuation on all four windows, lane keep assistance, blind spot monitoring, and reverse camera with cross-traffic alert (which was quite helpful) were very appreciated. Dual TFT displays flanking the speedometer in the instrument cluster can show a variety of information relating to the hybrid propulsion system. The hybrid system’s transition between electric and combustion drive was seamless, though the regenerative brakes are decidedly “grabby” at low speeds. My only real complaints are that thick A-pillars hamper forward angle visibility, and the hybrid’s battery pack compromises trunk space and also makes the trunk and odd shape. I was surprised by how enthusiastic I was about the Fusion Hybrid, and about how well I liked it; it is a well-integrated package that truly seems like a world-class, competitive automobile; a cut above what I expect from Ford’s American products.
I dropped the Fusion Hybrid in San Francisco and flew right to Los Angeles, where I picked up another Escape SEL EcoBoost AWD. While noticeably less fancy than the Fusion, another stint in the nicely-equipped Escape reminded me of the small crossover’s nimble handling and strong fun-to-drive factor, especially compared to rental fleet stalwarts like the omnipresent Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Impala.
One of the notable things about these recent rental experiences is that each of these rental Fords was a high-enough trim level to include the MFT system, whereas “typical” rental cars from most manufacturers (and most rental agencies) tend to be entry-level vehicles- the kind with squishy, manually-adjusted cloth seats, manual climate control, and few frills. In the case of these Fords, each had automatic dual-zone climate control, heated, leather-upholstered, power-adjustable front seats with memory, and MFT including Bluetooth phone pairing for taking calls and playing music. Whether this is an intentional move on Ford’s part just to expose a large number of people to MFT through use in rental fleets, or part of a larger plan on Ford’s part to sell more cars by filling rental fleets, I don’t know.
I’ve always been a Swedish car guy, and considered the fact that my first domestic vehicle purchase, a 2011 Ford Flex Limited EcoBoost which is a part of the Autosavant long-term test fleet, was just an anomaly based on the Flex’s unique style and spacious packaging (it certainly wasn’t the cabin’s materials or assembly quality). That said, Ford’s new products like Fusion and Escape really are appealing to me, as is demonstrated by my recent rental experiences.