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Looking for a good, safe rental for highway driving

Dear Car Talk,
I really need advice. My husband and I are retired, both in our late 60’s. We want to explore the continental United States on road trips, traveling through every state eventually, if we can. Recently we drove home from Ohio to Rhode Island, having rented a 2020 Hyundai Elantra because we own a 2013 Hyundai Elantra and thought it would be easy to drive since we were accustomed to it. BIG MISTAKE! The dashboard was completely different and we were constantly trying to figure out what controlled what!
Driving on state highways was hair raising. Eighteen wheelers in convoys across all lanes, not just the far right one, going 75-80 mph or faster. Nobody used their turn signals. At one point we were boxed in by 4 trucks and the one directly behind us was flashing his lights as he tailgated us. We tried to stay in the far right lane going 65-70 mph but cars and trucks were constantly on our butt. Driving through PA and NY were nightmares, feeling like we were gonna be squashed any minute.
So, here’s my question. We are on a cruise up the Mississippi in April, landing in Memphis. Planning to rent a car, driving through TN, VA, NJ and NY to get home ( taking a reprieve from driving on a ferry from NY to RI) What would be the safest car to rent, suitable to do combat on the highways and survive a crash?
We are good, frequent drivers, traveling weekly throughout RI to babysit our grandkids and facing our state’s bizarrely changing traffic patterns on routes 295 and 95 as bridges and other infrastructure are repaired.We avoid driving at night as much as possible as only our high beams adequately illuminate the roads enough for our senior eyes.
Any suggestions for a suitable rental would be greatly appreciated! JoAnn

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The safety features are probably OK in any rental car. Maybe a minivan would be a consideration. You can go for a test sit in some options available from the rental company at a car dealer.


Joann , you are only get to rent what they have on the lot. The simple answer is to find a large parking lot and just get familiar with the controls . Even if 10 people said a certain vehicle is what you need if it not on the rental lot then you are back to square one .

I think your best move would to check if you have a senior driving class by AARP or AAA near you . Non of us are as good a driver as our mind tells us we are . And Yes I include myself in that .


I have driven old cars all my life, and am of the opinion that the most important piece of “safety equipment” isn’t made of sensors, computers, airbags, etc. It is the skill and common sense of the person driving. By “common sense”, I mean that you should always wear your seat belt, pay attention to your surroundings, maintain a speed that is safe for conditions, never drive aggressively, and always keep your car in good mechanical condition.

Is there a reason you don’t want to drive the 2013 Elantra you already own? I can’t imagine it is cheaper to put lots of miles on a rental than to put them on a car you own.

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It is because they either fly or take a cruise to a location then want to drive back home.

And bcohen have you not driven a new vehicle with some of these features like backup camera , blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control ? They are not intended to replace responsible driving but they can be an asset to the driver at times.

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No, I have not. No desire to, either. In fact, if I can’t fix my Caravan, I will probably buy another used van or maybe a compact pickup from the 1990s-2000s.


We have rented cars when we have flown or taken the train to a large city and then used the cars to travel further. When I selected the rental cars, I rented the low end economy boxes. We had a Plymouth Sundance, various little Toyota cars, etc. Mrs. Triedaq finally said, " Enough is enough. This is vacation. I’ll choose the cars". We now rent SUVs. We have rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Hyundai Santa Fe, s Chevrolet Traverse, and I think the last rented vehicle was a Dodge Journey. I had to agree with Mrs. Triedaq–a larger vehicle is more comfortable. I am in my 70s, and I haven’t had any problems adapting to different vehicles.

If you use a website like Costco you see the comparison cost of renting an economy car versus a compact, intermediate standard or full size car. It’s not much. Just the other day I noticed that an economy car was nearly $200 MORE than a compact for a week at the Fort Lauderdale airport in March. I’ve seen that sort of thing at other tourist airports. The cost of a compact, intermediate, standard and full size car were within a few dollars of each other. Your only other variable is the cost of fuel, but my experience is that new cars get really good mileage, especially the way you describe using the car.

Some of the new technology is really useful stuff, and it’s worth your time to find a quiet place to familiarize yourself with it. All new cars are “safer” than any car you ever could buy before.

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I hate to say this, but I’m not sure your plan to do a lot of driving is right for you. First, every car is going to be different from yours, so if you can’t adjust to that after a short time (especially with a passenger to assist), that’s not good. Second, I’m quite familiar with the route you described. Although those highways can be pretty busy and the trucks can be annoying, if you found that to be a hair-raising nightmare (versus, say, the Washington beltway at rush hour), that’s not good either.

If you’re still planning to do this, it seems to me that you need a larger car, perhaps a mid-size or larger SUV, although that’ll probably cost quite a bit more and it won’t actually add that much safety.

Yeah, I was going to suggest something like a RAV4. And maybe take back roads. Slower, not as safe, but maybe not as taxing.

I rented a 2019 Corolla this past summer for a long-ish road trip and found it handled the freeways w/the 18 wheeler traffic w/no trouble. There was a some slight leaning on strong cross-winds and the ride was a little on the harsh side are my only minor functional complaints. Oh, and I could never figure out how to work the headlights … :wink: That said, the best handling rental car for a long road trip that I’ve ever driven was the Chevy HHR. That car accelerated & tracked so well it was like riding on railroad tracks. The HHR had a few really annoying problems, but as far as the engine power, the suspension system & handling, the HHR was superb. It also could be easily configured by putting down the back seats to haul a good deal of cargo. The only problem with the HHR as pertains to the OP’s question is it is no longer made. Maybe ask a Chevy dealership if they have any models similar to the HHR and give one a test drive. Given its size the HHR got pretty good mpg too.

We go to NY & CT pretty much every winter. Last year I got a 2019 Elantra and it was actually nice. We have two Hyundai’s, so controls were similar. It had more safety features (blind spot, rear cross traffic alert/etc) which was fine. I do not get SUV’s because of city parking. This year our only choice was a Dodge Charger. The wiper and light controls were a bit different but I figured that out. The worst part was the headlights. They were almost nonexistent. Even the high beam was worthless. My eyes aren’t the same I know but everyone who rode with me had the same issues esp when it was raining.

The problem is, you can rarely get what you ask for. You can try and call ahead of time for a specific car but it is not always the case.

The traffic and trucks will be worse going from Memphis the route you describe than you experienced before. Part of your problem is that there is not a lot of truly high speed driving going on in Rhode Island.

If you can’t drive at night in traffic without using your high beams, you should not be driving at night. You are blinding other drivers and that is never safe.

I don’t drive at night much anymore, but if I did, I would be most comfortable on the interstates. Wide lanes and all the traffic going in the same direction, no Amish buggies, pedestrians, bicycles or people pulling out of driveways. Much much safer than back roads despite peoples perceptions.

If something makes you afraid, that alone is unsafe and unpleasant. I wish I had a cure for you but it would take many years and miles to acclimate you and that is not likely to happen.

My best advice would to take it easy and not cover more miles in one day than you are comfortable with.

Good luck, my wife and I are considering a river cruise from Memphis south next fall but we would fly to Memphis and fly home from New Orleans.

If you want to know why most truck drivers are going as fast as they can, it is because most over the road truckers are paid by the mile or a percentage of the revenue of the load. The faster you go, the more money you make.

Exactly. If the OP is flummoxed by the fact that the 2020 car has a different dashboard layout than her 2013 model… any other car she gets is also going to have a dashboard layout different than what she has now.

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We recently toured the American Southwest in a rental. Like Volvo points out, you really only have what is on the lot from which to choose (usually). Our choices were a RAV4 from the last generation (Scored Poor on Passenger side-frontal crash and had no Android Auto). A Dodge Journey and a Nissan Rogue. We chose Rogue for safety and for the smart-phone integration. Here is a quick story on it. That said, if I ever do that gain, I will choose a larger, mid-size crossover, like a Pathfinder-sized vehicle. On the open road in the West, it is surprising how small a two-row crossover can seem. I would also only take off in a vehicle with a spare tire (compact is fine). There were times when we were hours from anything. A compact spare ofers a nice backup plan, even if it is not perfect. My daily driver is a Forester and a CX-5.

I don’t understand that statement at all . We never feel our 2018 Ford Fiesta is to small on the great open west highways . Or anywhere else for that matter .

Often, these rental agencies want to get vehicles back to the state where the vehicle is licenced. Some years back, my uncle had relatives visiting from Sweden. He lived in Kentucky. The visiting relatives were going to rent a car to go to Florida and requested a compact. The rental agency said that they didn’t have a compact available, but for the same price, they could upgrade to a Lincoln Town Car. Of course, they took the deal. As they went out to get the Lincoln, there were all kinds of compact cars. However, the Lincoln Town Car had a Florida licence plate.
A couple of years ago, I rented a car in Tennessee to return to Eastern Indiana. I was provided with a Dodge Journey. I noticed it had an Ohio plate. My guess is that the Dodge Journey was closer to where it was licensed. The agency had other makes of SUVs.
I really don’t care about the make of the vehicle I rent. The Dodge Journey was comfortable for the 375 mile trip.
One thing I believe is important for seniors like me is to occasionally drive new cars of different makes. I drove a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass from the time it was new until I retired in 2011. We did have newer vehicles in this time period and I often had to drive vehicles from the fleet of the university where I was employed.
In my driving years, I have had to get used to not having a three speed column shift transmission, a starter activated by turning the key rather than stepping on a floor pedal, having the dimmer switch activated by a stalk on the column as opposed to.a floor button, etc. but the change to modern car wasn’t difficult.
I have had to get used to a lot of new things in my lifetime. I have had to learn to use the remote control for the television instead of getting up to change channels and getting up during a program and adjusting the vertical hold to keep the picture from rolling. I have had to learn how to program the clock radio Mrs. Triedaq got me for Christmas for wake-uo as opposed to winding up the alarm on my Westclox® Big Ben alarm clock.
I am 10 years older than the OP. I would recommend before taking the vacation is to take a couple of weekends, rent a different car each weekend to experience driving a new vehicle.

… and this situation could portend problems that go far beyond automotive issues.

I speak as someone whose mother developed dementia, and the first manifestation was her inability to understand anything “new”. Unfortunately, we did not recognize the significance of that problem until a few months later.

Within a few months, she insisted that we had “changed the controls” on her stove.
It was the same stove that she had been using for over two decades, but her mental confusion was such that she could no longer understand what she needed to do with the controls.

My father in law forgot how to make coffee. Every car is different, a walk through of the basics would be nice, but never got on on any rental vehicle.

I used to think more standardization of controls in automobiles would be good, but too much standardization would impede really important advances. The Model T Ford had three pedals. As I remember, the left pedal was for the transmission-all the way down was low, halfway down was neutral and all the way out was high. The middle pedal was reverse. The left pedal was pushed halfway down, then the reverse pedal was depressed to back up. The right pedal was the brake. The throttle and spark control were on the steering column. Some of the earliest cars were steered with a tiller instead of a wheel. Certainly, the foot controlled throttle (accelerator pedal) and a three or four speed transmission with a clutch was an advancement over the Ford Model T. We wouldn’t want to be locked into Ford’s design.
I think about the layout of the dashboard of my 1947 Pontiac. The windshield wiper switch was on top of the dash in the center. I find having the control for the wipers as a stalk on the right of the steering column much more convenient.
I think it’s important for older people to become familiar with late model vehicles. One never knows when one may need to drive a newer car.