Hertz Ultimate Choice

Hertz's Gold Choice feature has long been an anemic offering, providing a smattering of mostly-meh midsize cars to Gold members who book a midsize (or higher).

In other words, if you don't like the Chevy Cruze you were assigned, you can go to the Gold Choice area and choose from any number of other Chevy Cruzes in various colors and multiples of twenty thousand miles. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you can trade for a snazzy Toyota Corolla. Don't forget to submit your application to Daytona.

For various reasons, I've lately ended up concentrating most of my business with Hertz and have achieved their top-tier President's Circle membership level (which takes 20 rentals a year to hit). Hertz is mostly OK and reliable (except when it's not) but usually far from exciting. Trust me: I've seen enough Nissan and Toyota dashboards that I can draw them in my sleep. It's telling when I say that I actually get excited when they assign me a Chevy.

As a bit of a driving buff, I've long looked over with envy at friends and peers who have the good fortune to regularly rent with National. Their Emerald Aisle (see—it's even the color of envy!) feature makes it easy to quickly choose the car you want (and usually from a reasonably decent selection of midsize and occasionally some fullsize cars), and if you rent at least 12 times a year, you get access to their Executive Selection, which features upgraded cars (fullsizes, SUVs, and sometimes even vans and premium cars)—all for the taking without even having to beg a rental car agent. Meanwhile, I gritted my teeth and took possession of yet another Nissan Altima.

So when I had the chance to rent at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which was the first location to get Hertz's new Ultimate Choice service, I sprang for it.

So, I booked an intermediate car. I can't find it in print in any of Hertz's official documentation, but some reports online indicate that to take advantage of "Ultimate Choice," you must book at least a midsize car. It makes sense; you need to book an intermediate car to activate access to the normal Gold Choice row, and Ultimate Choice is sort of an extension of Gold Choice.

Normally, an hour or so before your reserved pick-up time, you get a "Carfirmation" text and email from Hertz telling you that they've picked out a car you don't like for you along with a parking stall. (This information is mirrored on the Gold Board at the location itself.) If you want something else (like I usually do), you have to go inside the Gold office and wait in line to talk to an agent, who may or may not be up for helping you find a better car.

At Austin, I didn't receive a Carfirmation. Instead, about an hour and a half before my pick-up time, I got an email with a map of the lot and a note to go to the President's Circle area and choose any car there.

After I arrived at the brand-new rental center (a short walk from the terminal), I passed by the Gold Board and noticed that while my name was up on it like normal, instead of a stall number, it just said "Pres Cir." I headed outside, took a left, and was pleasantly surprised: instead of the sea of Chrysler 200s and Toyota Camrys I expected to see, the smallest car in the row was a premium car—a pair of 2017 Nissan Maximas. Next to them was a Jeep Grand Cherokee (with the Limited badge), and a few stalls away was a Ford Escape. This was more like it! (The National Emerald Aisle sign in the distance grew a couple of shades less green.) I picked the leather-seated Jeep and threw my bags in it, taking care to grab the key and lock the door so no one drove off with my stuff, and then I wandered through the rest of the lot to see what else this new set-up had to offer.

The first thing I noticed was the aisles labeled "Compact," "Midsize," and "Fullsize." My guess is that this is where you go if you're a Gold member and have booked one of those car classes, and if you're not a Gold member (though why wouldn't you be??), the agent inside will probably send you out to one of these rows after they finish processing your contract. That's exactly what National does at its major locations where you choose your own car. (It's not clear what happens if you book an economy or a standard-sized vehicle, since there are no rows for those classes. Maybe they round up to compact and fullsize, respectively.)

Next to the fullsize row was the Hertz Gold/Five-Star area. This is sort of like the old Gold Choice option—Gold members who have booked at least a midsize can choose from these cars--but it's stocked a little better: I saw some Chevy Malibus and Hyundai Sonatas, both of which are usually classified as fullsize cars, among other options.

The most intriguing area was right in the middle of the lot, next to the regular Gold Choice cars. A selection of shiny Infiniti Q50s, Infiniti QX60s, a couple of Chrysler 300s, and even a Mercedes C300 were all sitting under a sign labeled "Premium/Luxury." A sign adjacent to the stalls said that Gold members could upgrade to any of these cars for $35 a day. That's actually a bit of a steal for the Merc, in my opinion, and I was tempted to grab it, but then I looked over and noticed that a Volkswagen CC TSI had been deposited in the President's Circle area. The 2.0L turbocharged engine being more fun to drive and more fuel-efficient than the Jeep, it was a no-brainer, so I moved my bags over.

Before leaving, I wandered into the Hertz office to chat up the agents a bit and learn about how Ultimate Choice was working out. The agent I spoke with was very enthusiastic about it: she said that since it started in February of this year, the reaction has been very positive: customers like it because they can pick the cars they like to drive, and it made their lives a lot easier because they could just send customers out to choose their own car rather than hunting through the computer to find an available car. She also mentioned that I was renting on the toughest day (Wednesday, the middle of the busy travel week), and that during the weekends, the selection was far more plentiful. (That's definitely true; a friend who rented on a recent Saturday reported an Infiniti Q50 sitting in the President's Circle area.)

I checked one last time to see if an Infiniti had shown up. No go, so I hopped into my VW and drove to the exit gate. The hang-tag on the mirror identified my 3-class-upgraded car as being in the President's Circle selection, so the exit agent printed out my contract without an upgrade charge and sent me on my way out onto Central Texas's highways—with speed limits up to 85 miles per hour, they're probably the closest thing we have in this country to Germany's Autobahns. The Volkswagen handled them all with aplomb…and left National's green Emerald Aisle sign far behind in my rear-view mirror.

Since launching in Austin, Hertz has converted 10 more locations to Ultimate Choice: Atlanta, Boston Logan, Charlotte, Chicago O'Hare, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle-Tacoma.

The following locations are planned for Spring 2017: Cleveland, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Newark, New York LaGuardia, Philadelphia, San Jose, Washington National.

Check out some photos of the the new Austin rental facility and Hertz Ultimate Choice here.

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