Head-to-head: Zipcar vs. Hertz

Consumer Reports

Alternatives to traditional car rentals are increasingly available, but how good are they?

If you live in one of 30 major metro areas—especially New York or San Francisco—you might be tempted to help an innovative upstart such as Zipcar do battle with rental-car giants. But is it easier to rent a Zipcar than a traditional rental car? Is the quality as good? Can you save money on the car rental?

To find out, we pitted Zipcar (which was acquired by Avis Budget Group in 2013) against the traditional rental service from Hertz, the largest car-rental brand. Hertz also offers its own Zipcar copycat, Hertz 24/7, but we wanted to compare the newer model (Zipcar) with the veteran (Hertz).

Quick-take scorecard
Major criteria of comparison Zipcar Hertz
1 Pickup and drop-off 3.5 4.8
2 Prices and fees 3.2 3.7
3 Vehicle condition and performance 4.7 4.3
4 Insurance and losses 1.7 4.3
Overall average score 3.3 4.3
Zipcar can be a very expensive way to get wheels, and you should be aware that its damage-fee waiver contains exceptions to coverage. Zipcar's membership contract says that the full damage-fee waiver, which costs $9 per month or $79 per year, "will not appply" if you have two "incidents" or don't pay other non-damage-fee waiver charges, among other reasons. Read the fine print carefully.   Here's our detailed expert review. (Note that each key product feature listed below is scored on a 1 to 5 scale, where 1 equals the worst available value to consumers and 5 the best. Our reviewer used one or more of the various assessment tools available, including field tests using both products; checking availability of features; and reporting information provided by both companies.)   —Jeff Blyskal
Performance attribute Zipcar Hertz
Number of U.S. airport locations 1.0 5.0
Number of U.S. non-airport locations 3.0 5.0
Distance to nearest location from reviewer's home 5.0 5.0
Ease of pickup and drop-off procedure 5.0 4.0
Category average 3.5 4.8

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The greater the number of rental car locations, the more likely one will be convenient to where you need to pick up and drop off the vehicle. Consumers rent vehicles at airport locations for vacation travel and at non-airport locations for non-airline leisure travel, to temporarily take the place of one’s primary vehicle when it’s in the shop for maintenance and repairs or to fix insured collision damage, and periodic personal travel needs by non car owners. Hassle-free pickup and drop-off also make for smooth renting.

Hertz won hands down with 790 U.S. airport locations, compared with just 32 for Zipcar. It also has 2,785 non-airport locations, compared with Zipcar's 1,237, which is our estimate, by our count of Zipcar neighborhoods on their online maps. Zipcar locations are different than traditional Hertz locations. There are no buildings, counter agents, or parking lots with Zipcar; rather, Zipcars are parked in designated two-car parking spaces that the company calls “pods,” which may be scattered over several locations in the same neighborhood. The Zipcar that we rented, for example, was based at a public parking lot of the Bay Area Rapid Transit in Berkeley, Calif. We count multiple pods in a neighborhood as one location.

Both services were equally convenient to the home of our San Francisco-area expert reviewer when he rented vehicles from each. When it came to the pickup process, Zipcar had a slight edge, with its clever use of a transponder membership card which, when placed over an electronic reader behind the upper driver’s side windshield, unlocks the car so you can get the keys, which are inside the vehicle. (See photo above.) Very easy. That also eliminates the need for a counter agent to hand you keys or register your pickup; you book the rental online. But the car had to be thoroughly examined and photographed inside out and all around with a cell phone camera, and when I found a scratch, I had to email a photo of it to Zipcar. Drop-off involved photographing the car all around again, leaving the keys inside, locking the vehicle with the Zipcard transponder, and walking away.

Hertz is slightly less convenient, because you must present your driver’s license and credit card, sign forms, be pestered to buy the costly loss-damage waiver, and maybe wait in line to be served. The car also had to be thoroughly examined and photographed inside out and all around, but when numerous scratches and dents were found, the agent marked them on a paper form. The keys were handed to me and I drove off. Drop-off involved photographing the car all around, returning the keys, and walking away.

Performance attribute Zipcar Hertz
Relative cost of sample 1.5 hour rental 5.0 1.0
Relative cost of sample 1-day rental 1.0 5.0
Relative cost of sample 1-week rental 1.0 5.0
Membership fees 4.0 5.0
Fuel cost 1 week, 1,000 miles 5.0 1.0
Daily mileage allowance/per-mile fee 3.0 5.0
Category average 3.2 3.7

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Rental cars are something of a commodity, which makes shopping for the lowest possible price important for consumers. Rates vary by vehicle model, location, date, and time of rental, so we made a snapshot comparison to determine the relative cost of pricing the same vehicle model for both Zipcar and Hertz, with pickup at nearby locations on the same date and time.

Zipcar did well in our cost comparison, based on our pricing of a sample Toyota Corolla for 1.5 hours. Including tax, the cost came to $19 for Zipcar, compared with $36, the daily rate, at Hertz. But Zipcar quickly got expensive the longer the rental time. For a one-day rental, Zipcar’s rate came to $97, though you can get a rate as low as $69 for other models, vs. $36 for Hertz. For a week, the Zipcar rental climbed to a deal-breaking $636 compared to Hertz’ more reasonable $182.

Yes, Zipcar pays for the gasoline, but even at California’s pricey $4.14 per gallon at the time of our comparison, that hardly puts a dent in the high cost of a weeklong rental. More costs: To rent a Zipcar, you have to become a member and pay a fee $6 per month to $60 a year, plus an application fee of $25.

Performance attribute Zipcar Hertz
Damage to vehicle rented 4.0 3.0
Cleanliness of vehicle rented 5.0 5.0
Performance of vehicle rented 5.0 5.0
Category average 4.7 4.3

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The cars we rented from both agencies were clean and performed well. We found only one minor scratch on the Zipcar, but the Hertz vehicle had some dents, scratches, and sizable scrapes on the passenger side. Hertz did offer us an undamaged car, but we didn’t like that model, and the scratches and dents were listed on the pre-rental vehicle inspection form and thus posed no problem, but we were a little surprised that Hertz rented damaged cars at all, given that customers are charged for damage done while they’ve got the car.

Performance attribute Zipcar Hertz
Liability coverage for drivers under 21 2.0 4.5
Liability coverage for drivers 21+ 2.0 4.5
Loss damage waiver 1.0 4.0
Category average 1.7 4.3

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Zipcar promises “comprehensive insurance” that was not as comprehensive as we would have liked. For example, drivers younger than 21 get only the state minimum liability coverage. So in some big states, such as California, Zipcar provides only $15,000 for bodily injury per person, $30,000 for bodily injury per accident, and $5,000 for property damage. Drivers 21 and older get $300,000 in overall liability coverage, which is below our recommendation of $400,000. There is no uninsured/underinsured driver protection.

Hertz typically does not provide free liability coverage, but it’s optional liability insurance supplement and uninsured/underinsured motorist protections provide $1 million in coverage for extra daily fees.

  Performance attribute Zipcar Hertz Scoring scale
Number of U.S. airport locations 1.0 5.0
5 770+ (number of commercial service and "reliever" high-capacity metro area general aviation airports in the U.S.)
4 578 to 769
3 386 to 577
2 194 to 385
1 0 to 193
Number of U.S. non-airport locations 3.0 5.0
5 2,401 to 3,000
4 1,800 to 2,400
3 1,201 to 1,800
2 601 to 1,200
1 0 to 600
Distance to nearest location from reviewer's home 5.0 5.0
5 Less than 5 miles
4 5 to 10 miles
3 10 to 15 miles
2 15 to 20 miles
1 20+ miles
Ease of pickup and drop-off procedure 5.0 4.0
5 Very easy
4 Easy
3 OK
2 Some hassles
1 Lots of hassles
Relative cost of sample 1.5 hour rental 5.0 1.0
5 $18.80
4 18.81 to 22.56 (up to 20% more than lowest)
3 22.57 to 26.32 (up to 40% more than lowest)
2 26.33 to 30.08 (up to 60% more than lowest)
1 30.09+ (over 60% more than lowest)
Relative cost of sample 1-day rental 1.0 5.0
5 $36.14
4 36.15 to 43.37 (up to 20% more than lowest)
3 43.38 to 50.60 (up to 40% more than lowest)
2 50.61 to 57.82 (up to 60% more than lowest)
1 57.83+ (over 60% more than lowest)
Relative cost of a sample 1-week rental 1.0 4.0
5 $182.43
4 182.44 to 218.92 (up to 20% more than lowest)
3 218.93 to 255.40 (up to 40% more than lowest)
2 255.41 to 291.89 (up to 60% more than lowest)
1 291.90+ (over 60% more than lowest)
Membership fees 4.0 5.0
5 No fees
4 Yes fees
3
2
1
Fuel cost (1 week, 1,000 miles) 5.0 1.0
5 $0
4 0.01 to 25.00
3 25.01 to 50
2 50.01 to 75
1 75.00+
Daily mileage allowance/per-mile fee 3.0 5.0
5 Unlimited mileage included
4 600 miles per day (10 hours of driving at 60 mph) and LESS THAN 56 cents per mile (IRS 2014 business-mileage rate)
3 Less than 600 miles per day and LESS THAN 56 cents per mile
2 Less than 600 miles per day and MORE THAN 56 cents per mile
1
Damage to vehicle rented 4.0 3.0
5 Undamaged
4 Minor cosmetic damage
3 Moderate cosmetic damage
2 Significant cosmetic damage affecting usability or performance
1 Major damage
Cleanliness of rented vehicle 5.0 5.0
5 Clean
4 Slightly dirty
3 Moderately dirty
2 Very dirty
1 Extremely dirty
Performance of vehicle rented 5.0 5.0
5 No problems
4 Minor performance deficiencies noted
3 Persistent performance problems experienced
2 Significant performance problems experienced
1 Vehicle broke down
Liability coverage for drivers under 21 2.0 4.5
5 Included or better than personal auto insurance standard 100/300/100 liability and same-limit uninsured/underinsured motorist protection
4 Liability and UI/UIM are the responsibility of the driver and thus are the same as what the driver normally expects and has with his personal auto insurance
3 Included personal liability and UI/UIM coverage with significant fine print caveats, limits, and exclusions WITH damage fees or deductibles
2 Included personal liability and UI/UIM coverage with significant fine print caveats, limits, and exclusions WITH NO damage fees or deductibles
1
Liability coverage for drivers 21 and older 2.0 4.5
5 Included or better than personal auto insurance standard 100/300/100 liability and same-limit uninsured/underinsured motorist protection
4 Liability and UI/UIM are the responsibility of the driver and thus are the same as what the driver normally expects and has with his personal auto insurance
3 Included personal liability and UI/UIM coverage with significant fine print caveats, limits, and exclusions WITH damage fees or deductibles
2 Included personal liability and UI/UIM coverage with significant fine print caveats, limits, and exclusions WITH NO damage fees or deductibles
1
Loss-damage waiver 1.0 4.0
5 Waives your liability for all damage to the vehicle but is void if vehicle has been used in a specified prohibited manner
4 Waives your liability for all damage to the vehicle but is void if vehicle has been used in a specified prohibited manner OR for violation of any terms of your contract
3 Waives your liability for all damage to the vehicle but is void if vehicle has been used in a specified prohibited manner OR for violation of any terms of your contract OR for suspension of your membership
2 Waives your liability for all damage to the vehicle but is void if vehicle has been used in a specified prohibited manner OR for violation of any terms of your contract OR for suspension of your membership OR for having two or more "incidents"
1 Waives your liability for all damage to the vehicle but is void if vehicle has been used in a specified prohibited manner OR for violation of any terms of your contract OR for suspension of your membership OR for having two or more "incidents" OR for non-payment of fees or charges not related to the waiver


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