c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Rental cars are rarely anything special. And that’s just fine. All you really need from a rental is unlimited miles, long-term shelter for a few stray curly fries and a hassle-free ride from A to B and back again before those martinets at the counter charge you for an additional day.

If you’re driving a rental, the car itself is most likely not the point — it is merely a solution to a problem.

And for many travelers over the past couple of years, the Chevrolet Captiva has been their rental car solution. The Captiva is a rare thing in the U.S. auto market: a vehicle that isn’t available to consumers but is offered only to fleet customers, including the rental car companies. You can rent one, but you cannot buy it.

The reasons stem from General Motors’ bankruptcy in 2009. Among the casualties of the company’s reorganization was the touchy-feely Saturn division, which amid its dying gasps offered the second-generation Vue, an appealing small crossover SUV developed by the Opel division in Europe and sold around the world in various guises, including the Opel Antara.

In the United States, GM found itself with a relatively fresh crossover on its hands, but no Saturn dealers left to sell it.

This was not much of an issue during the depths of the recession. But by 2011, with demand surging for compact crossovers, Chevy was having trouble keeping up with dealer orders for its fresher Equinox model. Obligations to fleet customers — rental companies, government agencies and commercial buyers, who were ordering small crossovers in larger numbers — only increased the strain on supply.

So Chevy turned again to the Antara platform, resuscitating the Vue in fall 2011 as the Captiva Sport, a version already being built in Mexico — where the Vue had also been made — for South American markets. (To add to the confusion, a seven-seater with similar architecture is sold as a Captiva, sans “Sport,” overseas.)

By offering the Captiva Sport for fleets in the United States, GM was able to reserve the Equinox for higher-margin retail buyers. (Fleet customers, buying in bulk, typically pay less per vehicle.) In the process, GM could also amortize some of the costs it had sunk into the Vue, and if shipping the Captiva Sport to fleet customers instead of the Equinox helped keep used Equinoxes from glutting the resale market, so much the better.

All of this explains how I ended up driving a Captiva Sport recently during a long weekend visit to northwest Arkansas. There was no owner’s manual in the vehicle I rented at the Bentonville airport — perhaps some previous customer, confused and fascinated by the Captiva, swiped the manual in hopes it would become a collector’s item — but by comparing specifications for the trim levels available for the 2012 model year I deduced that I drove a nicely optioned LT model, which included a leather-trimmed interior, heated seats, rear-view camera and sunroof.

My LT had a 3-liter V6 that made an impressive 264 horsepower; all 2013-14 models get by with a 180-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. But even if the V6’s power output was near the top of the class — a class it effectively skipped given its fleet-only status — I found the Sport to be engineered mainly for comfort, with patient but persistent acceleration through the gears of its six-speed automatic transmission.

The numbers tell the tale: At 222 pound-feet, the tested Captiva’s torque fell short of Kia’s more aptly named Sportage, whose turbo four-cylinder puts 269 pound-feet of torque at the service of its 260 horses. To me, the Captiva Sport has more in common with the mild-mannered, family-friendly Toyota RAV4.

Still, comfort isn’t a bad thing to shoot for in a rental car. We judge rentals by different standards, after all — styling or gas mileage may not matter as much when you’re committed to a vehicle for only three or four days, while user-friendliness becomes even more crucial.

By my own short-term criteria, the Captiva easily passed muster, although with a few odd reminders that beneath its borrowed name lies a lightly refreshed 2008 Saturn. The Captiva’s sound system appeared to be 1990s-vintage, with a pale blue dot-matrix readout and preset equalizer selections along the lines of Pop-Rock-Jazz-Limbaugh. (The LTZ model comes with a premium 10-speaker audio system, but good luck finding that on the rental lot.)


Not surprisingly, the satellite radio subscription in my rental had expired, but the USB port connected with an iPod immediately upon plug-in. It’s 2013, and some carmakers are still figuring that out.

Elsewhere the Captiva Sport’s global-platform origins seemed evident, as with the backup camera, whose screen was integrated into the rear view mirror. I actually prefer this location — I’ve always found the more common center-dashboard placement to be an unnatural place to look when backing out of a parking spot.

I was more perplexed by the enigmatic ‘P’ button just below the gearshift. It was an electronic parking brake, it turns out, but with no owner’s manual to consult, I gave in to temptation a few miles into my drive, sending the vehicle into a brief spasm of disagreement.


The cabin was comfortable, although a family of four traveling with more than their smartphones might find the cargo space behind the second row (29.2 cubic feet) to be a tight fit.

And while mileage was not at the top of my list of concerns, the Captiva did average slightly more than 20 mpg over my four-day rental, a figure that aligns with the EPA’s estimates of 17 in the city, 24 on the highway.

For the curious, GM’s fleet website says the 2014 Captiva Sport starts at $24,360, which excludes the $875 destination charge you’d pay for a retail vehicle like the Equinox. More highly optioned Captivas approach $30,000; unless you’re buying a dozen or so, though, you’ll find the Captiva only on the used-car market.

Or parked just outside the terminal, of course. Rental rates vary widely based on location and availability: I paid $56 a day to Budget Rent a Car at the Bentonville airport, where in the past I have rented midsize sedans for less than $25 a day.

And if, like me, you fail to grasp the logic of paying that much more for a crossover SUV while getting little extra in the way of seating or storage — well, that’s your problem.

Even with the disparity in rental rates, demand for small crossovers seems only to be increasing. Through October, sales of the Captiva Sport were up 33 percent from the period a year earlier, with more than 40,000 sold to fleet customers.

That owner’s manual may not be such a collector’s item after all.