Silvercar is a new rental car service with a fleet entirely composed of silver Audi A4 sedans. Their aim is to make renting a car simpler and more cost-efficient — a goal at which they succeed to some extent. In November, Silvercar’s PR reached out to offer a me a few free rentals for trying out their service. I actually lost the email at first but dug it out soon enough for a trip to San Francisco, where I needed a car to drive to my dad’s house in Sonoma County.
Beyond SFO, Silvercar can also be found at LAX, DFW, Dallas/Love Field, and Austin. I have some mixed impressions of that first rental experience that I hope are limited to the San Francisco location and will report again after trying it at a few other airports. I expect LAX and Austin will be my next two destinations.
San Francisco Needs Work
Before we get to the car, why do I think San Francisco was a unique case? It’s the only obvious location where Silvercar has managed to make renting a car even more difficult than using a traditional competitor like National Car Rental (my usual favorite). I had to take my bag to the airport train, ride to the main car rental facility, take the elevator down to the street, and wait for Silvercar’s shuttle — before we drove five miles in rush hour traffic on US 101 to pick up the car. With National, I walk off the train, pick a car with the keys in the ignition, and drive out of the garage.
I have no doubt my experience is not Silvercar’s goal and that they have some reason, unknown to me, for their operational choices at SFO. At one point trying to make a booking for a future date I was told they were sold out due to “limited beta service,” which is a clue. At other locations they also have shuttles to an off-site facility or to a central rental car facility — LAX and DFW are examples — but so does every other rental car company, so I don’t hold it against them. And at some airports the service is markedly better than the competition; visit Austin and they’ll pick you up at the curb.
Get a Better Ride for Less
The car itself is pretty nice. It handles better than my Honda Civic and has a nifty GPS. But I can’t convincingly sell you on using Silvercar just because of the car. I am not a car guy. I drive at or below the speed limit. I listen to the same radio station on every trip — or no radio at all. (I once forgot to turn it on during a 400-mile solo trip.) Cars are just there for ground transportation.
Of course, if you are the sort who normally upgrades your rental car or who already has a luxury vehicle at home, Silvercar might make a lot of sense. Their prices are fairly competitive. You won’t be paying a cheap, economy class rate, but doing a few test bookings I was still able to find weekend rentals for around $70 a day.
That’s not bad. I’ve seen luxury upgrade offers that are $50-75 on top of what I already reserved. Or maybe $100 if I were to book one up front. And I would still get some American car like a Chrysler 300. I’d rather have the Audi.
Get a Better Rental Experience — In Some Ways…
Silvercar does a lot of things besides the car that I do like and which encourage me to give them another shot — just not at SFO.
Start with a simple refueling policy. I hate refueling my rental car before returning it, yet I refuse on principle to let the rental car company do it for me. They either want to (1) charge me double the market rate to replace just the gas I use or (2) charge me the market rate but for a full tank regardless of how much I drive. Silvercar has a flat $5 filling fee and otherwise charges you the market rate for the gas you need. My receipt showed a price of $3.95/gallon, which is about right for premium fuel in that area.
I also like that Silvercar keeps some of the features I enjoy using as an elite member of major rental car agencies. Since all the cars are the same, there’s no concern about getting stuck with a lemon. I was assigned a car at SFO, but this is not much different from picking your own car like I usually do from National’s Emerald Aisle. Usually such privileges require the elite status that comes with being a frequent renter or having a certain credit card, so Silvercar gets some credit for offering a similar experience to everyone.
Third, I’m sure that some of Silvercar’s strategy in keeping a homogenous fleet is to keep costs down and lower the price for a luxury car rental. Kudos. They could do the same with a fleet of Honda Civics and I’d be happy, but it probably wouldn’t grab the same attention. It also means they can offer more complimentary features like in-dash GPS because such things are normally built into luxury cars rather than as some add-on device with its own add-on fee.
Finally, I like the simple toll-tracking system. Like gas, you pay for the tolls you use. There’s no extra fee. It’s not the tolls I mind, but the fact that I’m not used to them, don’t have change, and don’t want to get hit with some massive processing charge for inadvertently using one that requires a transponder. All Silvercars have transponders, and they’re always turned on.
Fancy Apps Don’t Impress Me
I’m not so wild about the other tech-savvy features, but that’s a more personal opinion. Silvercar makes heavy use of its mobile app to do everything from book a rental, tell them you’ve landed, and check your car in and out. I would rather book online (you can). And it’s hard to teach a phone to provide customer service: When the “concierge” arrived to pick me up at SFO, where I was the only person standing at the curb, she sat in the car looking at her phone rather than get out to greet me.
And one feature that confuses me a bit is the free WiFi. The car has it built in, so they give you the password when you pick it up. But I can’t say I’ve ever needed WiFi in a rental car. You shouldn’t be using it when you drive. A passenger could use it, though a lot of people have smart phones, probably an even larger proportion of Silvercar’s target audience. Why not just tether an iPhone to your laptop?
Summary and 30% Discount
So like I said, my first impression is mixed. Silvercar has good potential and may very well work flawlessly at some other airports. I don’t think San Francisco is one of them. I guess it’s good they gave me more than one free rental then, right?! I’m interested to hear if anyone else has tried them, at SFO or elsewhere, and had a different experience.
when you make your booking.
Disclosure: Silvercar provided me with a free rental, though I still had to pay $20 in taxes and for any fuel I used. There was no requirement that I write a review of the service.