Zipcar: Ripoff

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a company that let you use an automobile whenever you needed one, for affordable rates? It would almost be like a public service. And if they had trendy new cars to choose from, you might even forget you were driving on a budget.

Unless it turned out to be a bait-and-switch deal. Say, for instance, that the company advertised rates ”

from $7.20

” per hour, but when you tried to get a car, the cheapest one—a

compact hatchback

—was $11.70.

This is Zipcar. What thumbnailed out as $32 worth of errands, at the advertised rate, turned out to be $56 worth, plus fees. Meaning the driver makes sure to keep the reservation short, meaning that the whole time on the open road is spent watching the clock to get home for curfew. (Late fees: $50 per hour.) Savor the driving freedom!

Or, broken out another way, a subscription that seems to be for more than 10 hours of driving, at the advertised rates, is actually good for less than six and a half.

The Zipcar business model, then, is less about providing a useful service at an affordable price, and more about identifying a vulnerable subscriber base and finding ways to bleed it. What else are you gonna do? It’s still cheaper than a standard all-day car rental, right? It’s much cheaper than a car payment plus big-city insurance rates plus $250 a month in parking.

Like the banking industry, the car-rental industry thrives on putting you in your place. Don’t want to upgrade your vacation rental car? Enjoy the walk to the far corner of the lot, where they keep the Kias.

And so despite the Mini Coopers and iPod jacks and the brand halo of groovy righteousness, Zipcar basically occupies the same role as a

payday-loan company

. If you could afford better options, you wouldn’t be there.