Karen Moawad saw the numbers written in ink on the upholstery of a 2007 Mercury Montego she rented from Hertz last week and wasn't surprised.
Moawad, the CEO of a management consulting company in Bainbridge Island, Wash., says the cars she rents usually have a "filthy" interior or water spots that blocks windows and exterior mirrors.
Car rental companies say they work hard to provide clean cars. Hertz says dirty cars rank low in customer complaints, and it received high scores for rental car cleanliness and appearance in a survey by marketing information firm J.D. Power and Associates last year.
But an inquiry on the subject to some of the 1,500 people on the USA TODAY Road Warrior panel, including Moawad, found many who aren't buying it. "There has definitely been a deterioration in standards," Moawad says. Not so, say the rental companies.
Hertz Vice President Richard Broome says the company monitors the cleanliness of its cars daily. "We have not noticed any deterioration of service," he says.
At Avis and Budget, car cleanliness "is one of the highest priorities," says Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for the affiliated companies.
Responding to what McGowan called "a small increase" in the number of complaints about the cleanliness of car interiors last year, Avis and Budget changed the quality assurance checklist that workers follow for each rental. By assuring greater attention to cleanliness, McGowan says, complaints have decreased and overall consumer satisfaction has improved.
The eight largest car rental companies, which include Hertz, Avis and Budget, told USA TODAY that they wash the exterior and clean the interior of every vehicle before each rental.
But many renters are unconvinced. Ron Goltsch, an electrical engineer in Parsippany, N.J., says 42 of 44 vehicles he's rented from Avis, Budget and Hertz in 2006 and 2007 were dirty.
"Some needed vacuuming. Some did not have the trunk cleaned. Some had previous renters' stuff in the console or glove box," he says. "All had a windshield that looked like it was rarely, if ever, cleaned on the inside."
Goltsch, who has been traveling regularly on business since 1986, says unclean cars were once a rarity. But during "the last four to five years, I have seen a serious decline in car cleanliness in the U.S."
Gerald Steele, a software consultant in Grovetown, Ga., says he's getting more cars with dirt and stains on seats and the carpet because vehicles are staying in rental fleets longer. "Many of the cars I have rented this year have in excess of 20,000 miles," he says.
Auto rental consultant Neil Abrams says rental companies are keeping vehicles "a couple of months" longer than in the past, but he doesn't believe renters are receiving more dirty ones than years ago. "It's doubtful that there's an inherent problem," he says. "Each brand has quality assurance standards."
Many renters complain that rental vehicles are not properly dried after they are washed, leaving streaks or water spots on the windshield, windows and mirrors.
Avis and Budget "don't have a mandatory procedure in place" for drying cars, McGowan says. "It is dependent on the type of car-washing facility that we have in each location."
Some Dollar and Thrifty car rental locations have dryers, but others do not, says Chris Payne, a spokesman for the two companies. A vehicle may be left to drip dry, he says.
There are dryers at some National and Alamo car rental locations, spokesman Charles Pulley says. At other locations, "The vehicle body might still be wet," but "critical visibility areas" such as the windshield and mirrors are hand-dried, he says.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car dries vehicles "in most markets," spokeswoman Christy Conrad says.
Travelers say they have rented vehicles with ice or snow on mirrors or windows. David Condon, chairman of a consulting company in West Haven, Conn., says he recently rented a Ford Expedition from Hertz in Chicago, and, "There was so much ice and snow frozen on the rear door, I was unable to use it for the duration of the rental." Steele, the Georgia consultant, says he's encountered the same problem in places where rental lots are uncovered, such as airports in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Hertz's policy, Broome says, is to clear snow and ice from vehicles before rental.
Dollar and Thrifty aim to provide cars "that are free of ice and snow," but "we are faced with the same harsh winter realities that our customers face," Payne says. "Chances are, if it's snowing or sleeting, the car is going to have snow or sleet on the windows."
Condon, who rents cars about three days a week, says he's been getting more dirty or worn rental cars during the past six months. But he praises Hertz because when he has complained about dirty rental cars, he has "gotten immediate attention, and the car has either been replaced or cleaned."