Our car, which looks deceptively fine from the outside.... Our car, which looks deceptively fine from the outside. (Sharon Carty)
There are times when a company name is just a company name. There isn't really a gal named Victoria who's got some big Secret. Neither Mrs. Butterworth nor Aunt Jemima were real women. And Betty Crocker: Also a fraud.

So when I went to rent a car from Rent-A-Wreck, I figured the name must just be a kitschy play on words, letting the company emphasize how cheap it could rent out cars by downplaying consumer expectations for what they'd be getting in a car.

How could this go wrong? Just two years ago, USA Today ran a story showing happy Rent-A-Wreck customers driving off the lot with shiny Hummers or like-new convertibles.

Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way.

I'd needed a car for a quick trip to New Jersey to attend my sister-in-law's baby shower. I procrastinated making the reservation. When crunch time hit, a few days before my trip, I checked online and Rent-A-Wreck was the only option that hit my budget. For two days, I got an economy car for $75.

The company's web site promises that its name is all part of their schtick. "Rest assured, our vehicles are more like the cars you drive everyday," the web site reads on its " About Us" page. "We keep our fleet of cars, trucks, and vans clean and well maintained; they are far from wrecks! We hope that our funny name helps you to remember us, and our low cost rentals and high quality customer service will earn and keep your business."

Thanks to their helpful description of what Rent-A-Wreck as all about, I was expecting an older, bare bones, bleh car.

That's not at all what I got.

At first glance, the slightly dented blue Chevy Cobalt was nothing special. It was missing hubcaps, and looked like it hadn't been washed in a year or two. But that's what I was expecting – not pretty, but otherwise fine. But when my daughter and I opened the doors, we both gasped.

I was peering into the back, hoping to drop our luggage on the back seat. But the grey cloth bench seat was grimy. Tie-dyed in dirt. There was a large soft drink cup tossed on the floor, surrounded by an unknown liquid. On the other side of the car, the floor mat was sickly yellow and black. I don't know why.

My 12-year-old daughter, who usually has a plethora of adjectives to describe any situation, just said, "Ewww."

That's because the front was just simply rank. Other people's dirt was caked under the emergency brake and in the cupholders. There was a blue mystery liquid in the coin holder. Paint was chipping off the radio (which we quickly learned didn't work anyway.) The windshield wiper controls were held on with black electrical tape. Someone, or something, had chewed off the passenger door lock. We paused to consider how that happened, and just decided it wasn't worth the potentially scarring mental images.

On the plus side, it didn't smell as bad as it looked, thanks to the three Christmas tree deodorizers hanging off the mirror. So there was that.

It was, sadly, too late to turn back. We were picking up that car at a parking lot off the airport grounds, about 15 miles or so from the Rent-A-Wreck office in Scotch Plains, which had closed at 1 p.m. It was now 4 p.m. I made a furtive call to Hertz, thinking that $250 for a weekend now seemed pretty reasonable.

But, alas, Hertz somehow sensed I was over the barrel. Now they wanted $450.

So the junker was ours.

I put the key in the ignition, and the car started. It was quiet, but a little shaky. Every 30 seconds or so, it would shudder. But it was running. Again, another item for the plus column.

Rent-A-Wreck is a company in transition, says Jason Manelli, head of marketing and lead spokesman for the company. Stories like the one in USA Today show where the company wants to be going.

The company was purchased in 2006 by Fitzgerald Auto Mall, a large, private dealer conglomerate. The new owners want Rent-A-Wreck be a cheaper alternative to chain rental companies, chartering out used cars instead of the new ones traditional rental companies lend out.

Among the changes is a push to doing business on the Internet. In a new initiative, customers can book their rentals online, and Rent-A-Wreck is pushing its deals through travel site Kayak.com, which is where I found them.

But with 183 franchises, the company is struggling to get all of its franchise owners to make the necessary changes needed to improve Rent-A-Wreck's reputation.

"We have spent the last five years attempting to improve the quality of the vehicles we provide, but we let one slip through with you," said Manelli, who seemed deeply apologetic about the car we rented. The car I received was an aberration, he argued. It was at the end of its time in the rental fleet, and should've been retired. "One franchisee running that type of vehicle does hurt everybody."

It's clear the company's push for quality hasn't yet trickled down to all of Rent-A-Wreck's franchises. One franchise owner near the Miami airport is no longer allowed to rent to people flying into town, because of all the complaints the company received. Other franchise owners have had their franchise licenses with Rent-A-Wreck revoked, Manelli said.

But the one near the Newark airport is trying to get better, he said, so Rent-A-Wreck is giving them a chance.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the New Jersey interstate system, I couldn't help but think about Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two sisters who died in a rental car that had been recalled but never fixed. I seriously wondered if any repairs had ever been made to this car, and if I was an idiot for letting my daughter drive along with me as a passenger.

A new car rental safety bill, named after the Houck sisters, is expected to pass by the end of the year, forcing all rental companies to make needed repairs before lending cars out to consumers. Manelli admitted this could be a problem for Rent-A-Wreck, because recall notices don't go to used car owners, they only go to the first car owner.

"We're really trying to figure out how we're going to tackle this," he said. "There's a lot of stuff about the law we're not sure how we're going to handle, and it's difficult to comprehend."

My daughter and I drove in silence for a while. That's partially because the radio was broken, and partially because the car didn't instill much confidence. I'd hit the gas, and it took a second or two to decide if it really wanted to accelerate. Like a slightly wheezy asthmatic, it would finally give in.

Every time I tried to use the indicator, it would flash once or twice, and then give up. Sometimes, if we hit a bump, the indicator would flash into action, even if we weren't planning on turning.

"We should sing," my daughter said.

Yes, of course. We should sing. I suggested one of our favorites from "Wicked!" It took us a little while, between the belly laughs and attempts at rhyming, to really get the lyrics right, but we finally got something good:

"Loathing, unadulterated loathing
This car is making me all itchy
Let's just say, we loathe it all!
We're pretty sure this car is full of bugs,
and that mold spot could be poisonous ..."

We had some good laughs, at the expense of the car. It became the butt of jokes at the baby shower we attended, and my daughter at one point, optimistically, said she thought it had gotten cleaner while we had left it parked outside a swanky shopping mall.

"Or maybe it's just because it's dark out and I can't see any of the dirt," she said.

I'm sure Manelli and his colleagues wouldn't want their company be the butt of any family jokes. He offered to refund the cost of my rental for the inconvenience, but I declined.

"I'm sorry you had the experience you did," he said. "It really doesn't reflect on the vast majority of the vehicles in our fleet. I would invite you to rent from that same office or any other office."

Bottom line: I will rent from Rent-A-Wreck again in the future, if only to test Manelli's theory that my experience was an aberration. Otherwise, I'd suggest researching carefully to see how many complaints are logged online about each franchise before renting from Rent-A-Wreck.

Here are some more photos of the rental:

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