Business Travel: Why not hire a car with a touch more style?

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The Independent Online
SO YOU'RE flying to Geneva to set up a mega-bucks deal. It's vital you come across as dynamic and forward-thinking ... but also a bit of a maverick, someone prepared to break out of the corporate box. You've got the suit, Paul Smith. You're in a stylish lakeside hotel rather than the one by the airport. But what are you going to drive?

The rental company is suggesting a Ford Scorpio or Opel Omega. OK cars, but not quite what you have in mind. What you want is something like a Ferrari 550 Maranello or a Porsche 911.

Even a Mercedes SLK would do, at a pinch.

For a price, a substantial price, there are companies who can supply Europe's finest supercars. One such is Auto Europe, a New England-based company which acts as an agent to book cars, flights, hotels and even complete package trips. Looking down its list of available wheels is enough to get any car enthusiast revving: BMW's cute Z3 cabriolet, Porsche's stylish Boxster, Ferrari 355GTS - as well as Ferrari's range-topper, the 550 Maranello, and Germany's finest, the 911.

But if $1,729 for a week's hire of a BMW Z3 - the Ferrari 355GTS is a credit card incinerating $6,419 - is pushing the boat out too far, or if your travel manager insists that you stick with a mainstream rental company such as Budget or Avis, just ask to see the list of vehicle types.

Most car rental companies are either tied by ownership to one of the major car manufacturers, or locked into deals. But with car companies desperate to hype up their image, most have real surprises lurking in their ranges.

Budget, for instance, is tied to Ford and Fiat but ask to see its list of "Specialty Vehicles" and there are some gems. Fiat's chic little Punto Cabriolet doesn't have much luggage space but can carry four adults and is surprisingly inexpensive. Ford's under-rated Probe sports coupe is no use whatsoever if you need to carry more than two people, but has a massive boot and, with a 2.5 litre V6 engine, enough poke to seriously burn rubber.

If you're the rugged outdoors type, rather than a boy-racer or ageing playboy, then Budget, along with most of the other rental companies, has a selection of 4x4s. In Budget's case it's the unloved Ford Maverick but check if the US built 4.0-litre Explorer has made it to the list - it's a blast!

Of course, if the business you're conducting is somewhere less urban than Geneva, Paris or Frankfurt, a 4x4 might be essential. Avis, for instance, has offices in 140 countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe, Latvia to Macedonia, Anguilla to the Turks & Caicos Islands, and even Raratonga, otherwise known as the Cook Islands. Here you can hire a Suzuki Samurai - bit of a hairdresser's car in the UK but its four-wheel-drive could prove useful if it's the rainy season and your destination is down a dirt track.

For ultimate car choice, inevitably you need to be in the US, where your wheels say more about you than that Italian briefcase. All of the major rental companies have convertibles, 4x4s and the lower end performance cars on their lists as well as "Yank Tanks". Avoid these like the plague. They're no fun to drive, hell to park and guzzle the gas - petrol might be cheaper but distances covered can be huge.

Check the vehicle lists: "Oldsmobile 88" leaps out of Avis's catalogue, one of the most famous fast saloons, now somewhat emasculated in performance but fully equipped including a Satellite Navigation Guidance System. Plot your start and finish points, and then listen to the route instructions, updated automatically as your proceed. Even if you make a mistake and turn left instead of right, the system will correct itself.

Try to shake off your travel manager, and book the car yourself via the internet - the US has totally embraced the web as a means of booking travel. If you're San Francisco bound, try Specialty Car Rental where the latest Chevy Corvette - a true modern day muscle car - can be found alongside Mercedes' US-built new ML320 sports utility (4x4s to you and me), not available in Europe yet.

For the real exotica, Beverley Hills Rent-a-car lives up to its location with Porsches, Ferraris, Honda NSX - and also some real American heavy metal. For out and out presence, little beats the Dodge Viper RT/10, a fixed-head coupe with an 8.0-litre V10 truck engine up front. To show you know your cars, however, take the Saleen Mustang. Breathed on by Californian tuning company Saleen, its 5.0-litre V8 has virtually doubled its power and it handles well too.

Tighter budgets should give Rent-A-Wreck a ring. It has branches all over the US offering less-than-brand new cars at less-than-normal rates. There's nothing wrong with the cars, apart from being a few years old, often painted a poor-selling colour like brown, and you can pick up some real bargains.

Back in the UK, first stop for an interesting car is Bespokes, where classic cars rub wings with the latest sports cars: Fifties, MGA Roadster, Sixties Jaguar Mark 11, `70s Porsche 911SC, Eighties Ferrari 328GTS right up to a brand new Lotus Elise, MGF and the BMW Z3.

But to really surprise your colleagues, hire a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It's easy to ride and lots of fun, can be justified as necessary to beat the traffic and virtually all the rental companies offer the American icon in Europe, the US and Australia. It won't turn you into Peter Fonda overnight, but it could do wonders for your image in the boardroom.

Get out on the Highway

Avis

Tel: 0990 900500; www.avis.com

Bespokes (UK)

Tel: 0181 421 8686

Fax: 0181 421 8588

www.bespokes.co.uk

Specialty Car Rental (US)

Tel: 00 1 415 433 6500; www.specialtyrentals.com

Budget

Tel: 0541 565656

www.budgetrentacar.com

Metal Horse

Tel: 01959 532727

Fax: 01959 532773 www.metalhorse.co.uk

Rent-A-Wreck

(Offices all over the US)

Tel: (in Los Angeles) 00 1 310 478 0676

www.rent-a-wreck.com

Beverley Hills Rent-a-car (US)

Tel: 00 1 310 337 1400

Fax: 00 1 310 337 0231

www.bhrentacar.com

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