Why I’ll always check the VIN before renting a car

Feb 22, 2021

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Before I bought a used car last year, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of a vehicle identification number (VIN). But between shopping for a car, reviewing accident and service history reports and getting the vehicle insured, registered and inspected, I became very familiar with this 17-character string of digits and letters.

A car’s VIN is basically its social security number — an alphanumeric thumbprint, if you will — and no two vehicles have the same identifying code.

This number can tell you a lot about a car, from where and when it was last serviced to the number of owners, damage history, manufacturer recalls and more.

Unless you’re shopping for a previously owned vehicle, you may not think twice about a car’s VIN and the type of information it can reveal.

But after a recent car rental experience, I’ve decided I won’t even rent a car for a weekend without checking the VIN first.

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Knowing your vehicle

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy)

For a recent trip to the Catskills of New York, my friend and I decided to rent a four- or all-wheel-drive vehicle. There was snow in the forecast, and we were worried about driving on mountainous back roads in my little sedan.

Getting the exact vehicle you request is almost never a guarantee when you rent a car, but we decided to make a game-time decision depending on what was available when we arrived at the car rental agency.

I was given the key to a 2020 Jeep Compass (a compact SUV that’s available with either a front- or four-wheel drivetrain) and confirmed with the agent multiple times that the car I was renting was the latter.

And, after a quick exterior inspection of the vehicle, off we went.

As expected, it snowed during our trip. And one night, while going to pick up dinner, the vehicle really struggled.

I grew up in the Northeast, and though every vehicle has its limits, I was pretty disappointed in the car’s performance. There wasn’t that much snow at the time, and it just wasn’t handling like the four- and all-wheel drive vehicles I’ve driven in the past. My friend, who was behind the wheel, could feel it losing traction.

And when we got stuck in our hotel’s moderately steep driveaway, I started to get really suspicious. Perhaps this car required the four-wheel-drive to be manually activated? But it had no obvious “snow mode” or differential lock to engage.

My friend left to get assistance, and I stayed with the car in the passenger seat. And then the car began to slide backward. I launched myself into the driver’s seat and slammed on the brake. (Confession: My first instinct was to open the door and jump out. But I had a change of heart.) This, I thought, must be why the highway is plastered with signs warning drivers to never abandon disabled vehicles.

We had to get help to get the car out of the driveway, and decided it wasn’t safe to drive the vehicle out until after the snow had stopped and the roads were clear, forcing us to spend an extra night in the Catskills — bummer! But this was not the rugged, all-weather adventure mobile I expected, or thought I paid for.

Related: How AutoSlash can save you up to 77% on car rentals

Investigating the VIN

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy.)

The next morning, I went out to find the car’s VIN so I could look up all its specifications.

Depending on the vehicle, the VIN can be located in any number of spots. In my car, it’s on both the front of the dashboard and on a sticker on a door jamb. But you could even find it on the engine block or steering column, among other places.

I found the Jeep’s VIN on the driver’s side door jamb. Later, I realized the VIN was also in my rental agreement, so you can probably ask the car rental agency for this information and save yourself some time.

Using a quick, free VIN-check service, I was able to ascertain two things: The Jeep I’d rented was a front-wheel-drive vehicle. And there had also been a recall on the windshield wipers.

Related: Best credit cards for rental car coverage

Looking at even an abbreviated VIN report before signing a rental agreement can give you important information about the vehicle you’re about to drive out of the lot. Had I done this before, I would have known the agent was misinformed, and that I was paying for a front-wheel-drive vehicle (which I already own, thank you very much). I would have also had access to important safety and recall information.

As recently as 2015, it was legal to rent out a car with an open, unrepaired recall. That’s no longer the case, but it doesn’t hurt to be proactive as a renter and confirm that any recalls have been addressed. Plus, just because a car has been repaired doesn’t mean it won’t have issues down the, ahem, road. As a driver, it’s important to know what types of issues you might encounter during the drive — even if it’s something as simple as a loose windshield wiper.

Related: How to never pay full price for a rental car

Bottom line

We’ve all been there: You’re eager to hit the road, and you give your rental car a cursory glance to make sure it has four wheels before signing the rental car agreement and taking off. Maybe you don’t even check that the car has a full tank of gas, as promised (guilty).

But it’s important to take a breath and give the vehicle a thorough inspection before your trip. If drivetrain is your specific concern, you can (and should) always first look to see if the car has an emblem that specifically says AWD (all-wheel-drive), 4WD or 4×4 (four-wheel-drive). Usually, you’ll see this on the rear of a vehicle.

Personally,  I’ll always use the car’s VIN to ascertain exactly what type of vehicle I’m renting, and if there are any other safety concerns I should know about. After all, if I’d returned the car with a wobbly windshield wiper, it’s a lot easier to convince the agent it’s not your fault if you can point to the car’s recall history.

Feature photo by Colors Hunter – Chasseur de Couleurs / Getty Images.

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