The last time I got on a plane was December 29, 2019. I had flown from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri three days prior to meet my boyfriend’s family for the first time. We’d been together just long enough that flying to meet the whole fandamily at once over the holidays wasn’t especially strange.

A few months after that visit to Kansas, COVID-19 made its way to the United States en masse and travel as we knew it was put on hold. While we did manage to see both of our families in 2020, thanks to careful quarantining ahead of visits, we relied on logging miles in the car, an environment over which we had total control.

My first Kansas trip didn’t require a rental car. Even though “home” in Kansas is an hour from the airport, we borrowed one of the family’s Ford-based trucksters to get around for the minimal driving we did in 2019. I took a tour of downtown in a 2017 Ford Expedition and met all the brothers and their partners in a 2007 Lincoln MKX.

But this trip was different. I wanted to see my other half’s college town, which involved a day trip. We were planning to log a good number of miles, and to make life easier, I grabbed my phone and made a reservation.

When COVID-19 hit, the Hertzes and Enterprises of the world suddenly had a massive excess of cars with almost no renters on the books. Fleets sold their inventory in huge numbers, providing good deals for anyone looking to buy Grand Caravans and Malibus in bulk. This, of course, has left rental agencies with few cars to rent as travel picks up substantially.

My Avis reservation was, of course, inordinately expensive. Lack of inventory means high prices, and most rental outlets wanted to charge upwards of $450 for the privilege of driving a Kia Soul Or Similar for five days. I have an Avis Preferred membership through my day job, and it cut the cost down to about $240.

2021 mazda3 select Avis Preferred

Rental Perspectives: Avis Preferred Has Changed

In the past, Avis Preferred has allowed me to land at my destination and see a list of four or five cars to choose from for my actual rental. The premise is that “hey, these three will all cost the same and here’s another one or two that are a bit extra, if you want.” You pick the car on your phone app as you’re walking off the plane, skip the Avis counter, and head straight to the parking space with your desired ride. It is the ultimate form of Rental Car Roulette.

This has worked out well in the past, with upgrades from more basic reservations to a Dodge Charger R/T, Ford Edge Titanium, and a Ford Fusion Hybrid. I figured booking a “Compact” class of car was risky, but had good luck in the past with these upgrades and hoped it would work out again.

It didn’t.

We touched down from the first leg of our flight – there are no direct flights from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City right now – and as I disabled Airplane Mode, my iPhone lit up immediately. “Welcome to Avis. Your Nissan Versa is located in space D05.”

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I’ve got nothing against the 2021 Nissan Versa; in fact, Nissan has made some upgrades to the model that seem pretty nice on the surface. I just had these grand dreams of cruising down I-70 in a Chrysler 300 or something equally long-wheelbased and comfy-chaired. In any case, I couldn’t see other options as we weren’t in Kansas City yet. I stewed in my feelings for another 90 minutes as we flew from Atlanta to Kansas City, hoping I’d re-open the Avis app and Stellantis’ finest rear-drive sedans would fall from the heavens.

They didn’t.

As we took a short bus ride from the terminal to the rental car “depot,” I could only choose from two expensive upgrades – a Ford Edge for another $26 per day, or a Kia Sportage for another $50 per day. I approached the rental car counter and figured it didn’t hurt to ask a real human about other options.

“I was just curious if you had anything that you were trying to get rid of or if there were other options beyond the Versa,” was my question to the woman at the counter. She checked her computer, or at least pretended to, and apologized for the lack of selection. The Versa was it.

We walked out to D05 and opened the doors. Immediately, we were hit with the smell of someone who saw the “$450 fine for smoking” stickers on the car’s windows and had no cares left to give. The Versa stank. I walked back inside, knowing that what I was about to tell the same Avis woman would sound ridiculous, having just asked for another car. “I’m really sorry to do this but this thing reeks of cigarettes, are you sure there’s nothing else here?”

Somehow, a 2021 Mazda3 was made available. We took it. It was filthy, having not been through the wash bay yet, but it didn’t smell.

Driving Perspectives: On the 2021 Mazda3 More People Will Buy

Getting loans to review cars direct from manufacturers is a treat. Each manufacturer carefully equips their media loan vehicles with colors and options that put the absolute best foot forward and show off every new update or feature for the model year. Most of the time, that means we get top-trim fully-loaded vehicles to review. It’s all very fun, but I do question how many people are buying the top trim, especially in the case of a compact car like the Mazda3. Mazda was unable to confirm sales figures by trim level.

The 2021 Mazda3 that Avis gave us was a sedan in Select trim. That meant we got a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter four-cylinder, not the turbocharged variant. “Select” is toward the lower end of the Mazda3 spectrum, but gives you 18″ wheels, “advanced” keyless entry, and blind spot monitoring. Our Jet Black sedan came with black leatherette covering manually-adjusting seats. The sound system was unbranded, but controlled by the same Mazda Connect infotainment that supports CarPlay and Android Auto.

2021 mazda3 select Avis Preferred

MSRP of the 2021 Mazda3 Select sedan we drove was roughly $23,845. After putting 350 miles on the car, I came away just as impressed as I have been with the all-wheel drive Premium Plus models I’ve reviewed, in both turbocharged and naturally-aspirated form.

Yes, the non-turbocharged engine has to work hard at times. Kansas interstates are straight, flat, and relatively fast, with speed limits up to 75 miles per hour and real speeds a bit higher. The Mazda3 was a comfortable cruiser, and its 186 horsepower and 186 lb-ft were both sufficient, if not excessive. The lack of boost did not pair well to the transmission’s logic, though, as it upshifted to second early around town and fell on its face if you then tried to accelerate any harder. Sport mode was the answer, as it held gears longer and allowed the engine to make more power.

On the highway, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist – standard all the way down to the base “S” trim – reduced some of the mental fatigue that comes with long interstate drives. Road and wind noise were better than average for a compact car, and seat adjustability and comfort were both high points. The dour black-on-black color scheme made the interior insanely hot during our visit, which coincided with a series of 100°+ days. Stepping up to the Preferred trim allows a “Greige” option (it’s truly named Greige) to lighten things up a bit.

2021 mazda3 select Avis Preferred black interior

Travel Perspectives: Rental Cars Stick With You

Car people seem to catalogue memories based on what they were driving. Or what someone else was driving. It’s how we remember people, even. And when you reminisce about travel, the rental cars you experienced are a part of those memories.

I remember my aunt and uncle showing up from Texas for Thanksgiving in a horribly-plasticky Pontiac Grand Am. I remember sharing the back seat of a Chrysler Sebring convertible with a suitcase in Oahu, because I begged Mom and Dad to upgrade our rental and then our luggage didn’t quite fit. I remember landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor with my parents, being presented with a Fiat 500 as our “compact” rental, and the counter agent scrambling to find us something with an actual trunk. I think we got a Focus instead.

The memories made in this Mazda3 will also stick with me. We explored “the Little Apple” for the day, stopping for a peanut-butter-and-pickle-smothered cheeseburger (it was fantastic), taking a mostly-driving 100-degree tour of campus with the A/C cranked, and pausing for a quick detour to a scenic overlook. Dinner with two friends – who we’d only seen over FaceTime in the last year – capped off the day.

The sun was setting. I put the Mazda in Drive and pointed it east on I-70, cruise control set at 83 miles per hour. It was time to get some sleep and make hand-cranked ice cream the following day.

We could have had the same trip in any other rental car. The keys you’re handed at the counter are just an enabler for the memories and perspectives to come. But I think I’ll remember this Mazda3 as part of our trip for quite some time. And having reviewed two high-trim Mazda3 models allowed me to put this more-attainable variant in perspective as we drained its gas tank.

New cars in general are becoming more and more expensive. Loan terms are getting longer and longer. There’s a decent number of folks for which a $24,000 new car is far more attainable than a $34,000 new car. And while there are other options at the sub-$25k price point, they usually follow the cheap-and-cheerful ideology.

That ideology is a fun one, for sure, but Mazda has taken a different approach, attempting to offer a premium vibe for reasonable money. It’s great to see how much of that amplified, elevated concept still persists at a lower trim level and price point.

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