AIRPORT RENT-A-CAR BARGAINS The so-called off-airport firms usually aren't so far off--and they're peddling cars at bargain rates.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Like some antic used-car dealer's lot, the U.S. rental car industry these days is touting bargains galore. Want a Lincoln Town Car for about $40, just three-fifths the standard rate for plain gray sedans? National, Budget, Dollar, and General are among those who will oblige if you reserve 24 hours in advance. How about an intermediate for $36 instead of the $59 you paid Hertz last week? At least four companies have it. The competition has never been hotter. Though Hertz, Avis, National, and Budget still dominate the market, the rapidly growing demand for borrowed wheels has spawned hundreds of smaller so-called off-airport outfits based in lots at the airports' peripheries. Many provide the wide ranges of cars that used to be offered only by the majors, and most offer corporate rates. Though the busier airports of the airline deregulation era have enlarged the car rental market, they've given the newcomers an edge by eroding a big advantage the majors used to hold. As airports get more congested, authorities are forcing on-airport firms to move their lots farther toward off-airport territory. Sometimes the newcomers, with their smaller fleets and lots, are actually closer than the majors. At the same time, the press of customers is increasingly crowding the majors' limited counter space, so service is slower. As a result, says Fred Mudgett, an industry consultant, ''it's a misconception that it's faster to rent from an on-airport firm. In some airports, like Los Angeles and O'Hare, it's faster to go with one that's off-airport.'' A quick call from the terminal brings pretty much the same kind of bus that Hertz and Avis use to ferry the traveler to a pickup point. Partly because of this competitive threat, the on-airport companies have been waging price-cutting and promotional kamikaze wars to hang onto their market shares. To the now familiar consumer goods giveaways, they're adding such attractions as cellular mobile telephones at some big-city locations; these typically go for under $10 a day and in some cases are free for the asking. They have tailored national rate schedules to local markets, reducing charges in many cities, and some have forged arrangements with airlines granting rental customers bonus miles in frequent-flier programs --though the newcomers are also starting to offer these. But the majors' rates are still generally higher, reflecting airport concession fees that run about 10% of local gross revenues. What follows are the results of a FORTUNE survey of ten firms. The rental rates, rounded to the nearest dollar, are recent average walk-up, weekday rates at 16 major airports in Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Unless otherwise noted, rates include unlimited mileage. Companies classify models differently, but intermediate cars generally include such nameplates as Oldsmobile Firenza, Ford Tempo, Buick Skylark, and Plymouth Reliant. A refueling charge is usually based on the difference between the full tank of gas the driver takes off with and what is left when he returns the car--it's likely to reflect the highest gas prices in the area. Extra collision % insurance, averaging about $7 a day, is optional for renters who don't want to risk paying for part of any damages--typically, $1,000 to $2,500. Ajax will also give you a $500 limit for $3.50; General provides no collision insurance at all unless you pay $6.95. Hertz (1,767 rental locations in 50 states). Intermediate-car rates at the 16 airports average $59 a day; rates on luxury models average $68. Hertz has frequent-flier arrangements with TWA, Pan Am, Eastern, United, Braniff, PSA, and Air Canada. Avis (1,204 rental locations in 50 states). Intermediates, $54; luxury models, $70. Avis has a frequent-flier arrangement with American. National (1,069 locations in 50 states). Intermediates, $53; luxury models, $67 (no luxury cars available at New York's JFK). The company also offers several luxury makes, including Cadillac Sedan DeVilles, at $42.95 with a 24- hour advance reservation (not available at JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark). National has frequent-flier arrangements with Delta, Northwest, and Republic. Budget (1,056 locations in 50 states). Intermediates, $51; luxury models, about the same. Budget offers a $39.95 Lincoln Town Car; an advance reservation is usually required, but in Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Washington, customers can walk up and get one if it's in stock. Frequent-flier arrangements with United, Ozark, Western, Air Canada, and CPAir. Dollar (406 locations in 50 states). Intermediates, $48; luxury models, $60 (no luxury cars available at Dallas-Fort Worth and St. Louis). Dollar offers a $39 Lincoln Town Car with a 24-hour advance reservation except in the New York City area. Thrifty (off-airport; 350 locations in 50 states). Intermediates, $42. Luxury cars available only at Seattle, for $47, and San Francisco, for $30. Elsewhere, until April 30, Thrifty claims to offer Chrysler Fifth Avenues for $29.99 at every airport except Miami, St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles, and Dallas-Fort Worth (and in the New York City area it's $4 extra). In most cities Thrifty uses a limousine instead of the usual courtesy van or bus to take passengers to the rental lots. Frequent-flier arrangements with Continental and Northwest. American International (off-airport; 234 locations in 44 states). Intermediates, $36; luxury, $49. Luxury models are available in only four of the 16 airports: Boston, Newark, St. Louis, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Ajax (off-airport, with 114 locations in 25 states; it doesn't rent in Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington's Dulles). Intermediates, $34; luxury cars, $43--but they're available only at Newark, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Rates include unlimited mileage except in the New York City area and St. Louis. Alamo (off-airport, with 43 locations in 12 states; rental sites at Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). Intermediates, $36; luxury, $45, although Alamo provides Buick Rivieras rather than Cadillacs or Lincolns. Also, unlike the others, Alamo charges $9.95 up front for the half tank of gas it supplies, and does not reimburse the driver for what's left when he returns the car. Alamo has a frequent-flier arrangement with Delta. Despite its parsimonious quirks, Alamo is apparently the fastest-growing rental car company in the U.S. General (off-airport, with 23 locations in six Sunbelt states; among the 16 airports surveyed, it serves only Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, and Los Angeles). Intermediates average $30; that includes unlimited mileage only within the rental area and neighboring states. General has just introduced a $39.95 Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac DeVille with a 24- hour advance reservation. The company has a frequent-flier arrangement with Eastern. ''Everyone offers good cars now,'' says Richard Dixon, Budget's vice president of marketing services. ''The difference comes down to where you can make the best deal.'' Well, not entirely: the majors still have more cars and more services, such as preprinted rental agreements and quick drop-off arrangements. But on the ground as well as in the air, airline deregulation is giving the customer more choices.