Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Tips for rental car drivers

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For people who are in the market to buy a car, or those who rent cars frequently, getting used to a new vehicle can be a challenge.

I experience this feeling once a week or so when a new test vehicle lands in the Sturgis family driveway.

One thing never fails: I get a car with the strangest controls on the days I’m in the biggest hurry. Nissan, Ford and Chrysler seem to be most at odds with where I think things should go, although Fiat gets honorable mention as the car company that left me hunting for the door locks for 15 minutes late at night in a Philadelphia parking lot.

But there are some tricks that almost all carmakers have adapted to clue you in, if you’re observant enough.

Can’t find the gas tank? I recall at one point we had a random collection of motley vehicles — a Plymouth Reliant, a (Mitsubishi-made) Plymouth Colt Vista, and then finally moved up to a Chevrolet Celebrity wagon.

Between the three of them, half the time I’d be driving up to the gas pump and have to turn around because I’d pulled in on the wrong side. (Sometimes I’d just give up and stretch the hose, but often that won’t work, and I’d be even more embarrassed than before.)

Frequent renters also know the red face that comes with fuel filler ignorance.

But there’s a little trick for knowing where the gas tank door is before driving up to the wrong side of the pump at the Sheetz.

Look at your gas gauge. Almost every car has a little triangle somewhere in the vicinity of the E and the F. The triangle points toward the side with the filler door.

Keep the cap. Here’s another trick aimed at making your refueling experience as positive as it can be.

When I first had a car with the gas cap tethered to the fuel filler neck, I thought, “What a great idea. No more missing caps.”

But many cars have a way to keep the cap with the car even without the plastic tether.

Many fuel filler doors have a couple of pieces of metal protruding from them shaped like, I don’t know, a robot pair of arms? Is the light bulb finally coming on?

Think of the arms as a pair of helping hands to hold your gas cap. Don’t feel bad; I had to have this pointed out for me.

I do confess, though, the recently deceased Driver’s Seat family Mazda MPV did not have this handy device. And the tether broke about a year before I sold it. (I know — it’s pretty sad when a car guy is too lazy or cheap to go buy a new plastic strip to hold his gas cap in, but there you go.)

Is this really a 2011? Say you’re buying a car from a dealer or private party who for whatever reason just makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

It’s a sweet ride, but maybe you can save yourself a lot of time and heartache and find a dealbreaker before you get emotionally invested.

Once upon a time, I could glance at just about any vehicle and tell you year, make and model, but the year has become more of a challenge recently as carmakers keep styling fairly similar from year to year.

If you want to be certain you’re not being lied to about something as basic as the year of the car, here’s an easy guide.

On the driver’s side in the lower corner of the windshield, you’ll find the vehicle identification number through the glass riveted to the dashboard. It has been 17 digits long since the 1981 model year, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required standardization of the numbers, according to Still, it can be fairly cumbersome, and the typeface is something out of the Univac, so it’s hard to read.

But there in the 10th place, you’ll find the key to the year of the vehicle. The year 2000 ended the alphabet at Y, and 2001-9 are numbers 1 through 9 respectively. (2001 = 1; 2002 = 2; and so on.)

The alphabet restarted with the 2010 model year, at A. The letters I, O, Q, U or Z are not used, according to Edmunds.

Of course, the VIN holds scads of other information, but that’s for another column.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

“Wheels,” a special advertising supplement, appears inside today’s Post-Gazette.

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