"Oh, our app won't work on this phone."
So said the sufficiently tattooed 20-something attendant at the airplane hangar-like facility of Silvercar out in the plains just east of the Colorado Rockies. And so went a car-rental experience that ended far better than it started.
In what I was sure would come off as a transparent effort to drive a car substantially nicer than my own, I talked my bosses into letting me eschew the typical econo-box while on a trip to cover the Mountain Travel Symposium in Keystone, Colo., in April, and to try out Silvercar.
Positioned as a departure from the standard car-rental companies and geared largely toward the upper-upscale business traveler, Silvercar rents one type of automobile and one type only: an Audi A4 sedan. And, yes, they're all silver.
The company was founded in 2012 in Austin, Texas, and has since expanded to a dozen airports, plus city locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, N.Y. Its premise is "premium features at no extra cost," and will probably be familiar to any customer of either Virgin America or Virgin Hotels (that's no accident: Silvercar renters can earn points with Virgin's Elevate loyalty club).
That means each car comes equipped with GPS navigation, a SiriusXM satellite radio and Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, not to mention that the vehicle is a rolling WiFi hot spot. If you return the car without a full tank, you'll be charged the local price of gas (in this case, it was the price at the station across the street), plus a $5 fee, which seems fair.
It also means a process that in theory can be handled entirely though a smartphone. No phone call to make a reservation. No blazer-wearing attendants behind a desk at the airport. Heck, the system's even set up so that the renter can pop open the car lock by scanning the QR code on the car's windshield with the Silvercar smartphone app.
And that's where the process temporarily broke down in my case. Sure, my reservation (which I made old-school, on my laptop) was quick to secure. The directions to the shuttle bus to take me to the Silvercar hangar were texted to me as soon as I landed at Denver Airport (Silvercar has an agreement with neighboring Canopy Airport Parking to provide its customers with a shuttle).
The problem was that my 5-year-old iPhone 4 and its operating system were too ancient to download the Silvercar app (for iPhone users, an iOS 8.0 system or later is required), hence the temporary hiccup. Fortunately, the attendant was able to pick up my reservation information on her phone and ultimately unlock the vehicle, which had its key fob inside.
Granted, this wasn't my first departure from the more conventional car-rental companies. On prior trips to San Francisco and Dallas, I'd used FlightCar, which was also founded in 2012. That company, hatched by then-high school students, combines traditional car-rental operations with a sharing economy ethos (it was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area, of course) by enabling locals to exchange their vehicles for free airport parking, then rent those vehicles out to visitors.
On both occasions, getting access to the vehicles took longer than conventional rental companies, and the cars tended to be older than what's in the lots at Enterprise, Hertz or Avis Budget (though in both of my experiences, the cars were clean and seemed well-maintained). The trade-off is that the prices were a slight discount relative to the cheapest conventional car-rental offerings.
As with FlightCar, Silvercar is looking to grow its presence at an odd time in the vehicle-rental industry. On one hand, U.S. demand is up. Last year, the U.S. car-rental industry generated $27.1 billion in revenue, marking a 4.2% increase from a year earlier, according to the trade publication Auto Rental News.
On the other hand, the industry has been consolidating during the past decade, and that has squeezed out some independents and startups. Enterprise in 2007 acquired National and Alamo, solidifying its position as the world's largest car-rental company. Hertz bought out Dollar Thrifty in late 2012, while a year later, Avis Budget acquired car-sharing leader Zipcar.
Meanwhile, the peer-to-peer transportation sector, led by Uber and Lyft, continues to grow and provide an increasingly formidable alternative to car rentals. That's especially true for millennials, who are more likely than older generations to look for transportation alternatives to the private vehicle. Recently, Juniper Research estimated that annual sharing-economy global revenue would triple between 2015 and 2020, to $20.4 billion, with transportation being one of the primary areas of growth.
As for Silvercar, it's not for the bargain hunter. My four-day rental, all fees and taxes included (but not gas), ran $358. By comparison, the bigger companies were offering four-day economy-car rates out of Dallas Airport for as little as $212. Standard vehicles such as a Hyundai Sonata ran about $10 more. On the other end of the spectrum, premium cars such as a Mercedes-Benz sedan or a Chrysler 300 were priced at about $420.
What helped in my case is that I have a particularly soft spot for Audis. I learned how to drive on my dad's '82 Audi coupe (my dad was under the impression that I learned a couple years later on my mom's '85 BMW 325e, but that's a story for another day), and the Audi A90 that I bought off a buddy of mine ran great until some electrical problems (and maybe, just maybe, my driving habits) did that car in.
And this Audi didn't disappoint. For anyone working from a virtual office, the car's onboard WiFi is a godsend. My newfound appreciation for satellite radio (I'm usually a local-radio loyalist) was paid in full by nuggets such as Bo Diddley's sublime "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover" (thank you, Tom Petty Radio) and the James Gang's epic "The Bomber: Closet Queen/Bolero/Cast Your Fate to the Wind" (ditto, Deep Tracks).
Unlike my old Audi, this one had plenty of pep to make its way from the Mile High City up 6,000 feet to the Eisenhower Tunnel (elevation: 11,158 feet). And while I pretended to ignore the late-afternoon road-closure warning heading westbound on Interstate 70, I wasn't punished for my feigned it's-a-guy-thing ignorance because the car's four-wheel-drive system got me safely through the freak late-season snowstorm that hit the area.
Is Silvercar something I would rent on my own dime? There would probably have to be a few more dimes at my disposal, as the rates are still at a pretty good premium relative to even a standard midsize vehicle.
That said, the car was a lot of fun to drive, and it came in handy during some inclement weather. Had my phone not been ancient by smartphone standards, the new-school method of unlocking a rented vehicle would have been pretty cool to experience.
And on that note, when I returned from the trip, I was motivated enough (not to mention emboldened by my bosses) to retire the iPhone 4 (at least temporarily, as it will probably go to my son) and pick up an iPhone 6, complete with a new operating system.
So at least I have Silvercar to thank for that.