Help, my car rental company is charging me for a burnt clutch

bumpy roadQuestion: My husband rented a car from Hertz in Madrid last summer. The car broke while he was on his way back to the airport, and he had to abandon it by the side of the road in order to make his flight back to the States.

He informed the Hertz people at the airport what had happened and they told him it was fine and the car would be retrieved. Three weeks later, we received a letter that there was 850 euro charge for a burnt clutch on our credit card. We tried to contact Hertz Spain, both before and after the bill, to ensure the car had been collected and everything was fine but they didn’t answer the phone or respond to emails.

Hertz sent us an email saying our insurance coverage did not cover “negligence” and that it was our fault and that we owed it 850 euro. It didn’t answer any other emails, so we disputed the charge. The investigation by the credit card company came out in our favor, but now Hertz has sent the matter to a collections agency. Do you have any suggestions? — Hadley Roeltgen, Philadelphia

Answer: Don’t take it personally; credit card disputes that go in your favor are automatically sent to a collection agency. Some car rental companies also add you to a “do not rent” list, which means you’re blacklisted from ever renting from it again.

The key to fixing this problem would have been to get it addressed before this became an 850 euro charge on your credit card bill. Calling Hertz and mentioning the breakdown before hailing a cab for the airport might have given the company a chance to offer you a ride back to the airport, where you could fill out the paperwork.

Getting assurances by phone is pointless. You need something in writing before you leave the country. Even if your flight home is imminent, at least stop by the Hertz counter to talk about next steps and get documentation that everything is “fine.” But don’t take a representative’s word for it. It’s not enough.

I can’t blame you for disputing the credit card bill: Hertz seems to have been less than responsive when you contacted it, asking for an explanation. But what you might not know is that burned clutches are common problems with American renters in Europe. We don’t have as much experience driving standard-transmission, and are presumed guilty for every ruined clutch.

The solution? Wherever possible, ask for a rental car with an automatic transmission. This effectively eliminates the clutch problem.

Hertz should have provided a better mechanism through which to appeal its 850 euro charge. Simply reiterating its claim only ratchets up your level of frustration.

I contacted Hertz on your behalf. It dropped the claim.

Should car rental companies charge customers for burnt-out clutches?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • jim6555

    If burned clutches are commonplace when Americans rent standard transmission vehicles, perhaps rental companies in Europe should suggest that all Americans rent only vehicles with automatic transmissions. If the customer insists on renting a standard shift, the rental company should require that he/she sign a waiver saying that the renter is responsible should the clutch fail. I’m sure that many renters will decide to pay a little more money for a car with automatic transmission rather than take a chance on a clutch failure. Doing this will save both the rental companies and their customers from much frustration.

  • technomage1

    They’re charging Europeans too. The problem with clutch failure is its hard to determine exactly who caused the damage because its not visible like a dent would be. Was it 3 renters ago, last renter, or current renter?

    I don’t want to have to pay more just because I’m American. I’ve driven clutches for over a decade, so its wrong to lump us all together in the non clutch category.

  • PsyGuy

    My issue with the clutch claim, is that it’s not a question of “if” a clutch will fail, or burn out but “when”. This is normal wear and tear as a result of use. While many factors contribute to a mechanical failure, its not any one person but th collective wear for all previous users of the vehicle. Expecting a clutch to last forever is as nonsensical as expecting the whole car to last forever. The rental rate for a vehicle should include some portion of repair recovery or capture. Spead the wear across all users and renters who incrementally contributed to the eventual mechanical failure.

  • Leslie

    agreed. You can’t burn a clutch over a few days even if you are riding it. Its a cost of having a manual and occurs over time. Even my dad, a notorious clutch rider couldnt burn his out until the car had 25k miles on it

  • Fishplate

    We once had a customer with a brand new car burn out a clutch in 800 miles. It can easily be done, if you don’t know what you’re doing. In that case, even though it was obvious to me that it was the act of a novice driver, the clutch was repaired under warranty.

    But that sort of abuse was rare, and there is no doubt that the vast majority of clutch wear is cumulative over the many different drivers of a rental car. Bad luck to be the one driving when it fails. There are some simple tests to see what shape the clutch is in before you drive off, You can try to start from a standing stop in fourth gear. If it stalls immediately, OK, If it slips and whines, get another car.

  • MarkKelling

    “Burned clutches are common problems with American renters in Europe.” Really? Probably only because the rental companies see you coming and purposely give you, an American, a car they know has clutch problems hoping the clutch fails and they can charge you to fix it since you will be too far away to fight the charge successfully.

    The old excuse that Europeans prefer cars with manual transmissions is why the rental companies have mainly those is no longer true. I work with many Europeans who have never driven a manual transmission auto of any kind and wouldn’t know how if they had to. I think the rental companies in Europe have the manual cars simply because the purchase price is less and it is mainly tourists from outside of Europe that rent them.

    I have driven cars with clutches off and on my entire driving life. I have never burned a clutch or had any other transmission problems. I prefer automatics now simply because it is one less thing to think about while driving, even though the manual shifting becomes so automatic after a while I don’t really have to think about it. And an automatic keeps my hand free so I can drink my Starbucks I paid too much for and text everyone! (Just kidding about this last part.)

  • MarkKelling

    But most of these rentals you get in Europe are much older with many more miles on them than the typical car you get at a US rental company. So it is not uncommon to get a car with 50K miles on it. 50K with people driving it that are not normally manual drivers and I understand why the clutch fails, but as mentioned it is a cumulative thing, not necessarily a single renter causing the failure.

  • deemery

    I got a Renault Clio with a bad clutch in Spain (25 years ago). My wife still recalls the massive amount of swearing it took to get that car into gear (particularly on the steep streets in Toledo!)
    Another Clio, this time in Germany, refused to start. I had to turn the car in the next day, I called Hertz. They said, “Come to the the local agent and we’ll give you a different car to get to the airport. The new car was a 6 speed turbo diesel Passat, and I had the opportunity to drive that on a wide open Autobahn (Kaiserslautern to Trier). So that was an unexpected thrill from a dead car.

    Our 2nd Volvo 240 wagon came with a bad clutch, which finally failed at 65k miles. Volvo refused to replace it, the dealer told my wife she wasn’t welcome at their dealersheip any more. But it was really hard to argue it was her driving, when she got 110k miles on the same car with no clutch problems.

    It could well be that an inexperienced stick driver can burn out a clutch in a day or two (this was discussed on “Car Talk” a couple months ago), but given that clutches are by their nature parts that wear out, it’s difficult to establish cause for a failed clutch to one specific driver.

  • Cam

    Is it just me, or are the poll questions getting more and more leading?

  • Carchar

    No, they have always been this leading….or more so. ;)

  • Christopher Elliott

    Oh no. Am I getting too neutral with these polls? I better step up my game. I haven’t gotten any “I refuse to take the poll” comments in a while. I must be mellowing with age. ;-)

  • Hishighness

    Now I’m reminded why I only use enterprise for rentals. When it comes To Europe, Hertz is a bunch of con artists.

    Oh, and Hertz now owns Dollar/Thrifty. These three companies collectvely probably have more complaints than any other on this website.

  • mizmoose


    I mean, I can see having a problem driving a stick in a country that drives on the left side of the road, but why in the world would anyone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick accept a rental vehicle with a manual transmission?

    I agree with the Fishplate person — you can tell if a clutch if failing pretty quickly when you’re driving one. If you don’t know enough about a manual transmission to be able to tell whether a clutch if failing, you shouldn’t be trying to drive a stick!

  • AH

    there are times when you reserve an automatic transmission, then get to the rental location and all they have is manual.

    happened to me in wales about 30 years ago. we had arranged for the rental by phone from london and the agency was to deliver our car to the train station to meet us on arrival. they showed up with a manual. fortunately, both of us knew how to drive a manual, tho my mother was better at it than i, so she got us to the B&B where we were staying that night. when we got there (with more than a couple brushes of the curb), she flatly told me that if i wanted to drive around wales, i was going to do the driving.

    no clutch problems, but wales is kind of hilly and that’s not my favorite terrain in which to drive a standard…lol.

  • y_p_w

    50,000 miles on a car rented in the US isn’t unusual these days. It used to be that they got great deals from fleet sales and then turned over the car while it still had decent residual value. Now they keep them rather long and try to get as much as possible before selling a vehicle.

  • GeoffDepew

    This happened to my parents in Germany – get to the counter, “sorry, we have no automatic transmissions, only manual” smile smile.

    Neither of them could drive a manual. They informed the agency that since neither of them possessed the skill, they would like the refund of their deposit as the agency had not been able to fulfill their part of the contract. There was, apparently, some trouble with that from the agency, based on the desk clerk’s opinion that they reserved a car, and they should take a car, even though they couldn’t drive the car. This resulted in my mother calling AmEx’s travel bureau (who they used for the reservation) and getting them to deal with the agency (no, I don’t remember which one).

    They did get a car they could drive, and as they were driving from Frankfurt to Dresden having that was important.

    (the next time they went, both of them forgot their driver’s licenses and called me at 2AM East Coast time, to get them to go to UPS first thing in the morning and overnight said licenses to them, but that’s a totally different story.)

  • Sam Varshavchik

    The key data point in this story is that — as anyone who’s been driving stick for 30-40k miles would know, you get warned well in advance when your clutch is about to conk out. If the clutch in that car was going bad, the original submitter would’ve mentioned it in his story.

    A long, long time ago I had a brief, very brief, long distance relationship. When I visited her, and got in her car, it took me five minutes before I turned to her and said: I’ve got some bad news, you’ll be paying for a new clutch soon, very soon.

    I went home a week later, and a few weeks after that, when I called her, she told me that I was right.

    The fact that the original submitter didn’t mention having any clutch problems, until the car broke down, tells me that he really did not have much experience driving stick, and was likely to be at fault, but, as others have mentioned, it’s difficult to pin the blame on a specific driver of a busy rental.

  • anna

    Dont waste your time with customer service. Go straight to the CEO

  • William_Leeper

    I would beg to differ! A novice driver of a standard can burn a clutch out in 10 minutes! I have personally seen it done!

  • duvenstedter

    Unfortunately, renting an automatic transmission is usually not just “a little more money.” It’s a lot more money. Plus, automatic transmissions are often available only on high end models. In combination, getting an automatic transmission can easily cost more than twice what a car model with a manual transmission otherwise adequate for your needs would cost.
    On this subject, I must give Sixt a shout-out. My wife and I go to Germany about twice a year. Our last trip was the first time we rented from Sixt. On the online order form, they have a check-block to indicate a desire for a automatic. No promises, and I rented at the manual transmission rate. When we got to Würzburg (not a large city), we were offered an automatic. In fact, we were offered a choice of two car models, and both models had automatic. I have no problem with a manual transmission, but I did appreciate the automatic transmission on the very steep hills of Stuttgart.

  • TMMao

    Used to work at a mountain resort with a 2500ft elevation change from the surrounding valley. Following a rental car that was riding its brakes all the way down usually meant smoking wheels by the bottom, something that could have been simply avoided by GEARING DOWN. Clearly, the driver is to blame but without an inspection report between each rental, how could they prove it? It’s the same issue with clutches — my first lasted 80K miles but the replacement has gone over 120K so it’s really the driving technique.

  • brianguy

    tell them to go screw. it can be a real hassle dealing with a collection agency when you’ve already been judged not to have been at fault (or at least you have gone through the initial dispute handling process they agreed to by their credit card merchant agreement). they won’t any excuse or proof in your favor as an answer.

    luckily you won’t have to deal with that now, but the bottom line is they didn’t bear the burden of proof showing it was you that did the damage to the clutch, and by your account you don’t think you did any tangible damage. obviously a clutch assembly should last 50,000 miles or more under normal driving, if it won’t shift properly or there are signs (smells) of a severely “burnt” clutch when you brought it back, then they should have noted that to you at the time of return. granted pretty much every rental car in America (even pickups or most move it yourself trucks) are an automatic, so many readers will have a relatively hard time relating to this problem. but since Americans may also have to deal with driving a manual transmission in Europe or elsewhere abroad, which are extremely common outside of North America, and they may be a bit rusty on driving a stick, it’s good to know.

  • brianguy

    in which case I have no choice, I simply vote against the majority. since neither answer is right each poll should naturally end up 50/50…

  • pauletteb

    I’ve put between 150,000 and 199,000 miles on three Hondas without ever having to replace a clutch. That might not be “forever,” but it’s a lot more mileage than rental cars see before they’re sold off. A “bad” clutch will burn out relatively quickly, but even a good clutch can only handle abuse for so long. I’ve driven nothing but stick for the past 30 years. Why should I have to pay extra for someone who doesn’t know how to use a clutch?

  • DavidYoung2

    This type of thinking just reinforces the European stereotype of Americans as fat, lazy and stupid. Uh, yeah, I do know how to drive a manual — I’ve driven one every day for the past 35 years.

    News flash to Europe: Some of us Americans drive manual transmission cars because we like them, we don’t eat at McDonalds every day, we don’t all have to get seat belt extenders and we do know the Euro/US$ conversion rate so don’t try to rip us off. Europeans’ opinion of Americans is just flat out wrong. We were told at a shop in Paris that they don’t have anything that is big enough to fit Americans. Uh, Madame, I weigh 70kg and the wife weighs about 50kg – you’re looking right at us. Are you a dumbass or just trying to be insulting?

  • emanon256

    I have seen ti too. I friend was trying to teach his daughter to drive stick and she burned the clutch out in the course of a 1 hour lesson. Dad got it replaced, and she burned it our again in 3 hours.

  • emanon256

    Same here, Ive never burned out a clutch and normally put 200K to 250K on my cars. I also witnessed someone burning out a new clutch in less than 1 day.

  • Neil Gratton

    I’ve driven manual (‘stick-shift’) for over 200,000 miles and 22 years, but, without doing anything wrong I’m aware of, had the clutch fail on my Europcar rental on a recent trip to Spain and received around 1,000 euros in extra charges. I’m fighting them now …

  • Sophia Bell

    In the first place they should make things clear on what they are going to charge before they rent a car. But thanks god I never experience that situation. Money is important! I do not want to pay for nothing!

  • fshaff

    I have never rented a car anywhere other than in the US. Most cars typically are automatic and the mileage is very low, usually less than 20K. If it were a “stick-shift” with this low mileage, I wouldn’t expect any clutch problems. However, I can see some abuse by some that rent exotic cars (Mustangs, Corvettes,etc) that like to “show-off”. So, the question here is do the typical rentals in Europe come with “high” mileage, i.e., 50K or more on the odometer? Hertz, and other agencies in the USA, usually sell their vehicles when they reach between 30K-35K and won’t keep them in inventory for renting. Is it different outside the USA?

  • angry from west sussex!

    have a question…
    Second hand car bought from dealership 8th April 2013, bu 1st June 2013 the clutch popped and I couldnt get it into gear, this happpened 2 more times – finally booked it into garage as they couldnt give me a courtsey car until July 1st – they now tell me that the clutch ratchet cable needs replacing but its not covered by 3 months want to charge me. I see this as the car not fit for purpose as the clutch must have been badly worn already for it to go like this after less than 3 months! nothing of this was ever pointed out to me….I was not told what was covered on the 3 mnonths dealer warranty! but was told what was not on the additonal,