Then the company sold hundreds of them, incorrectly advertising online the used vehicles had the key safety feature.
Now the company is apologizing for the inaccurate advertising -- not the decision to drop the safety feature from the cars it rents -- and is offering to buy back the vehicles or compensate those who bought them and don't want to sell. The Kansas City Star newspaper revealed the practice.
This was a decision with potentially major safety consequences. The Impala had been rated safe in side impact crash testing, but vehicles without side airbags are typically rated "Poor," which means those inside would be at "high risk of life-threatening injuries or death," Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman Russ Rader told WalletPop.
"Just because side airbags aren't required by the government doesn't mean they aren't a crucial safety feature," Rader said. "They are."
He noted the Insurance Institute has never given a rating of "Good" to any vehicle lacking the side airbags, which are intended to protect motorists and passengers from head injuries. The Insurance Institute reported a 37 percent reduction in a car driver's risk of death in driver-side crashes when the air bags were present.
Christy Conrad, an Enterprise vice president and company spokeswoman, told WalletPop the vehicles met all government safety standards. All fleet buyers were offered the option to not have the side airbags installed, she said, and it is a decision that has been made for other models, too.
"We were given a choice to buy or not to buy," she said. " We chose not to."
That saved the company about $11.6 million.
Enterprise is offering to buy back any of the 745 cars that were incorrectly labeled as having the airbags for $750 over the Kelley Blue Book value and pay $220 to any of the buyers who wants to keep the vehicle. All those affected will be contacted by letter, Conrad said. Enterprise is working on getting a search on its site that will let buyers enter their VIN to see if their car is affected, she said.
"The government standard is what we live by," Conrad said. "It doesn't mean we don't have side airbags in our vehicles. It's not required standard safety equipment."
So, some vehicles do and some don't. Agents are now being trained to answer renters who ask whether the vehicle they want doesn't have the safety feature. It's not a question that traditionally comes up, Conrad said.
Automotive safety expert Sean Kane was astonished at the decision by Enterprise and other fleet buyers to not install the airbags and then not tell anyone they were missing.
"It's extraordinary," he said. "We have never seen anything like this before.
"Side airbags are one of the most important developments in occupant crash protection in the last decade," said Kane, who runs Safety Research & Strategies Inc.. "By deleting them and re-selling them, GM and fleet buyers are gambling with the safety of their customers - who have no idea the air bag is missing,"
He added: "This underscores the serious injustice of the GM bankruptcy. Anyone who had the misfortune of becoming a crash victim in one of these bagless Impalas before July 10 has no recourse."