Hybrids For Hire: More Cars Mean More Options

Hello, is this thing on?

Trust me, when you’ve just hit the power button on a rental Toyota Prius on a foggy day in Oakland, Calif., it’s not an unreasonable question. Outside, I can see all of 10 feet through the murk; inside, it’s so quiet, I might as well be wearing earplugs in a soundproof booth. Hello? Is this thing on or not?

“I know what you mean,” says Tilly, the Hertz lot agent, before offering a quick tutorial on the workings of the car’s hybrid engine. “The first time I drove one, it freaked me out.”

Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to figure out the car’s operation — and to gain some insight into why the industry is rolling out more options for hybrid rentals all the time.

Calculating fuel costs
It should come as no surprise that last summer’s soaring gas prices also boosted the interest in fuel-efficient cars. Some renters traded down from full-size and intermediate cars to compact and economy models. Others opted for hybrids like the Prius, which offers a combined mpg of 46 (48 city/45 highway).

“When gas was up to $4–$5 a gallon, hybrids did quite well with consumers who were concerned about their wallets,” says Paula Rivera, Hertz spokesperson. In 2008, she adds, reservations for cars in the company’s Green Collection (which includes both hybrids and fuel-efficient non-hybrids) jumped 40 percent over the year before.

And now that gas prices have come back down? With 4,000 hybrids in the Hertz fleet, Rivera says availability has loosened up a bit: “They had been in high demand and hard to get. Now they’re just in high demand.”

Of course, any savings at the pump have to be weighed against the premium you’ll typically pay when renting a hybrid. Last December, when I began researching a week-long January rental in the Bay area, the major rental companies were charging a base rate of $495–$500 for a hybrid, approximately $110 more than the compact models I’d normally rent.

Lower emissions and other pluses aside, recouping the added cost is a moving target. At $2 per gallon, you’d have to drive a Prius around 3,400 miles to break even on fuel costs when compared to, say, a Nissan Versa (27 combined mpg) or Ford Focus (28 mpg). At $4 per gallon, the break-even point drops to 1,700 miles. Clearly, the farther you drive — or the higher the price of gas — the more you save.

You can lower your costs in other ways, as well, especially as more businesses expand their own green initiatives. For example, at least 10 Fairmont hotels offer free parking for guests arriving in hybrid vehicles. Show up in a Prius or hybrid Ford Escape and you can save $23 per day at the Fairmont Scottsdale, $42 per day at the Fairmont Copley Plaza (Boston) and $50 per day at the Fairmont San Francisco.

And speaking of San Francisco, earlier this month, San Francisco International Airport announced a Green Rental Car program, which rewards visitors with a similarly environmental mindset. Hoping to eliminate more than 4,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year, the airport is offering a $15 discount at the counter for visitors who rent hybrids that achieve an EPA rating of 18 or higher.

More cars, new programs and a bright future
Such efforts will likely be echoed elsewhere as more organizations seek to reduce their carbon emissions and hybrid rentals become more available. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, is currently taking delivery of 5,000 new hybrids. That more than doubles its fleet and brings the company-wide total (including sister companies Alamo and National) to 9,000 vehicles.

Enterprise is also in the process of unveiling what it calls “hybrid branches” where renters can now reserve hybrids in advance. (Previously, would-be renters had to make a general reservation, then call the specific branch to inquire about hybrid availability.) “We realized the demand was there,” says Lee Broughton, director of corporate sustainability. “We wanted to make the process a bit more straightforward.”

To that end, the company solicited feedback from employees to determine where hybrid interest was highest. Among the findings: markets with a lot of commuters, eco-conscious leisure travelers and businesses seeking to manage their emissions in the face of regulatory issues or stakeholder interest. The service is now being rolled out in 80 locations in 22 markets across the U.S.

Meanwhile, the hybrid-for-hire market continues to evolve as increased interest and greater availability allow new players to develop new niches. From luxury hybrid rentals in Los Angeles (eQocar) to hybrid taxis in Arlington, Va., going green is getting easier all the time.

And the evolution will continue, says Broughton: “Hybrids are going to become part of the solution that helps us get our heads around alternative technologies,” he says, “and they’ll help make the passenger vehicle remain as viable as it’s been for the last 50 years.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.

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