People who rent a car to go on vacation or a business trip are finding more options for better gas mileage. Some car dealers, traditional rental firms and even car-sharing companies have started renting gas-electric hybrids. But driving a hybrid isn't always the cheapest way to go.
In October, I test drove a gas-electric hybrid car on my return trip from a Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Colorado. While recording my thoughts, the car radio was playing the 1950’s song “Earth Angel”:
"The contrast could not be more stark. The radio is playing oldies. The car is a 2020 Toyota Corolla. You look at the dashboard and the mpg rating shows 59.6. As you're rolling through Northeastern Colorado, land of cattle and oil wells."
That rental Corolla is one of several models for which Toyota makes a hybrid version. The company that made a big splash in green circles with the Prius has gone more fully into gas-electric, and is promising even more of the higher-mileage, lower polluting cars.
Plus, Toyota has stepped up a program under which some of its dealers rent the hybrids. Smart Motors-Toyota in Madison used to just offer hybrids as loaners to customers who were having service done. Or to people who wanted to try before they buy. But Guest Services Manager Peter Graper says Smart Motors now does regular rentals of hybrids — and likes the customer response.
“Certainly, hybrids are attractive when gas is $4. But even at $2.50, hybrids still make economical sense. They make performance sense. Our hybrids today, in certain models, are actually considered the performance option for speed and pickup beyond fuel efficiency," Graper said.
Other hybrid manufacturers make their own performance claims, and have found their way into the offerings of traditional car rental firms. For example, Avis rents Hyundai Sonata and Ford Fusion hybrids.
Sometimes the rental hybrids have a higher daily or weekly fee than gas-powered cars. But Graper says not so at Smart Motors.
"You know, if it is a desirable vehicle, it makes a business case to rent it at a higher rate. Our initial goal is to put our customers in a Toyota that they're familiar with to introduce them to the brand," Graper said.
However, Smart Motors, and some other Toyota dealers, while offering some free miles, do not offer the unlimited free miles that many rental agencies offer for traditional vehicles. So, very long trips in a hybrid might include an additional mileage fee.
Still, longtime hybrid owner Bradlee Fons of the group Drive $mart Wisconsin says it's good to see more hybrid rentals. But he says they're harder to find at rental companies around Wisconsin.
"Being in the Midwest area, many of them don't have them available. If you go out to the coasts or down south, they may be more readily available," Fons said.
Others are also getting into the hybrid rental game. You can find some individual owners on the Internet making their car available for a fee. And a check of the car-sharing website Turo shows that a small number of hybrids may be available in the Milwaukee area.
Finally, the ride-sharing company Lyft announced this month that it will launch a car-sharing option, beginning in California. Lyft says it will eventually offer hybrids.
And have we mentioned that in some cities, you can rent an all-electric vehicle?
So, the car rental market doesn't look like it did 60 years ago, when songs like "Earth Angel” were a hit. Or even like 1985, when the movie Back to the Future re-popularized that song.
Drive $mart Wisconsin's Fons says the changing selection is a good way to get a glimpse of the potential automotive future.
"Because usually in a rental, you're renting for several days, and you'll be able to live an electric vehicle or live in a hybrid vehicle and gain all that knowledge," Fons said.
Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.
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