5 On Your Side

Renting a hybrid might not save green

Posted October 16, 2008 3:20 p.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2008 6:56 p.m. EDT

High gasoline prices have made hybrid rental cars a popular choice among travelers. But Consumer Reports found that high rates and limited availability might make renting a hybrid hard.

Hybrids are a distinct minority among the many models filling airport rental car lots.

"It's really hit or miss, and to get one guaranteed is out of a reasonable price range," customer Nick Mirto said.

Increasing numbers of customers such as Mirto want to rent hybrids. Hertz officials said the company has seen a 40 percent increase in requests for hybrids this year.

"Car-rental agencies have been adding hybrids like the Nissan Altima, the Toyota Prius," Consumer Reports staffer Tobie Stanger said. "But when you try to rent one of those hybrids, they can be hard to find."

To check on availability, Consumer Reports tried to reserve a hybrid a few days in advance of a three-day stay in Los Angeles. After calling six agencies, staffers found that three – Alamo, Hertz and National –  had a hybrid.

Booking two months in advance got slightly better results: The same three agencies, plus Avis, had a hybrid available.

"We found that calling the rental companies was a more successful strategy for renting a hybrid than going online," Stanger said. "Enterprise wouldn't let us rent a hybrid through its Web site. National told us there were no hybrids available, but when we called, we were able to get one."

However, Consumer Reports found that renting a hybrid will not necessarily save money. For example, Avis quoted a rate of $253 for a three-day rental of an Altima hybrid and $111 for a gas-only Chevrolet Impala.

Those higher charges for fuel-efficient cars can cancel out any money saved on the gas bill.

"When you're renting a car, look not just at the type of vehicle you're getting, but also the rate, so you can get the best deal," Stanger said.

Consumer Reports said that companies might offer better rates on non-hybrid, fuel-efficient vehicles.

For those who really want to rent a hybrid, agencies at major airports are most likely to have a hybrid available in their larger fleets. Rentals might also be available from a hybrid car-maker, such as Toyota.