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Greening Rentals

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If you're traveling over the long holiday weekend, you may be in the market for a rental car that doesn't guzzle gas. A lot of rental car companies have started changing their fleets to make them more attractive to consumers who want better gas mileage. It's been a good opportunity for rental companies to market themselves as “green.” But it all hinges on whether customers actually choose those cars when they get to the lot. For The Environment Report, Rebecca Williams has more.

"Thank you for choosing Enterprise this is Karen how can I help you? What exactly are you looking for?"

Rental car companies pay a lot of attention to that last question – what are you looking for? They change their fleets based on what people get the most excited about.

We talked to a few people waiting in rental car lines at an airport:

"I like a car that handles well and can put up with adverse weather."

"Lower prices and that husband and wife can both drive without paying a fee."

"I typically vacation on beaches so I'll rent Jeeps and things like that that have some kind of open air."

That confirms what rental car companies say - there's no typical customer. Making things more complicated, there's usually a big difference between what people say they want on the phone… and what they actually drive off the lot.

Christopher Buck is a regional vice president for Enterprise Rent-A- Car:

"You know, when you're on the phone you're just saying I need temporary transportation and I don't want to spend a lot of money. When they get here and actually see the wheels and paint and tires I don't know if it tugs on people's heartstrings or what, but it's hey, that's a sharp looking car!"

So people want to drive something that makes them feel good.

Christopher Buck says lately, he's noticed a shift in what customers end up renting. He says two years ago, his branches had a lot more trucks and SUVs in their fleets. He says that's what most people wanted:

"And lately it seems those vehicles are not as popular. Customers seem to be demanding more of the sedan. I would imagine fuel efficiency has something to do with that now that gas is back over $3 a gallon."

Buck says now, customers want the biggest car with the best gas mileage. He's changed the makeup of his fleets to reflect that. These days, it's mostly made up of sedans, with just a few SUVs, vans and trucks.

Because gas mileage is playing a bigger role, Buck's also added a few hybrid vehicles. But he's having trouble getting more:

"We'd like to get more to see if we really open doors up and advertise that we truly have them, because we such a small number it's hard to really wave the flag because they're so hard to manage and make sure the hybrid requests are going straight into hybrids every single time."

Getting hybrids isn't easy right now, but that could change.

Neil Abrams is president of Abrams Consulting Group. He advises the transportation industry. He says automakers such as Ford and GM make more money selling cars to people rather than rental companies.

And so the US automakers are pulling back from the big incentives they used to offer rental car companies. Abrams says that's opening the door for more cars from foreign automakers, and that could mean hybrids such as the Toyota Prius will be more available in the future.

But he says that all depends on what customers want. If they want hybrids, they'll have to ask for them:

"If the rental consumer does not step up and demand an environmentally efficient vehicle or hybrid, eventually rental companies will stop offering them."

If you really want a hybrid right now, it's a good idea to call ahead and see if you can specifically reserve one. That's because there aren't very many.

Even if you can't get one right now, just asking for one might help you get one in the future. That's because rental companies plan the makeup of their fleets about a year in advance. It's based on what customers want. So the cars you'll be able to rent in the future depend on what you ask for today.

For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.

Music Button: Herb Alpert's Tiajuana Brass, “Bittersweet Samba” from the CD Whipped Cream & Other Delights: ReWhipped (Shout Factory records)

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