Thursday, April 17, 2008

Driving Green

I like National Car Rental. I may be one of the few.
Why? Well I have been driving a hybrid Prius all week.

At any car rental counter it is possible to discuss options and sometimes choose what type of car. I have gotten free (or $10 per WEEK) upgrades because the keys to the convertible were in reach but I couldn't be given a car in my class until they finished cleaning one. Most of the car rental companies have a frequent rental program or a gold or exec membership program (most fee based, some free). Those programs often allow a renter to bypass the counter but that in turn eliminates the choice of vehicle. You can specify a preferred class of car but not a preferred make let alone model. And you get "upgrades" to what some mysterious "them" believes to be the best car.

With National Emerald Club, I get to pick (from my reserved class) any car I want without stopping at the counter. Make, model, color, everything. I have even selected cars based on what state the plates are from. It also makes it easier to swap keys if the first choice is not as clean [my biggest problems so far with National] or smoke free as I would like. They check a license and payment method as you leave but most of the paperwork is "on file".

So this week I picked the Prius.
I thought it would be fun and different.
I had to get help starting it.

Ok, I figured out the key thing. There is a traditional key and key fob with lock/unlock. The key was in the door lock when I got there and the key fob is larger than many others. It took me a minute but I did figure out that the key fob is really the key. There is not a traditional insert key and turn starter. You put the key fob thingy in is "port" then press the "power" button (the button is what clued me into looking for a non-traditional key scenario).

Here is where it got tricky. I guess I didn't actually have my foot on the brake when I pressed the power button - despite all good training and personal experiences driving a stick most of my life. The car started but a light said "brake". There was a parking brake - it was off - and I even tried putting it on and taking it off again. No luck. And as long as it said "brake" I couldn't put the car in gear. When the nice staff member parked another one on the aisle I asked for help. He had me turn off the car and start it with my foot on the brake. Turns out (yes, I did this again later) that all I really needed to do was put my foot on the brake and press the power button again.

Changing gears is a little odd also. This is an automatic with forward and reverse only - no 1st and 2nd. And it is all electronic. The lever does not stay next to the label. You move it to reverse and the screen shows you in reverse and the beeping (inside the car for the driver not outside for others) begins but the lever goes back to its original location. After backing out the space, you move the lever to forward and the screen reflects that, the beeping stops, and off we go. When parking there is a "Park" button to press and the screen reflects that setting. The lever is not on the floor or the steering wheel either - it is on the dash, to the left of the CD player. Different; but it wasn't too hard to get used to it.

As with many newer cars, there is a touch screen panel in the center. This has audio and climate control settings and would probably have the GPS maps if that service was built in. The screen defaults to showing the current used and regenerated and has a mode to show the flow: using battery or engine or both or regenerating from motion or engine or both. This is done with a schematic and arrows and colors. It is pretty neat and I wish I could be a passenger for a while so I could just watch it.

The audio controls have a "type scan" It is an HD radio so it can scan for a type of stations such as rock or news. Country did not seem to be an option but rock found a country station or two for me [probably because most current hits in country are very close to classic rock in style]. There is a also a traffic search. This is a little different. The type search is off the tags of the station. The traffic search seems to be trying to find an actual real time traffic report. I can't tell exactly how since I rarely succeeded in my limited testing.

I might be able to get used to the blind spots. I never seem to do that in just a week of renting the car. There are a lot of windows to prevent blind spots but they are there and I can't quite figure out what I would change to make them go away. Head room is good. I would like a little more elbow room but it is better than most other cars. It is a 4-door but I haven't tried to sit in the back. It is not as small on the inside as it looks - but I think the Ford Focus (at least the version I drove in the UK that was very similar to the first year they had in the US) does an even better job of being roomier than it looks.

So far, according to the fun touch screen consumption information, I have gone a little over 90 miles and averaged about 51 MPG. For a short while I was up at 53mpg average, then I went across town on the interstate and it dropped back down.


PS: Since I recently ranted about airline loyalty, let me also say that there is still some benefits to hotel loyalty - I *used* to get upgrades at the the chain I am at this week - but since I lost elite status, I am in a smaller, first floor room.

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