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Renting an Electric Car: When Is It Smart, When Is It Dumb?

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Hertz electric vehicle rental

Hertz electric vehicle rental

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One way for potential buyers to get familiar with electric cars is to rent one. Several rental companies, among them Enterprise, have announced plans to rent 2011 Nissan Leaf and other electric models at selected locations.

Renting an electric car lets you spend far more time in one than the typical short demonstration drive a dealer might offer, if your local Nissan dealer even has a 2011 Leaf to use as a demonstrator in the first place.

Enterprise has announced plans to offer the 2011 Leaf at outlets in Phoenix, Tucson, Knoxville, Nashville, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle as well as its site in Santa Monica, California.  

Smart Electric Drive at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

Smart Electric Drive at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

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Hertz is also offering electric vehicles in New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco,  a December 2010 release reports.  The 2011 Smart Electric Drive, 2012 Mitsubishi 'i', 2012 Ford Focus Electric, and 2011 Coda Sedan electric cars will also find their way into rental fleets in the coming year.

Does renting an electric car sound like a good idea?

There may be a big schism between "sounds good" and "is a good idea" for electric car rentals. The practical range of the 2011 Nissan Leaf is 75 to 100 miles; the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, perhaps more like 65 miles.

The 2012 Ford Focus Electric is expected to reach 80 to 100 miles;  the 2012 Coda Sedan claims 130 miles; and the Smart Electric Drive about 65 miles. The 2011 Tesla Roadster electric sports car can return 150-plus miles, but it's not widely rented except through unusual sources.

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Enlarge Photo

In colder climates, using the heater in electric cars reduces the initial range by up to 15 percent, and forgetting to set your 2011 Leaf in Eco drive mode rather than the more obvious "D" setting reduces range for that vehicle by another 10 percent.

In outside temperatures below about 30 degrees F, the actual battery chemical production of electricity is slowed and the functional range might be only 70 percent of the advertised range.

So here's our take on when it's smart to rent an electric car, and when it's dumb.

Smart

If you're absolutely sure that your total travel distance will be 50 miles or less, round-trip, then renting a 2011 Nissan Leaf or other battery electric vehicle could work for you. For a few hours of errand-running, it will probably be fine.

2011 Coda Sedan at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

2011 Coda Sedan at Hertz Global EV rental launch, New York City, December 2010

Enlarge Photo

For the more typical rental car driver, even one with "green inclinations," plug-in hybrids like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the upcoming 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid have none of these range anxiety concerns. They make much more sense for the ecologically-minded looking for a rental car for longer distances in the coming year or two.  

By 2014, the buildout of public charging stations and integration of their GPS locations into navigation systems should be more complete. By that time, renting fully electric cars will have few of the current dangers, assuming you can fit several hours of recharging time into your rental schedule.

Dumb

The problem with casual use of an electric car is that if you're not attentive to how far you are driving--and how you're driving--and if you need to drive more than a car's "lowest practical range," then you will have to find a charging station or other means to recharge the car.  

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Hertz electric-car rental press event, New York City, September 2010

Enlarge Photo

Virtually all current electric cars come with a 120-Volt charging cable, but recharging these large battery units, from 16 kilowatt-hours to almost 30 kWh in energy capacity, can take 20 hours or more. Finding a more powerful 240-Volt charging point in a public location can be like the search for the Holy Grail in most areas.

So, right now, renting electric cars is only for the thoughtful driver who is sure that fewer than 50 or 60 miles need to be covered, and who has a plan for where the car can be recharged if distances go longer.

+++++++++++

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Comments (4)
  1. "16 kW to almost 30 kW" perhaps "16 kWh to almost 30 kWh"
     
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    Bad stuff?

  2. I wonder if you have to return the EV with a full tank?
     
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  3. @John,
    Well at least according to followup inquiry to the agencies, they DON'T expect the electric cars to be returned fully charged ! Some small consolation, to be sure.
     
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  4. @George,
    Thanks for the feedback. Would seem to be impractical to return the cars full.
    Later
    John C. Briggs
     
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