Renting a car is one of the most common ways of driving a model you’re not familiar with.

Now, as electric cars start to make their way into dealerships, they will be showing up in rental fleets as well.

Hertz, the nation’s largest rental brand, announced last week that it would add hundreds of 2011 Nissan Leafs and Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid test vehicles to selected Hertz locations, as well as certain of its Connect by Hertz short-term rental service sites.

The company displayed one of each car at a Manhattan press event last week, held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative on climate change.

Mitsubishi MiEV

Mitsubishi MiEV

Selected city locations

The cars will be offered at locations the company feels are likely to attract those customers most interested in experiencing an electric car for a short period.

The Hertz Global EV program will roll out electric-car rentals first in New York City; San Francisco; Washington, DC; and London, though Rich Broome, senior VP of corporate affairs, cautions that the list isn’t yet final.

Los Angeles won’t be on the early list, he said, because rental cars there cover much longer distances than in other cities, making range a concern.

Hertz expects to offer 100 plug-in cars by the end of this year, and 1,000 by mid-2011. After that, Broome said, volume will depend on customer demand.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Colleges, arts, entertainment

Hertz will also place some electric cars in locations near a few near college campuses that have high levels of EV awareness.

Early electric-car renters may come from the arts and entertainment fields, Broome suggested, where Hertz already provides long-term rental cars.

He notes electric cars not only project a green image for company employees, but cost just one-fifth or one-sixth as much per mile to “fuel”—which adds up significantly over a multi-week rental.

Huge customer interest

Broome said the company had been very surprised at its customers’ level of interest in renting electric cars.

“This year,” he said, “the level of interest in electric-vehicle travel far outstripped our wildest expectations.”

The company already offers a “Green Collection” of high-mileage vehicles, and renters under that program have begun to ask Hertz when it would offer electric cars.

2011 Coda Sedan, final production version

2011 Coda Sedan, final production version

Plug-In Prius most popular?

Initially, Broome suggested, renters may be more comfortable with the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid than the Nissan Leaf all-electric car.

The gasoline engine of the Prius Plug-In gives it unlimited range on five-minute fill-ups, while the Leaf will take several hours to recharge a battery pack fully discharged after using up its 100-mile range.

Ultimately, Hertz expects to offer not only the Leaf and the plug-in Prius, but also the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

It is also talking to Coda Automotive about its 2011 Sedan model, and the Ford Transit Connect Electric small commercial van may be added later.

Hertz will add the 2012 Ford Focus Electric “when it comes," but Broome doesn't expect to offer either the Tesla Roadster or the Fisker Karma as part of the program due to their cost.

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

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

Rental cars: 40 miles or less, too

Outside high-mileage markets like LA, is range anxiety an issue? Broome says it’s not.

“Our renter behavior isn’t that different from the average U.S. driver,” he said, with the majority of rentals covering 40 miles or less a day.

The exception to that rule, he added, is the vacation travel market, where a family may rent a larger vehicle for a week or two and take it on a long road trip. Clearly electric cars won’t be high on the list there.

Sharing customer driving data

Manufacturers like the idea of exposing many new consumers to their electric cars, Broome said, and Hertz plans to share data on customer behavior with each carmaker.

As for charging, Hertz considers 240-Volt Level 2 chargers “adequate” in most locations, Broome said. Over time, it expects to install Level 3 quick chargers in locations with multiple electric cars—airport rental sites, perhaps.

Public chargers, and informing renters where they are, will be important as well. Hertz is working collaboratively with municipalities and utilities to site public chargers in the most useful areas, based on the data it has about how rental cars are used.

(It now collects GPS routing data on its cars’ travel paths for about a quarter of its fleet, and expects the entire fleet to be equipped with GPS data trackers “eventually.”)

"Enormously compelling" economics

Ultimately, Broome said, Hertz feels "the economics of electric-car travel will be enormously compelling to the public."

For Hertz, he characterized the launch of the Global EV program as "revolutionary, not evolutionary."