Navigating the bewildering new world of car rentals

Alix Davidson says she was “totally excited” when her car rental company recently offered her the keys to a Toyota Prius in Seattle. It was her first time behind the wheel of a hybrid electric vehicle.

But her enthusiasm quickly turned to frustration when she couldn’t figure out how to start the car. “We pushed the button, which looked awfully like our computer’s ‘on’ button, waved the little stick in front of it,” says Davidson, a researcher for an environmental organization in Washington. “Nothing.”

For those of you wondering how to start a Prius, you insert the key, push down the brake pedal and press the “power” button.

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Davidson is one of a growing number of motorists who are confused by the car rental industry’s latest additions to their fleets, which include everything from electric vehicles to microcars.

This past summer, Enterprise, the largest rental company, announced a major electric vehicle rollout. You can now rent everything from a Nissan Leaf to a Peugeot iOn. And Hertz expanded its electric car fleet in 2011 to include the Chevrolet Volt, the Smart ED and the Tesla Roadster.

The American Car Rental Association, a trade group, expects more puzzled looks from customers as they rent these new vehicles. But its members have had some experience fielding the questions. “Let’s face it,” says Sharon Faulkner, the group’s executive director. “It doesn’t even have to be an electric car, or a specialty unit, for customers to be confused.”

How true. I remember renting a car in Germany a few years ago. It wasn’t immediately clear how to shift the standard transmission into reverse. It took 20 minutes of fumbling with the gears in the parking lot of a restaurant before I was able to coax the car into backing up. That rental ran on old-fashioned unleaded gasoline.

Stephanie Wolkin recalls the Renault Megane she rented in Montpellier, France. She loaded her luggage into the open trunk and drove off. When she arrived at her rental home, she couldn’t open the trunk. “The key didn’t work, and there was no lever,” says Wolkin, a retiree who lives in White Bear Lake, Minn. “We panicked.”

Two young boys watching the Americans struggle with their voiture finally let them in on the secret to prying open a Megane trunk: Point the key at the rearview mirror in the middle of the windshield, and press the button on the key. “Presto!” she says. “It opened.”

Jody Beck also recalls a rental in France, a car that sometimes refused to start. She phoned the agency, which dispatched a tow truck. “The tow truck driver got the car to start immediately as I tried, in my basic French, to describe the problem,” says Beck, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington. “The hotel owner finally figured out that we didn’t know that the diesel car had a manual choke.”

You don’t have to travel overseas to be confused. Danielle Laatsch rented a car in Pensacola, Fla., a few years ago and couldn’t make the windshield wipers work. “I promptly drove into a storm,” says Laatsch, who now lives in South Korea. “I had to wash the windows every few minutes for an hour to clear off the windshield. And yes, I learned my lesson and now always check out everything in the parking lot.”

That’s good advice, but not necessarily obvious, especially for those of us with a Y chromosome. We’ll figure it out as we go along, we assure ourselves. And we don’t need to read the manual either, even though it’s often conveniently located in the glove compartment.

Faulkner says you shouldn’t leave the car rental facility until you can do the following: start the car, unlock the steering column, turn off the car and remove the key. To that, I would also add: turn on the lights and operate the windshield wipers.

Sure, it sounds basic, but in a world where our cars talk to us and some prefer a charge over a tank of gasoline, you just can’t assume anything anymore. The future can be a confusing place.

“If you don’t feel 100 percent comfortable,” adds Faulkner, “then don’t take the car.”

(Photo: The Listener/Flickr)