"Nothin' special ya need to know," the kid at the Budget counter shrugs as he hands over the key to the hybrid-electric Toyota I've just rented at San Francisco International Airport...

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SAN FRANCISCO — “Nothin’ special ya need to know,” the kid at the Budget counter shrugs as he hands over the key to the hybrid-electric Toyota I’ve just rented at San Francisco International Airport.

I’ve never driven one of these half-electric-half-gasoline-powered cars. Surely it’s not that simple?

“It’s all the way at the end,” he says stonily, pointing down a row of cars. I hoist my bag and stride past a stately black Lincoln (for renters who want to Make An Impression), a muscly white SUV (for renters who need to drive off-road, like to the mall), then a gold Alero with a macho spoiler (for renters who just need a macho spoiler, wherever they may go).

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I stop in front of my snub-nosed, baby-blanket-blue Toyota Prius, which looks remarkably toadlike.

Clean, green vacations

Since it started in 1998, EV Rental Cars has rented to more than 80,000 drivers, preventing 120 tons of air pollution and saving 75,000-100,000 gallons of gasoline, reports the firm’s president, Terry O’Day. A recent UCLA survey of 5,000 customers who rented a Toyota Prius through EV found that 40 percent had never previously heard of the car and more than 90 percent had never driven one, but users gave the hybrid-electric high ratings. In coming months, EV takes delivery of 2004 Prius models, a redesigned second generation of the auto.

Oh, wait. It has a little bitty spoiler. Yes!

Climbing in, I reach for the operator’s manual in the — empty glove box. No manual. I’ll have to learn to make this toad hop all on my own.

This seemed like a bright idea when I heard how travelers who don’t want to pollute as they vacation can “go green” at car-rental counters in more than a dozen locations around the United States, with hybrid-electric- or natural-gas-powered rentals.

But will I ever get up San Francisco’s steepest hills — the ones where cable-car drivers yodel when they get to the top? Or will my battery fizzle halfway up California Avenue and make me the subject of a garish headline: “Toad car careens backward into bay; Fisherman’s Wharf gone.”


Going green

Rental: Hertz, among others, is talking about adding more environmentally friendly cars to its rental fleet, but for now you must search out “green” choices when you rent a car.

The only exclusively environmentally oriented national rental company is Los Angeles-based EV Rental Cars. Its rental fleet, offered through Budget Rent A Car outlets scattered around the nation, will soon top 500. Cars are primarily Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrid-electrics as well as natural-gas-powered Civics. EV operates mostly in California (including Los Angeles, San Diego, Ontario and Burbank airports). It also customarily rents through Budget in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Palm Springs and Sacramento, though those locations are closed temporarily for the replacement of cars and hiring of a new manager for the region, according to Terry O’Day, EV’s president. Rentals should again be available in those cities by December. EV also rents through Budget in Phoenix and Pittsburgh, plus three locations in Washington, D.C.

Rates: Being green comes with a price. Though the cars compare to compacts in size, daily rental rates are similar to those for full-size cars: $43 to $55 plus tax, with limited free miles.

For reservations: Call 877-EV-RENTAL, which connects you with a Budget Rent A Car agent who can make the arrangements. Or see the Web, www.evrental.com, where you can also learn more about the company. Reserve a car by clicking on a pulldown menu and selecting a city; you’ll automatically be transferred to a Budget reservation page with appropriate codes entered to show EV’s cars available at that location.

Also try: In San Francisco, independent City Rent-A-Car offers the Toyota Prius hybrid-electric for $49 a day, with unlimited miles. Reservations: www.cityrentacar.com (click on “specialty cars”) or 866-359-1331.

I glance at the controls. The driving position is high and upright, like sitting in church. A large lever angles out from the dashboard. I peg it for an oddly placed parking brake, like a foot where your ear should be.

Then I realize, with some alarm, that I can’t find a gear shift.

I peer harder at the odd lever. There’s a vertical arrow next to it. The gear shift? But there are no familiar letters, no comforting “PRNDL.” There’s the letter “P” at the top and — something that sort of looks like a “6.” (It has 6 gears?) Or maybe it’s a “B.” (For brake?)

I’m doing a slow burn at Mr. “Nothin’ Ya Need to Know.” Oh, well, I’ll start it up and — whoa.

A screen lights up in the center of the dash. “Energy Monitor,” it says, with animated displays of a gas engine, batteries and lighted arrows, like my own personal video game. Beyond that, right up under the windshield, a little glowing display shows “PRNDB.” (B again? For “booster”? For “back up”?)

Then I notice: There are no gauges behind the steering wheel. The dashboard in front of the driver is completely blank. A closed book. A sealed, non-user-maintainable unit. What kind of car have I rented?

“God help me,” I mutter, punching the accelerator and lurching toward the exit. “On to Donner Pass!”

Test drive

For three days I put the Prius through its paces. Pushing its pedals, testing its mettle.

Up hills that would give Gov.-will-be Arnold Schwarzenegger white knuckles. (It never hesitates.) Down the serpentine blocks of Lombard Street, zigzagging madly with tires squealing — until a tourist jumps from a cab to snap photos. (The brakes work!)

The little buggy corners like one of those bumper cars at a carnival. In fact, there’s a feeling that it could at any moment twirl 180 degrees on its axis, emitting a shower of sparks from a long pole reaching to an imagined electrified ceiling.

The author’s rented Prius rests near the lookout atop Mount Tamalpais, the highest peak in the San Francisco area.

As I drive, the gas engine engages automatically when the car needs real power — starting out, or going uphill. When driving slowly or coasting, internal combustion ceases and it moves on battery oomph only. All the driver does is step on pedals; the car makes the other decisions. No worries.

The first time on battery mode is eerie. It’s so quiet. The only sound is the “thwick-thwick-thwick” of tires on pavement. It’s said these cars can cause impromptu bladder evacuation in people strolling across parking lots, by sneaking up behind them like a silent little dog with a cold nose. It’s tempting to spend time testing this at malls.

Instead, I opt for an endurance run. I cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and wind along the coast to Stinson Beach. I find a turnoff toward Mount Tamalpais. It’s all uphill from here: eight miles from sea level to the Bay Area’s highest peak, 2,571 feet up.

Checking my watch, I grit my teeth. I scan the road rising into the clouds. I punch the accelerator.

Five minutes later, gamely laboring around S-curves and rocking in my seat at a hill-devouring average of 24 mph — the video thing gives a constant readout — I’m forced to pull over as a local driver in a dented Civic jets past. I pat the Prius’ softly shimmering video display and urge it onward.

In exactly 15 minutes, I roll into the East Peak parking lot. Dramatic views of city and chaparral spread like a blanket below. The video screen says I’ve averaged 22.6 miles per gallon, going straight up. (In around-town driving, expect 50 mpg or more.) As my foot eases off the accelerator, the gas engine quits for a rest. Electric power kicks in. The Prius is on “silent running” as I glide slowly across the parking lot, adding no exhaust fumes to the crisp mountain air.

A grin dances across my lips, and I look around for strolling tourists to sneak up on.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com