Jeff Pink got into the car rental business to save the world — or more precisely, to help clean up the environment.

Before launching his environmentally friendly rental company, EV Rental Cars, Pink was successful in the real estate business in Southern California. But while descending into a smog-enveloped Los Angeles basin after vacationing in Hawaii with his wife, Pink decided he needed to make a change. He wanted a career that made a difference in protecting the environment. So he started researching alternative-fuel vehicles and drew up a business plan.

Since 1998 Pink has served as CEO of EV Rental Cars. Today, the company rents low-emission vehicles in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego and Washington, D.C. The company’s fleet, which currently numbers 260 vehicles, includes Ford Escape Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Civic Natural Gas, Honda Insight and Toyota Prius models.

Over the years, EV Rental has qualified for various government grants to help offset the extra costs associated with purchasing clean-fuel vehicles.

In February, EV formed a marketing partnership with Los Angeles-based Fox Rent-A-Car. Fox operates a reservation system and national affiliate network in addition to running its own corporate rental locations. EV had previously partnered with Budget Rent A Car. Pink now maintains an office at Fox's headquarters, near Los Angeles International Airport. EV Rental's fleet is booked through Fox’s reservation system and rented out from Fox locations.

EV Rental is in growth mode. Pink hopes to have 500 vehicles in EV’s fleet by the end of this year. The company just added nearly 40 Escape Hybrids to its fleet. Another 300 low-emission vehicles are on order.

"We are very excited to debut the Ford Escape Hybrid in a rental car fleet for the first time," Pink says. "We can now offer consumers a chance to try an SUV hybrid before they buy one, and discover how easy they are to operate in everyday driving conditions."

The Ford Escape Hybrid is a full hybrid that reduces exhaust emissions and maximizes fuel efficiency. The vehicle doesn't need to be plugged in to recharge. When running on the gasoline-powered engine, the SUV's electric battery automatically recharges.

The Escape Hybrid has an estimated fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon in city driving. The vehicle delivers the acceleration and performance of a traditional V6, though exhaust emissions are lower than almost all other vehicles on the market.

A panel of 50 automotive journalists from the U.S. and Canada recently named the Escape Hybrid the 2005 Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

EV Rental acquired its Escape Hybrids from Barber Ford in Ventura, Calif., through financing from Amalgamated Bank. But Ford is not making the Escape Hybrid available to the general daily rental market. The vehicle is not mass-produced. In fact, the only mass-produced hybrid is the Prius.

"The last couple weeks, I’ve been traveling around the country and I’ve discovered that nobody knows where you can rent a hybrid," says Joe Knight, vice president of business development for Fox Rent A Car. "That’s especially true on the East Coast in Florida. I believe the focus of our venture with EV will be to bring hybrids to the marketplace as quickly as we can and in as many distribution sites as we can."

Fox plans to promote the EV fleet aggressively through Web marketing, Knight says.

"Fox has been very enthusiastic, and we needed to go with a company that really wants to push us," Pink adds. EV and Fox also plan to promote the clean-fuel fleet to potential corporate and government accounts. In the meantime, the new partnership and hybrid fleet additions have helped generate national consumer press for the Fox and EV brands.