Gail Colombo knew she wasn’t crazy. She had taken her year-old Prius to two different dealerships in the San Francisco Bay Area, but neither of the technicians knew what was causing the bothersome rattling noise she had been hearing. Not only that — they didn’t even hear the rattle. After all the blank stares and shrugs, she was about ready to give up. But every time she had nearly forgotten about the rattle, it would start up again. “I was about ready to take a sledgehammer to it,” she recalls.

Then, an acquaintance told her about Luscious Garage, a new auto repair shop in San Francisco that caters almost exclusively to hybrids. When it opened last September, the garage filled a growing need: Of the 255,000 new hybrids registered in 2006, 21,000 were in the Bay Area. And while many hybrid owners still take their cars to dealerships for repairs, a few have found that the "boutique garage" atmosphere at Luscious — friendly mechanics, comfy environs and plenty of individual attention — suits them better than large, impersonal dealerships.

Colombo decided to try it out. On the drive to Luscious, the car rattled away — until she was about three blocks from the dealership, when the noise mysteriously disappeared. “Great,” she thought. “Now they’ll never believe me.”

But she was wrong. When she arrived, she met Carolyn Coquillette, the garage’s owner and primary technician. Coquillette examined the Prius, but didn’t find anything amiss. Instead of dismissing Colombo’s concerns, though, says Colombo, “she suggested we switch cars for a week so she could hear the rattle.”

Since she opened the garage, Coquillette has been making suggestions like this — just to make sure she’s not missing anything. “Basic maintenance of hybrids is almost identical to that of standard cars,” says Coquillette. “The trouble is, the car can get very complicated very quickly, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re liable to get yourself into trouble.”

The other difference between hybrids and standards, Coquillette has found, is their owners. For most people, a car is simply a way to get around. But for hybrid drivers, it’s a lifestyle.

Coquillete, 29, makes sure that the values of the shop match those of her customers. Large plants placed around the 2,000-square-foot work area help to filter the air. The floor is made out of non-toxic concrete, and skylights line the ceiling. Many of the materials Coquillette uses are low-impact, too: The oil isn’t derived from virgin crude, rather it’s refined from oil that’s been used before. She washes parts in biodiesel and brews her own windshield solution from vinegar and water. And the list goes on.

While conventional garages aren’t exactly inviting hangout spots (fume smell, girly calendars on the walls), Coquillette encourages customers to stay and chat in the well-appointed and comfortable upstairs office upstairs (furniture by craigslist) while their cars are being serviced. And Coquillette knows her client base. “We’re like a Whole Foods garage,” she says, laughing. The downstairs bathroom is covered in New Yorker cartoons.

These days, Luscious serves roughly two cars a day, about 90 percent of which are hybrids. San Francisco’s green cab fleet (four cabs strong, and growing) is serviced exclusively by Luscious.

Jack Rosebro is an auto technician and engineer who teaches hybrid repair to technicians and writes for the sustainable vehicle website Green Car Congress. He knows Coquillette and is one of Luscious Garage’s biggest fans — he also believes that the advent of a hybrid specialty garage is a milestone. “It means the hybrid market is going from niche to maturity,” he says. “It's a step that was bound to happen, and now it's here.”

It’s an easy thing to say in San Francisco, where parked Priuses line the hilly streets. But is the rest of the country ready for greener cars? Rosebro believes it’s only a matter of time. He points out that hybrid sales doubled last year in Oklahoma, “which is the last place you’d expect to see hybrids.”

As for Colombo’s Prius, the mysterious rattle persists, but Coquillette is determined to fix it. Next she’s going to try padding some of the parts with cut-up old yoga mats, an idea courtesy of Colombo’s “brainiac nerd engineer husband.” Colombo appreciated the fact that Coquillette was willing to try it — yoga mats sit squarely outside the purview of your average garage.

Luscious is definitely unique — and for now, it’s the only almost-all-hybrids shop in the country. But according to Rosebro, that will probably change soon.

“For the average technician, hybrid technology is quite a steep learning curve,” says Rosebro. “But they're going to have to learn. Those who embrace it are going to do wonderfully.”

Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.

(MNN homepage photo: Photobvious/iStockphoto)