Skip to main content

What to look for in a winter rental car

Wintertime is notorious for poor driving conditions such as ice, rain, snow, and thick mud, so you need to choose wisely when picking a rental car to keep you and your passengers safe. Luckily, the best car rental services carry many options to fit your needs. Here's a look at the types of wintertime rental car choices and how one of the most important safety choices can affect your driving.

Winter rental cars: Know your options

Snowy, muddy, wintertime conditions seem to require big sport utility vehicles or SUVs. That's not necessarily true, though. If you want a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, there are several viable rental car options, such as crossovers.

Crossover vehicles combine elements of rugged SUVs and mid-sized vehicles. These cars generally get better gas mileage because they are smaller, but they also have the same off-road features as an SUV, such as four-wheel drive, traction control and bigger tires.

Many cars also have features that can get you through adverse driving conditions as well. Various mid-sized vehicles, for example, have traction control. The most important feature to look for in any vehicle, though, is how the wheels function.

The trick to choosing the right rental: Check the wheels

Whether you rent an SUV, crossover or sedan, the choice between front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive is one of your most important decisions. Four-wheel drive or 4x4 is the best feature for getting you out of large amounts of snow or mud. Four-wheel drive means that all of the wheels are connected to the drive shaft and powered by the engine, which gives the vehicle greater traction and more control. Four-wheel drive is most often available on SUVs and other large vehicles, such as trucks. The downside is that four-wheel drive vehicles use more fuel.

Subaru Crosstrek

Look for a car that has a suitable amount of control.  (Image credit: Subaru)

Front-wheel drive is your next best option. Front-wheel drive means that only the front wheels are actively turned by the vehicle's engine. Choosing a car with front-wheel drive is better than choosing a car with rear-wheel drive because the weight of the engine over the wheels provides the car with more traction. This extra weight gives the wheels extra grabbing power when driving through snow and over ice, according to the United States Department of Energy. Front-wheel drive is very common and can be found on SUVs, mini-vans and cars.

How do you know which rental cars have four-wheel drive, front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive? The best way to get the car you want is to specifically ask for it. You will probably have to go into the rental service's local branch to request a four-wheel or front-wheel drive vehicle since most car rental websites don't offer this option. The local rental car service branch will be able to look in their database for cars that specifically meet your needs.

Which car is right for you? 

As you can see, you can get a rental car that meets your cargo and gas-mileage needs while still getting a vehicle that will trudge through the whatever cold winter mess mother nature chooses to unleash. More often than not, the trick is to check for the type of wheels on the rental you're considering. Remember, not all cars are made equal in terms of traction control or power, so always consult the local weather forecast before making your final decision.