Picking the right Rental Car for Winter Conditions
The most important decision you will make in regards to safe winter driving is selecting the right car. So often we just take which ever car the rental car company assigns, but for winter driving you must be proactive. Often the overeager falls into two camps: Overkillers and Camaros. The overkillers see that it is slightly windy and requests a Hummer. The Camaro camp throws caution to the wind, and can’t believe how cheap renting a Camaro is with the temperature 20 below and 3 feet of snow. They have ALWAYS wanted to drive a Camaro and this is their chance. Big mistake on both counts.
A few key car terms to understand:
RWD-Rear wheel dive. The vehicle is “powered” by the rear two wheels. The front two tires are only used for steering.
FWD-Front wheel dive. You guessed it…the vehicle is “powered” by the front two wheels. The front tires do both the steering and the pulling.
4WD or 4×4-Four Wheel drive-Power is supplied equally to all four tires. Each tire receives power independently. This function must be mechanically engaged to turn on. Think SUVs, pickups and trucks.
AWD-All wheel drive- Through electronic or mechanical means, power is constantly shared to all wheels on a percentage basis. Some of the finest performance cars in the world have very complex and intelligent AWD power distribution systems.
Which is better? It depends. Luci drives a rear wheeled drive Mercedes Benz sedan. It drives like a dream in the snow and ice of our fair Idaho. Mike on the other hand drives an AWD drive Subaru. It is also a sound slick road driver.
Key is selecting which you feel most comfortable with at the time of rental. If you regularly drive a RWD car, know how it handles when you head to the slopes opt for the RWD. If you have never driven a RWD and opt for a Camaro, you are asking for trouble on snow. Trying out a “cool” car driving on snow is NEVER a good idea. Save it for the summer.
We have all seen them. The novices leave their Sentra at home and show up to the ski hill in a huge SUV or truck. If you are not accustomed to driving a huge vehicle with 4×4 powered wheels, you are asking for disaster. Heavy vehicles are difficult to see out of, even more difficult to stop. Mike in his able Subaru often passes “monster” trucks on snowy mountain passes. You really don’t need a huge vehicle to be safe on snowy roads. You need a vehicle that you can operate comfortably.
The next step in finding the right car once you have made a decision on driving wheels, the next consideration is the wheel base. This matters a lot for safe winter driving. You can easily get into trouble especially in Europe where the entire continent worships short wheel base cars. Short wheelbase-think Volkswagen Golf. Long wheel base-think Cadillac. There are hundreds of choices between these two extremes. Key to remember longer is better. Mike took a trip this past year to Austria, Czech Rep, and Poland. He went cheap on the rental. He ended up with a lightweight, short wheelbase car in the middle of a huge snow storm. It was lucky he made it back alive. Longer is better for driving on ice.
Visibility for Winter Driving
One of the inherit dangers of driving in poor weather conditions is visibility. When you get into a car that you are unfamiliar with you are already a few points behind. Add into the mix snow, fog and ice and visibility becomes serious concern. Before leaving the rental yard, check to make sure the window defroster for both the front and rear windscreens are working properly. It is wise to check the windscreen washer fluid level before setting out. The reservoir is under the hood/bonnet and is usually blue in color. Check to see if the rental agency has included an ice scraper in the auto. The ability to visually assess what is happening around you is key to survival on snowy roads.
Helpful hint: Always drive with your low beams in fog. Water reflects high beam light and make visibility difficult.
This is a difficult one. If you agree on the right car and you get out to find that the tires are bald, go back and demand a different auto. Proper tire tread is a must for driving on snow covered roads. Acceleration, turning and braking are all affected by the tire tread. A good rule of thumb is a 3rd of a US penny and half a euro cent is preferred. The deeper the tread the better. Tire tread allows you to grip the road and handle the water and snow.
Use the tools that you are given. Read the weather reports online. Have a good GPS unit in the car. Read the weather and road advisories. Being adequately informed about the conditions and terrain will give you a heads up if tire chains are required. Cell phones are always handy for long road trips. Use the tools provided to avoid being stranded and understand what the conditions are like in front of you.
Helpful hint: Do I need an International Drivers Licence
White knuckle driving is par for the course for winter. It goes without saying when you enter dangerous driving situations increase your focus and uses of your senses. Turn the radio down or off. This will allow you to hear the road noise: slush or water. Hearing how your car is braking will also give you insight into the conditions. Do you slide every time you apply brakes? As stated above, make sure that you make the windshields are clear as possible. Make sure you can see what is happening around you.
We saved one of the most important factors for safe winter driving for last. Slow down. Cars and trucks are incredibly heavy. It takes an average of 235 feet to stop a car going 50 MPH on dry pavement. If you are on solid ice or snow, double that. Just because you do not see the ice, doesn’t mean that it is not there. So called black ice is invisible to the driver and is deadly.
We hope that this winter driving refresher course is helpful. We wish you safe and happy travels this winter. We hope that winter driving takes you somewhere fun!
All great points to take into account when renting a car in snow conditions, great post!
I’m so happy to not have to worry about all this where I live!
Driving on snow isn’t so bad once you get used to it…. We are jealous about places that are warm!
Thanks Michael. This is a real compliment coming from you. Dont know what it is about winter that makes people want to rent crazy autos!
All great tips! I would also add to check if studded tired are allowed and available. These would have come in handy on the very icy roads in Iceland.
The best advice is to stay home and off the roads when there is bad weather. Most people really don’t have to go out they just like pushing the envelope. That is why road crews and people that have to be out in bad weather have a hard time getting things back to some what normal road conditions.
Great points I wasn’t entirely sure what the difference was between fwd and rwd were before either so that’s really good to know thanks for the tips.
I have been pretty fortunate to not have any emergencies while driving in the winter. It is always good to be prepared.
It is really important to be prepared in this kind of weather! Thanks for the post! We also like to go to trips in the mountains summer and winter so the tips are really helpful! :) Thanks!