This article has been updated from a previous version.
Driving during Canadian winters can be dicey. Visibility can reach zero in a matter of minutes, while black ice can form quickly on major highways and unmaintained backroads. Suddenly, what felt like asphalt under your vehicle now feels like a skating rink.
70 per cent of Canadians use winter tires. In some provinces like British Columbia and Quebec, not only are you legally required to have winter tires, certain drivers also have to equip their tires with chains to minimize risk.
Elsewhere, winter tires, which feature deep tread patterns and soft rubber that stay flexible in the cold and grip the road better, are strongly recommended.
In Ontario, winter tires are highly recommended. In order to incentivize this safety precaution, auto insurance companies offer discounts of up to 5% to drivers who have them.
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But what if you don’t own a car and instead rent one every now and again? Since it’s not your own vehicle, you can’t outfit it with winter tires yourself — that’s up to the rental company. However, not every company installs winter tires on all their cars.
Which companies install winter tires to their cars?
We decided to find out if anything’s changed in the last few years, and reached out to three of Canada’s major rental car companies to see if their Ontario fleets are equipped with winter tires or not.
Here’s what we learned:
Budget/Avis: Winter tires on the Ontario fleet are available by request from November to April on mid-size, full-size, and compact vehicle groups, but there’s an additional fee, which starts at $20 per day. All other cars are equipped with all-season tires (mud + snow) at no additional cost.
Hertz: Winter tires on the Ontario fleet are available by request in the winter months, primarily at airport locations, since this is where they’re most requested by customers, or in provinces where they’re required by law. There’s also a fee, which can range from $20 to $25 a day, depending on the vehicle type (economy vs. Premium).
Enterprise: Winter tires on the Ontario fleet are available by request with scarce inventory in the winter months, and the fee ranges depending on the rental location and length of rental period. The only location where all vehicles are equipped with winter tires is in Quebec with no additional charge.
Why rental companies use all-season tires
Unless requested, Ontario rental cars from Budget/Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise are equipped with all-season tires.
You’ll be able to tell your tires are all-seasons if they have an “M+S” symbol, which stands for mud and snow. Winter tires feature a snowflake symbol.
Why are winter tires only brought in on a by-request basis in Ontario, though?
“We follow the standards and requirements of provincial legislation requiring the use of all season mud and snow and winter tires,” a spokesperson from Enterprise said in an email.
“For example, Ontario does not legislate the use of winter tires. However, in Quebec, where all passenger vehicles are required to install four winter tires from December 1 to March 15, all of our vehicles are equipped with winter tires at no additional cost.”
While mud and snow tires are approved for use in British Columbia - only if the tire has a tread depth of 3.5mm, they don’t meet the mandatory winter tire requirement in Quebec.
It also costs rental companies money to outfit vehicles with winter tires, and because they replace the cars so frequently — often every six months or so — it doesn’t make fiscal sense.
Read more: Best winter tires for driving in Canada
The dangers of not having winter tires
Winter tires are crucial for driving in winter. They perform significantly better than all-seasons on icy and snowy roads because they’re made with a different rubber compound than all-seasons.
“This compound remains flexible in colder temperatures (below seven degrees Celsius),” says Saar Haimovici, an automotive expert at Canadian Tire, “which allows the tires to grip better to the road during inclement weather.”
Winter tires also have more “aggressive tread” which helps improve things like traction, grip and braking in wintry conditions.
“Winter tires stop on average six feet shorter than all-season tires on ice,” says Haimovici.
“The biggest risk to driver safety is missing that sharp clean stop anytime the temperature dips below seven degrees celsius and all-season tires begin to harden and have reduced ability to grip the roads.”
If you’re renting a car for a winter getaway, always request winter tires with your rental company when available. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do if the car rental company is out of cars with winter tires. In those situations, you’ll want to make more an effort to drive carefully and defensively.
And if extra-ugly weather is on the way, consider staying put and avoiding going out in the roads in the first place.