Most rental cars don’t get fitted with winter tires. Should they?

By: Lisa Coxon on January 24, 2020

Driving during Canadian winters can be a dicey endeavour. Visibility can reach zero in a matter of minutes, black ice can form quickly on major highways and unmaintained backroads, and suddenly, what felt like asphalt under your vehicle now feels like a skating rink.

In some provinces, the government requires certain drivers to equip their tires with chains to minimize risk. In others, winter tires, which feature deep tread patterns and soft rubber that stays flexible in the cold and grips the road better, are strongly recommended. In Ontario, winter tires are considered so important and such a measure of safety that auto insurance companies are legally required to provide discounts to drivers who have them.

But what if you don’t own a car and instead rent one every now and again? Since it’s not your vehicle, you can’t outfit it with winter tires yourself — that’s up to the rental company. But according to this CBC Edmonton story from 2017, very few in Canada actually do.

We decided to find out if anything’s changed in the last two 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.

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. There’s also a fee, which can range from $20 to $25 a day, depending on the vehicle type.

Enterprise: Winter tires on the Ontario fleet are available by request in the winter months, and the fee ranges from $10 to $15 a day, depending on the rental location.

Why rental companies use all-seasons

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. For winters, you’ll want to look for 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 Dec. 1 to Mar. 15, all of our vehicles are equipped with winter tires at no additional cost.”

According to CBC Edmonton’s story, 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.

The dangers of not having winter tires

Winter tires are pretty crucial, though. 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 reduce their ability to grip the roads.”