Car vs SUV rental for winter driving?
December 13, 2007 9:05 PM   Subscribe

What is the best rental car option for winter driving? I am going to be renting a car in Boston and driving up to Vermont. The rental agencies won't guarantee a car with 4 wheel drive. So am i better off with a regular car or an SUV?
posted by metahawk to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total)
An SUV without 4/AWD is not going to be necessarily better than a regular car. I'd go with something that you are most used to driving, and that you can easily find chains for (and put on).
posted by oneirodynia at 9:11 PM on December 13, 2007

You will almost certainly not need chains - I lived in New England (MA, ME, and NH) for more than 10 years and never used them. Never met anybody who used them until I moved to CA. oh, the irony.

SUVs can be tippy, especially if you're not used to driving one. Get something that you already know how to handle, whether or not it has 4WD. If you're not used to driving in snowy or icy conditions, just remember to take it slow, and don't pump your brakes, and don't speed up or slow down to fast - anticipate.
posted by rtha at 9:23 PM on December 13, 2007

Don't worry too much about it. Careful driving is key rather than 4-wheel drive or chains. I say this as someone who lives in Syracuse, winner of the Golden Snowball Award for the past few years running, and as someone who drives a MINI Cooper. I mean, my off-roading ability is nil, but assuming that you aren't in the middle of a snowstorm and the roads are being plowed (i.e. you aren't stuck in snowbanks), slower speeds and defensive driving are all you need. Heck, I've never even had snow tires on any of the cars I've owned.
posted by stefnet at 9:28 PM on December 13, 2007

I'd get something with front wheel drive, but otherwise, I wouldn't sweat it.
posted by padraigin at 9:30 PM on December 13, 2007

If they can't guarantee 4wd then anything with 2wd is your best option.

Up here in Canada we drive on winter tires. Nobody uses chains except on tractors. It's worth checking with your rental if they have winter tires but I bet they don't. They'll say 'all-season' which is what we call summer tires.

All cars are 4wd when braking so the key things to watch are acceleration and cornering and getting stuck. Getting stuck is rarely dangerous. Wheelspin on acceleration is not that big a deal in a 2wd. So watch your cornering and don't brake on corners.

The basic thing is to take it easy. If you are doing 40mph or less it is pretty hard to hurt yourself if you hit something (unless it is going in the opposite direction).

It's helpful to have a thermometer. The most dangerous traction situations are always when the temperature is hovering around freezing.
posted by unSane at 9:38 PM on December 13, 2007

An SUV without 4 wheel drive may be a rear wheel drive vehicle, depending on the model. And an SUV with 4 wheel drive is probably going to default to rear wheel drive unless you have 4 wheel drive engaged, which you don't want to do unless you have to because it is murder on fuel economy. But again, this all depends on the type of SUV.

You're better off with a front wheel drive vehicle in the snow and ice, it will lose traction in a more predictable manner than a rear wheel drive vehicle.
posted by 517 at 9:38 PM on December 13, 2007

I mean 'anything with FWD' not '2WD' above. Duh!
posted by unSane at 9:39 PM on December 13, 2007

Boston plows theirs streets. Just about anything with front wheel drive will be fine. An econobox with narrow tires will actually be better than most vehicles including many 4wd suvs, unless you have really deep snow.
posted by caddis at 9:39 PM on December 13, 2007

don't speed up or slow down to too fast

posted by rtha at 10:19 PM on December 13, 2007

I live in Boston, and I drive a small 2-door Saturn with all-weather tires year-round. No chains, no 4WD, just a tiny underpowered car made out of plastic.

I've had zero problems getting around. That said, we just got about a foot of snow tonight (and I drove home through the thick of it during rush hour), and we've a good chance of a *real* Nor'easter blowing in over the weekend.

If I had to, right now, I could take my tiny plastic box to Vermont. I wouldn't enjoy it but the biggest issues would be the traffic, road crews, and visibility. Neither SUVs nor 4WD will help you there.

Just drive carefully, and don't be an idiot - you'll be fine.
posted by Ryvar at 11:22 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh, and to echo others - FWD is definitely a major win.
posted by Ryvar at 11:26 PM on December 13, 2007

The advantage of an SUV over a car, given equivalent drive system (4WD, FWD), is ground clearance. That's basically it.

When I lived in Maine, I drove a Jeep1 purely because my VW2 kept getting stuck in the snow. Aside from getting stuck, it was a great car to drive in the winter, and I think most modern front-wheel drive cars are (gone are the days of the big American RWD behemoth sedans, for the most part). But if you ever tried to pull into an un-plowed parking space with it, or get over a big lump of snow that the plows had left in the entrance to a parking lot, it was likely to get stuck. The snow would just jam under the car and lift the front wheels off the ground and then you were not going anywhere until you got out and pushed the car backwards or had someone pull you out. After a few years of this (and lots of getting out and shoveling my own parking spaces) I sold it and bought a Jeep.

Whether this is a major concern to you depends on where you are going. If you're only going to be driving from one hotel to another, parking in garages or in well-maintained lots with lots of free space (so you'll be able to find one that doesn't have 8" of snow in it), a FWD sedan ought to be just fine. But if you're going to be out in places where you're going to have to take whatever parking you can find, I'd get all the ground clearance you can.

If the weather says it's going to snow, make sure you have a shovel and some ice-melt in the car. (Also, if you're leaving the car outside at night and it's snowing, bring the shovel inside with you. There's nothing worse than having to dig or trudge through a few feet of standing snow and dig your car door out with your hands, because you left your shovel in your car.)

The major downside to getting an SUV is that some of the rental companies may have bought ones that are RWD. I would avoid those like the plague; not only do they have all the pitfalls of a RWD car (no weight over the wheels = stuck), but they also have the tipping hazards of a SUV, plus they're big and easy to fishtail. A rear-wheel-only SUV is a sad beast indeed.

Bottom line: if you have the same drive-wheel configuration, I'd always pick an SUV for winter driving in areas with lots of snow, and just remember not to go fast around corners if you're used to small cars. But if there's a chance the SUV might be RWD, run away.

1: A Jeep Liberty, the smallest of their line at the time except for the Wrangler. (Now they have a smaller one, but it's a pansy unibody crossover vehicle.) It had selectable 4WD/RWD. It was a great snow vehicle. I sold it as soon as I left Maine, however.
2: A VW New Beetle. Most of the VWs, especially the Beetle, are plagued by a "snowplow" air dam that hangs just under the front bumper and pretty much ensures you get stuck on any snow pile higher than about 6". I used to get stuck almost weekly, almost always in poorly-plowed parking lots.

posted by Kadin2048 at 11:50 PM on December 13, 2007

Echoing Kadin here. Also, SUVs are heavier than a FWD sedan and all things being equal, when you're trying to stop on ice, the car with less momentum will stop before an SUV does.

Driving up to Mt. Hood here in Oregon, you'll see a bunch of SUVs in ditches and stuck on the side of the road, all angled weird and obviously spun out. Those rigs give you a false sense of security. Gimme a 4WD or FWD car instead.
posted by Tacodog at 2:50 AM on December 14, 2007

See if you can get something with anti-lock brakes. (I'm not sure if those are just standard now, but I find them very helpful on slippery roads.)

Definitely don't get an SUV. And have a fun trip!
posted by miss tea at 5:02 AM on December 14, 2007

In my experience renting cars in Boston (40-50 times/year), SUV will often mean mini-van and it really doesn't get worse than that driving in the snow and ice. Pay absolutely no heed to what the car rental tells you you're likely to get in the class you select. I've selected "Compact" and gotten a Lincoln Town Car. I've selected "SUV" and been "upgraded" to a 2-seat convertible. Whee.

Anyway, like most people above said, get the cheapest car you can and drive slowly. Stay off the roads when it looks really bad.
posted by MarkAnd at 5:38 AM on December 14, 2007

(Now they have a smaller one, but it's a pansy unibody crossover vehicle.)

Enterprise just put me in a pansy unibody crossover vehicle (Jeep Compass) as a rental while my car is getting fixed or totaled. The pansy unibody crossover does not have 4WD, only FWD, and surprisingly completely sucks in the snow. I was spinning my wheels last night as my neighbors Taurus was cutting through the foot of snow with ease. I miss my FWD sedan big time.

To reiterate what others have said, I've lived here in Boston my entire life. Never used chains. Come to think of it, I've never seen anyone use chains either. Only needed snow tires (4 of them at that) when I had a poorly thought out experiment with a RWD Mustang in the late 90s. Get something FWD, drive slow and be cautious, you'll be fine.
posted by jerseygirl at 5:55 AM on December 14, 2007

If I were you, I would choose an AWD (or 4WD) SUV over a FWD car. I've owned several of both. If the weather gets bad, there's simply no beating the AWD.

I don't have experience with AWD cars, but I don't doubt people who suggest those may be better than AWD SUVs for stopping distance (and, like people have said, AWD is no help for braking -- the best you can do is anti-lock brakes, which are pretty much standard on all recent cars). I think the tipping fear (particularly in newer models) is exaggerated. The manufacturers have made major improvements in rollover avoidance in SUVs since the 1990s.

To sum up, here's my suggestion:

AWD car > AWD SUV > FWD car > FWD SUV > RWD anything
posted by pardonyou? at 6:45 AM on December 14, 2007

Really, if you could rent a Subaru, there wouldn't be any arguments :).

Seriously though, I drove a VW GTI (aka suped-up super Rabbit) in Boston and Maine for four years. I slid only about three or four times total. I even drove up to Vermont from Boston in a horrendous blizzard. Because I wasn't driving an AWD car, or even one with snow tires, I just went slowly. Amazingly, slowing down works really well to maintain control of your car. Good luck. You should be fine.
posted by nursegracer at 7:53 AM on December 14, 2007

I have to directly contradict what Ryvar said. I just got rid of the same underpowered plastic car (Saturn coupe), and I had nothing BUT trouble with it in snow (and I'm from Ohio, used to driving through snowstorms, afraid of nothing, etc). If there was a few inches of snow, it became a paperweight, but I digress...I drove up to VT several times in it, and had to leave it on a main road and have someone come get me when I wanted to go to my sister's house. It simply would not have made it. Know that VT is QUITE rural, and there are lots more dirt and small roads that you might expect, as well as long stretches between highway exits. If you are going to be leaving any main roads or highways in the winter, you'll likely need something with 4wd. My sister/BIL very quickly found this out and traded in their minivan for an SUV. It's true, though, that Boston and environs roads are plowed well. It's VT that should be your concern. That said, VT is beautiful - have fun!
posted by FlyByDay at 8:41 AM on December 14, 2007

Hertz rents Subaru Outbacks and Volvo Cross-Country estate (station) wagons. Otherwise go for a front wheel drive.
posted by wfc123 at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2007

Seconding that, I rent Volvo XC70s from Hertz in Portland ME to drive out to the mountains. What they've told me to do is make the reservation on-line, then call 1-2 days before picking up the car and ask them to hold a Subaru or Volvo for me. Seems to work!
posted by nicwolff at 4:15 PM on December 14, 2007

winter driving tips
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:34 PM on December 14, 2007

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