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We were planning to visit Toronto for a few days and thought of renting a small car (Kia Rio/Chevrolet Spark or similar) during the Winter. The plan is to visit Niagara Falls and visit Montreal and come back. What we mainly wanted to know is,

  1. Whether all the rented car comes with studded/winter tires.
  2. Is it safe to drive a small hatchback for a such trip? Are there any difficult roads for a small car (if we take the main roads) and snow/frost/wind/gusts that may affect the drive?
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    Buffalo NY has set a new snow record this season: 100" so far and counting. Fairly extreme weather is not unusual in that neck of the woods. A lot also depends on your comfort with driving in snow. If you do this on a regular basis, you should be fine, but this is not the best place to "ease in" to the experience.
    – Hilmar
    Dec 28, 2022 at 18:27
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    Why would you rent a car if you only visit Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Montréal?
    – gerrit
    Dec 29, 2022 at 7:47
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    @Hilmar right but Buffalo gets unusual amounts of lake effect snow whereas Toronto gets very little of this. Thus even if the cities are not that far geographically Buffalo must get 20x the amount Toronto does. Dec 29, 2022 at 21:32
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    Being able to safely drive a vehicle in winter weather has more to do with the driver than the vehicle. If you aren't familiar with how to drive on snow and ice, no vehicle or safety devices will make up for that lack of skill. Dec 29, 2022 at 22:34
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    There is less than 1cm of snow on the ground currently in Toronto. More than the type of car, some experience driving in winter conditions would be useful. Or at least the wisdom and schedule slack to stay off the roads until the snow plows, salting and sand trucks have been around in case of a big storm or the unusual but challenging freezing rain. Small side streets can take some time but major roads like the QEW and 401 are usually well in order hours after the precipitation ceases. Dec 29, 2022 at 22:51

5 Answers 5

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If you rent a car in Toronto, it will definitely not have studded tires - they are not allowed in Southern Ontario. In theory a rental car could have winter tires, but in my experience renting cars, even in small towns outside Toronto, they have never had winter tires. (Aka snow tires, these are made of softer rubber and have aggressive tread. I and everyone in my family switch to snow tires each fall and back to summer tires in the spring. "All season tires" are not.)

That said, as long as you stay on major highways (eg the 401 which runs from Toronto most of the way to Montreal) you should be fine. You need to pay attention to broadcasts about conditions though. https://511on.ca/ is an official government site (which is why I am including it as a raw URL) that is usually trustworthy. It fell over during a recent storm-a-geddon over Christmas, but that is unlikely to recur. Here you can see road conditions -- if a road is "snow covered" you should not drive on it without snow tires -- and closures, as well as accidents and areas of congestion.

As you can easily see by looking at pictures taken in Ontario in the winter, they sell small cars here, and people drive them, and generally never have a problem. The size of the car is not the issue, it's the tires. (Sure, 4 wheel drive helps, but mine doesn't kick in on main roads, only on small ones and even then, it's pretty unusual to happen. The little cars will be front wheel drive and that will do you ok, especially on highways.)

You could consider renting a car in Toronto, then returning it and taking the Via train from Toronto to Montreal and renting a different car there. You would skip the longest and scariest parts of the drive that way. The public transit story to Niagara is less good, but Go Transit does have something. It might be a bus depending on the day, you would have to investigate.

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    there are also private bus operators — e.g., Megabus — on the Toronto/Niagara route. The proposed trip visits well-connected places and is perfectly doable without renting a car at all.
    – mlc
    Dec 28, 2022 at 19:07
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    Is it even legal to drive with summer tyres in winter in and around Toronto? I didn't think rental car companies would rent out cars that were dangerous or illegal to drive. When renting a car in winter in Germany or Sweden, it certainly comes with winter tyres.
    – gerrit
    Dec 29, 2022 at 7:46
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    It is not required by law to have winter tires. It is permitted by law to sell "all season" tires even though they are horrible. If you are driving in town on cleared roads, you can get by with summer tires. I live on a country road and have had some terrible times with rental cars, but most people never go on country roads. Also, Canadians (especially rural Canadians) understand that sometimes you just cancel your plans and stay home. Dec 29, 2022 at 12:14
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    I would second Kate's advice on not driving to Montreal from Toronto. It's a 5 hour drive at least depending on the conditions on a very busy road, and having a car in Montreal isn't that useful as a visitor, since the city is quite compact and has very good public transit. Having a car in Toronto can be useful because it's so big, but it also has good public transit. Renting a car to drive to Niagara Falls is probably a better choice than using public transit though.
    – Alan Munn
    Dec 29, 2022 at 15:37
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    @gerrit Only Quebec requires proper winter tires. So if it is what OP is concerned about, they could get a rental from Montreal.
    – xngtng
    Dec 29, 2022 at 15:42
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Quebec requires winter or all-weather (not, as @mbrig points out, "all-season" or "M+S") tires on all cars between December 1st and March 15th. The tires either need to be studded (rare, especially in the cities) or have the logo shown below. This is true for rental cars as well (rules here) and contra @KateGregory, my experience is that the rule is typically obeyed: all 10+ of my winter rentals have indeed had them.

three-peaked snow tire pictogram.

Snow tires do help a lot, but they’re not a panacea, so drive carefully and pack some emergency supplies if you can (water, warm clothes, a blanket, etc). That said, snow clearance in Montreal and on major highways is usually very good. Public transit is also solid in Montreal, so it might be worth seeing whether you need a car at all.

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  • "all-season" tires are marked by an "M+S" logo and do not meet Quebec's requirements, which is maybe why you haven't had the misfortune of having them. In other places, they're legal but notably inferior to snow or "all-weather" tires with the mountain logo.
    – mbrig
    Dec 31, 2022 at 1:20
  • all 10 of your winter rentals in Quebec? We might not disagree. Jan 1, 2023 at 23:08
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First, the suggestion that snow is a problem in Toronto is misguided. Indeed the city is remembered for calling the army after a storm in the late 1990s (see this associated video) In many ways this makes snow in Toronto and area a serious problem as few drivers have experience with driving on snowy surfaces. Thankfully there usually is very little in the way of accumulation in the city itself: snow rapidly turns to slush, which makes sidewalks unpleasant but does not impede driving much. Your major ennemies will be parking and traffic.

Certainly the main highways of the 400 series around and south of Toronto will not be on snow: there is just too much traffic for any precipitation not to melt. You will likely have a wet surface. My experience with tires on rentals is variable but if you are careful you will be no worse off than the average driver.

Driving between Toronto and Montreal on the 401 is an interesting experience, especially as you exit Toronto. There is a lot of trucking on this highway. There are a lot of service stops but (in winter at least) it’s not a terribly memorable drive.

I do not know what you plan to do in Montreal but the metro (subway) is very good there and will efficiently take you to the major tourists spots without having to chase parking spaces. The streets of downtown Montreal are usually on wet pavement so regular winter tires are usually enough.

On balance, aside from your Niagara trip, you can largely do without a car within Toronto and Montreal (unless you want to go to the Toronto Zoo, which is a little out of the way). Driving should not be a problem unless you choose to drive in a snowstorm. Given the price of rentals and gas these days, it is likely cheaper to use public transit, and not that much more trouble if you factor chasing and paying for parking.

You can easily travel by train between Toronto and Montreal. There are multiple trains per day, they are reasonably comfortable and competitively priced (unless you buy walk-up fares). My European colleagues often state they are more spacious than many European trains, although I did not notice that much difference. It is certainly a lot more relaxing than driving along the 401.

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To add on to @MattKrause's answer above, you need winter tires when driving in Quebec:

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Source

Looking quickly, it appears that all car-rental agencies in Quebec use winter tires.

Example #1 - Dollar

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Source

Example #2 - Hertz

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Source

Optimal solutions:

  • Call the rental agency in Toronto and ask if you can rent a car with winter tires
  • Take the train to Montreal
  • Rent your car in Montreal instead of in Toronto
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One very important point that’s mentioned in existing answers but deserves more emphasis: Do you have experience driving in snowy/icy conditions? It involves several specific skills that you never learn or practice in milder climates — not just driving on low-traction surfaces, but also judging how the snow/ice on the road will affect the traction.

If you have some previous experience, then the specific details in other answers should allow you to judge the suitability of the plan. But if you don’t have previous experience, I advise being very cautious — at minimum, plan for a few hours’ driving on small/quiet roads before hitting the highways, to practice in the local conditions. I’ve seen too many experienced warm-climate drivers underestimate the challenges of harsh winter conditions.

Edit: this answer is meant as an addition to the excellent advice in other answers, not an alternative to them.

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  • if you don't have snow tires, you should not drive on snowy roads. Period. The small quiet roads are more likely to be snowy. The major highways are more likely to be completely bare and not need special skills. The map linked to in my answer lets you see in advance if a road is bare or snow covered. I worry this advice will lead to going in the ditch on a small road when there wouldn't have been a problem on the highway. Jan 1, 2023 at 22:55
  • @KateGregory: Absolutely agreed re “if you don't have snow tires, you should not drive on snowy roads”, and with everything in your excellent answer! What I’m adding is that you also need appropriate driving skills. I’ve seen too many mild-climate drivers read good advice like yours, but misunderstand it as meaning they just need to get winter tyres or avoid visible snow, and then they can drive like they would at home. And I would say you do need the winter experience even on highways — e.g. recognising when there is a danger of black ice.
    – PLL
    Jan 1, 2023 at 23:04

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