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Front wheel or All wheel drive rental??

Greeting everyone! I know most people on here travel by train, but we have chosen to rent a car for a little more freedom. We'll have 4 people (4 suitcases) and are traveling Munich, Salzburg, Hallstatt and Vienna. We'll be driving in early December. The front wheel drive option is the least expensive (by quite a large margin). However, we're concerned about getting into bad weather or being restricted somehow by not having all wheel drive. The other option is a bit roomier (SUV) but also quite a bit more expensive. What would be the best option given we will be there in the winter and in mountains for part of the trip? Would you save the $$ for other things or go for the comfort of the roomier vehicle since we'll be doing lots of driving? Thanks in advance for your responses!!

Posted by
23412 posts

I am with Ken. Living in Denver we often get that question and always recommend front wheel drive. A little slipping and sliding can be a good thing to remind you that the road is slick. Unless you have lots of experience with four wheel drive, it can be more dangerous than two wheel simply because you don't know how to handle it. Four wheel is no advantage in stopping (skid control is) and four wheel will mask the slipperiness of the road on start up. Most of the vehicles that are often off the road in a mountain storm are four wheel. If road conditions are bad enough that you need a four wheel, you should be drinking wine in front of a fire. (For the technical group - I know there is a difference between four wheel and all wheel but for this discussion I consider them the same since average performance is the same.)

Posted by
2876 posts

Austria has what are probably the best roads and highways in Europe - and I've driven them in winter - and IMO you'll be totally OK in a front-wheel drive vehicle.

Posted by
1021 posts

I've driven in the Rockies in winter a number of times. Front wheel drive handles curvy, inclined, snowy roads just fine. AWD could be beneficial in deep snow or off-pavement. Absent those conditions, front wheel drive will be sufficient.

Posted by
32241 posts

JR, Regardless of whether the vehicle is front-wheel or all-wheel drive, one other concern is whether the rental agency will be using proper winter tires. I've never driven in Austria in the winter, but I've been driving in Canadian winters for over 40-years and having proper tires is extremely important! It's been a "pet peeve" of mine for years that the car rental agencies here usually use all-season tires, which are NOT suitable for winter driving. We have many visitors to this area in the winter heading for the local Ski Hills, and I cringe at the thought of them heading up the mountain with all-season tires! Hopefully, there are more stringent regulations in Europe that will compel the use of proper winter tires. Cheers!

Posted by
975 posts

Germany requires winter tires (according to Bimmerfest and BMW Welt) and insurance is invalid if you're caught driving without them and have an accident. We're renting winter tires in December in Munich, but can you call the car rental company and find out? I used to have a small Audi with front wheel drive with awesome gripping in bad weather. If you're going to be mostly in the cities the smaller car would be much easier to park.

Posted by
101 posts

I've driven my front wheel drive sedan w/all season tires all over Germany for 5 years with no issues. Your rental should have snow tires as Germans don't do all-season tires. BTW, I grew up in Hoptown and learned to drive there...you'll be fine.

Posted by
32241 posts

Sam, One might be able to get-by with all-season tires in an urban setting, where regular plowing / sanding / salting is done, but there's no way I'd want to try that with some of the roads in this area in the winter. For a couple of current examples, have a look at THIS or THIS (of course these will look much nicer in the spring). Regarding the issue of four-wheel drive, I've had some heated discussions with different people about he need for proper winter tires. The people that argue the loudest with statements like "I don't need winter tires, I have four-wheel drive" are usually the ones that end up on their roof in a ditch! Having worked as a Paramedic for almost 30-years, I've seen this numerous times. Cheers!

Posted by
32241 posts

John, "The underlying reality is, how good of a driver are you? " I would add to that "how much experience do you have with winter driving?" I've never been to Kentucky, but I doubt they get as much snow every year as other parts of the country.

Posted by
307 posts

I echo Ken and Frank's comments. Proper winter tires are very important. The difference between 2 wheel and 4 wheel is essentially that 4 wheel will help get you THROUGH deeper snow, rough terrain, etc better than a 2 wheel, but for well maintained highways a 4 wheel is not really any safer as it does not increase the amount of contact your vehicle has with the road surface( your four tires). If you're not driving prudently for the conditions, 4 wheel drive will not do any better keepng you on the road than a 2 wheel drive will. I live in Canada and have lots of experience driving in winter, including heavy snow. For many years I drove a front wheel drive with no problems. The keys to winter driving are : Good snow tires, reduced speed, prudent driving, and stay parked if the road conditions are really bad.

Posted by
332 posts

Forgive me if this has already been mentioned, snow tires are REQUIRED in some parts of Germany in the wintertime. I too come from a snowy part of the country and have driven cars and trucks from rwd to awd to 4wd. My preference is an awd car. I have found it handles better in rain conditions as well as snowy weather. Snow tires are an extra cost on rental cars. In my case, upon arrival at the Munich airport my choice was a diesel Audi A4 estate or some type of van equipped with snow tires. From this, my understanding is they do not put snow tires on a vehicle for you, you take what they have in the class of vehicle that you have reserved. Unfortunately I don't know if we had a quattro or not. We drove down into Garmisch, Fussen, Rothenburg and back to Munich. With 4 people on paved roads, I would go with a fwd vehicle with snow tires if an awd is not available. Look into a Ford Mondeo/Audi A4 sized or similar. The underlying reality is, how good of a driver are you?
Good luck and enjoy your trip. It is beautiful that time of the year.

Posted by
44 posts

Thanks to all who weighed in! We decided to go with the more expensive AWD. I know it doesn't sound like the smartest financial move, but considering there will be 4 of us and 1 is very young and 1 is a senior we thought it would be the smartest choice. We just don't want to take a chance for us to run into snow and get stuck somewhere or be restricted from going somewhere because we didn't have it. With our luck, we'd rent the FWD and there would be a foot of snow and be really nasty driving. Now that we went with the AWD we probably won't see a flake of snow. We are both good drivers and used to FWD in snow, but we remember our trip last year and how solid we felt in the bad conditions with the AWD (smaller SUV since we had less people and less expensive than this year). We followed a VW driving backwards up a snow covered road because it could not get traction going forward. In the end, our peace of mind was more important for the 4 of us than the money. (It's a bit roomier too...lots of driving this time!) Less $$ to play with, but a bit more confidence if we need it. Happy travels to all!!

Posted by
144 posts

depending on where you plan to site see and really go depends. on what you should get. That being said whether or not you an experienced winter drive I would opt always for AWD regardless of the season because you get better grip, traction, and gas mileage. Also for the person from Canada, kentucky and other midwestern states can sometimes if not often get worse winters than us here in New England, one of the reasons i refuse to live in that part of the country. Summers and winters are just like new england, but worse. Now my ex knows why i didnt move with her to chicago lol

Posted by
425 posts

You could buy a set of snow chains with the money you save getting a 2WD car. They would be good "insurance" against getting stuck.

Posted by
416 posts

JR, 4WD isn't for keeping you on the road. It is for getting you back on when you slide off into the ditch. :-) Seriously, though, I lived in the Colorado foothills for over 3 years and had 4WD cars because some roads around us were not paved (including the one we lived on) and quickly learned that a 4WD will slide off the road just as easily as a FWD if you don't drive with caution. When it happened, 4WD made it easier to get out of the ditch and back onto the road. Further, my sister lived in the Burgundy region in France for 18 months and their cars were both FWD. We had no problem driving up into the mountains in December in them. Proper tires and/or chains should be all you need.

Posted by
12172 posts

Front wheel drive is fine, unless you are going to ski areas. All wheel keeps the front wheels in front of the back wheels during normal driving, but won't keep you from sliding any time you brake. Good tires and front wheel drive will keep you moving nearly as well.

Posted by
23412 posts

Nancy and others with winter driving experience are absolutely correct. When I read this statement ---------- remember our trip last year and how solid we felt in the bad conditions with the AWD ---------- I knew he was a candidate for the ditch. A four/AWD vehicle is no more solid on the road than a FW drive BUT it gives the impression that you are which is dangerous because you tend to go faster thinking the road is not as slippery. Plus SUVs have a higher center of gravity which makes them easier to roll over.

Posted by
44 posts

Thanks for all your input! However, I have to disagree with several statements. I have rear-wheel, front-wheel and 4wd vehicles and I would rather be in 4wd on bad roads. We are both VERY experienced drivers especially in not so great conditions given our professions. We are not strangers to snow and ice and we both grew up with FWD. The decision was mostly made on info I did not give and that was who will be with us (one very young child and one senior). We were also considering how much time we would spend in the car and the space we would want to be comfortable as well as cargo space for bags (sorry, we don't travel with just a backpack in the winter with a kid). We are aware of how to drive on snowy roads and especially aware of how slick the roads can be. You cannot say a FWD vehicle can do anything or go the same places an AWD vehicle can go. I lived in MT and know since I owned a FWD before I got my 4WD...it made a BIG difference in the mountains and even around town on unplowed streets. Given these factors, I would rather be in an AWD SUV with the passengers we have than a FWD car, even if it is for the "just to be safe" factor or the space (I would have chosen a different vehicle if it was just 2 of us.). We are guests in those countries and never know what we may encounter. I'd rather be safe than sorry. And Frank...never been in a ditch in either type of vehicle...careful who you judge.

Posted by
1021 posts

As you are experienced in driving in winter conditions and familiar with the different kinds of vehicles and their performance, I have to wonder why you bothered to post your question. Everyone has taken the time to give you their best advice but it seems you didn't really need it.

Posted by
12040 posts

If you're worried about break failure on steep mountain downhills, AWD would be a useful consideration... however, except from some backroads, most routes through the Bavarian Alps travel through valleys, not up and down mountains. I agree with the others, you are extremely unlikely to encounter any conditions in these well-traveled areas where AWD would need to be a serious consideration.

Posted by
671 posts

Yes, I would agree with everyone else (not for JR but for anyone else with this same question). Front wheel drive with snow tires will do the trick- we had this with our 2 year old in the car and hit very snowy conditions in the Alps and did well! I have experience with both AWD and front wheel drive and mountain driving in the snow, and I feel safe renting the same (front wheel drive/snow tires) on this December trip over, as well.

Posted by
2349 posts

I LOVE what Frank said about a little slipping and sliding being a good thing because it reminds you that the roads are treacherous. Seems to me that people in the big SUVs either drive 20-30 mph faster than they should because they feel invincible, or they drive 20 mph below everyone else because they're afraid of putting that $50k vehicle in the ditch. The best car I ever had for snow was a 78 VW Scirocco-it when anywhere, anytime.

Posted by
719 posts

Hi JR,
I was in many of those areas last christmas, and I rented a front wheel drive WITH snow tires in Munich. I headed into the alps with no problem or anywhere else in Bavaria (it was -16 for a few days!). If you are at all comfortable driving in winter conditions, I say save the money and get the FWD.

Posted by
44 posts

Just returned from our trip to Germany and Austria and we had decided to rent the AWD. We are VERY glad we did since we had snow from the time we landed. The main roads were mostly fine, but we weren't on the main roads a lot, especially in the mountains. Going up and down snow covered mountain roads would have been tricky in FWD. We also appreciated the space we had (4 people including a small kid)...just enough room for our luggage, coats, kid stuff... Went by several ski areas and were off the beaten path a lot. Could we have done it in FWD? Probably, but we enjoyed the size of the SUV and security on snow covered back roads in the mountains. Never a slip, never a problem. Roomy enough for everyone to comfortable on long drives. Thanks for the input.

Posted by
1021 posts

Glad it went well for you, but I have to say that I've driven over snow covered, winding roads to numerous ski resorts in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Alberta in rental sedans with FWD without a problem.

Posted by
76 posts

I think JR has made the correct choice in an AWD vehicle. My opinion is based on driving on and off the roads and highways of Colorado since 1973, in many, many vehicles from a 1968 American Motors Ambassador with bald tires driving from Ft. Collins to Steamboat Springs during a snowstorm and cleverly bypassing the chain-up stop on I-70, to full-blown white-knuckle off-roading in a fully chained up V8-powered Blazer. Four-wheel drive vehicles in fact DO stop better than non-4WD vehicles, because engine braking is applied to 4 wheels instead of two. The generality that stopping means braking is a red herring argument; stopping begins with slowing, and engine braking (decelerating/slowing without brakes) is much more effective with 4WD and AWD vehicles. Tire ion is not as simple as choosing "snow" tires over "all-season" tires. For several years I very successfully used summer-tread radials on an off-road vehicle during winter hunting trips on 4WD roads. Conversely, just recently I discarded some "winter" tires because they were inferior in traction to a set of all-season tires on a FWD passenger vehicle. Traction is typically more about the rubber compound than the tread design, on snow. So, IMHO, for maintained, paved road driving in snow, I would recommend in this order, AWD, 4WD, FWD. The traction afforded by 4 driven wheels can offset deficiencies in tires. And AWD is superior to 4WD on pavement, for lots of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Driver skill and experience is the overarching, controlling factor. Any vehicle can be put in the ditch if mismanaged.

Posted by
12040 posts

JR is probably back from Europe by now, so the question is now moot. But for future reference, here was my experience this weekend in the Alps. There was a major snowstorm on Thursday night which dropped about a foot of snow. By the time I arrived on Friday, the autobahns were completely clear, and the secondary roads only had a small amount of packed snow and slush on them. Only residential areas had any significant amount of snow left on the roads, and it was all packed. Easy to drive on at the residential zone speed limit, which is 30 km/h (or about 18 mph). So, I repeat. Even in the winter, unless you need to reach an isolated mountain hut, there is no need to rent an AWD vehicle in this part of Europe.

Posted by
1498 posts

I would have thought that no thread could be more contentious than white training shoes in Europe; but, this might be it. Glad that JR got back. We traveled by train through the countryside and could see the packed snow and ice on the secondary roads. I was just feeling smug about taking the train when we passed an older woman riding her bike between villages. I was humbled.

Posted by
331 posts

I haven't read all of the responses so someone else may have already given you this advice, but winter tyres are a must in my opinion. We run our British car here in Germany without the mandatory winter tyres (not obligatory for foreign cars not registered in Germany) and we are struggling with the snowy conditions. We needed a push today from helpful Germans to get out of a car park.

Posted by
2297 posts

"I would opt always for AWD regardless of the season because you get better grip, traction, and gas mileage." Sorry, but this is the first time ever that I hear of an AWD getting better mileage. In fact, when I had to rent an AWD while my FWD was in the shop I was shocked that I paid more than twice as much for gas than on my own van (which doesn't get great mileage eithr). Our own experience with winter driving in Germany was last winter. Took us over 2 hours to make a 90 km stretch in a FWD. Did my husband (driver) wish he had an AWD? No, it wouldn't have made a difference as 99% of all cars around us and especially IN FRONT us were not AWD and driving extremely slow. There was no way of passing them, even in an AWD we couldn't have done it.

Posted by
331 posts

And for those of us who know how to spell 'tyres' (although not staircases) a merry Christmas to you too.

Posted by
12040 posts

Since this thread popped up again, I'll share what I have observed so far in this, my first full winter in Europe... snow removal abilities vary greatly from region to region! So far, Bavaria gets my vote for most efficient removal. I was in the Alps the day after a huge snow storm, and all but the residential streets were completely cleared. In my region of Germany... the autobahns stay open, but I'm still seeing snow on the secondary roads from a storm several days ago. They haven't even touched my street. In the Flemish region of Belgium, they did a great job of keeping the highways open. Absolute worst I have encountered so far is the Walloon region of Belgium. Three days after a major storm, only one of 3 lanes on the E40 was barely open. I could see secondary roads off the highway that looked like they hadn't been plowed at all. PS, Shoni, you may have noticed that we Yankees spell certain words differently (tires, humor, color, labor, aluminum, estrogen, hematology, etc.) PPS- Does that mean that we shouldn't have a Merry Christmas if we spell "tires" differently?

Posted by
331 posts

Absolutely not, a very merry Christmas to all who like alternative spelling.