Ford Explorer

You might think that 4WD vehicles would be a cash cow for rental companies. And while that may be the case in some winter climates and that rental companies would want to stock up and offer them out for bookings, the devil is, as they say, always in the details.

The biggest obstacle to reserving a 4WD vehicle is logistical. The rental companies simply don't want to promise that they will be able to provide one. Their systems aren't set up to differentiate 4WD (or AWD) from 2WD, and so if a 2WD truck or Suburban or Explorer ends up in their fleet--say, on a one-way rental coming to Denver from Florida--they want the flexibility to be able to rent it out.

But honestly, there's a secret that's not so secret in the rental car industry. If there was money to be made in renting these vehicles, the rental car companies would be happy to do so. However, the rental car companies don't really want to rent these vehicles. The cost to purchase a new 4WD vehicle is more than the traditional 2WD counterpart and rental car companies encounter horrible depreciation, selling cars after a few seasons -- Sixt updates a vehicle after six months. The extra resale value of a 4WD doesn't always offset the purchase price, especially when those 4WD vehicles end up being one-wayed to a sunny climate. (People in Florida actually prefer 2WD vehicles for better fuel economy!) So, the rental companies feel it's better to not promise a 4WD at all and just give them out when it makes sense to. The good news is that generally, in places you need one, there's a good chance you'll find one. Let's take a look.

Searching for 4WD is a Painful Task

A quick challenge would be to visit the website of any major rental car company and find an option to select 4WD vehicles in their search fields:

Of those 10 providers, none have a search option for 4WD vehicles. A few of those providers do carry 4WD vehicles in limited locations but the vehicles are so rare that it's not even provided as a search option.  

When is a 4WD desired?

AutoTrader succinctly describes 4WD as a model that helps with traction, especially when two wheels are stuck or sliding. Consumer Reports stresses that 4WD is beneficial to get a vehicle moving from a stop, with little benefit when it comes to stopping a moving car. Forbes Auto is the most extensive in their description of the traditional role of 4WD.

Extra traction provided by these systems can be especially handy on slippery roads (in rain, snow, dirt, gravel and mud), where it reduces the danger of losing control of the vehicle should one or all of the wheels lose grip.
Four-/all-wheel drive can also help when towing and hauling heavy loads.

For many drivers desiring a 4WD vehicle, there are three common scenarios: snow, offroading, and towing. Only one of those uses is allowed by the rental car companies.

4WDs Vehicles in the Snow

The most common reason we hear for requesting a 4WD vehicle is in the snow. While the rental car companies really don't want a renter driving in winter weather conditions where 4WD is necessary (as mentioned in our article about winter driving), snow season is the only reliable time of the year for the rental car companies to make money. You'll see why when we get to the other use potential use cases described by Forbes Auto. 

While a 4WD vehicle might make a driver more confident in treacherous driving conditions, there are still plenty of other vehicles on the road during treacherous driving conditions. When the winter weather's really bad, what vehicle is the most desired by renters? The 4WD, and when one renter doesn't return the 4WD vehicle on-time, the customer with the next reservation gets stuck waiting for the vehicle (there's no easy "substitution" for the rental car station managers). For the rental car companies, these vehicles are costly and actually cause headaches! Even in regions with extensive winter weather, 4WD vehicles are still comparatively rare.

At AutoSlash, we're always willing to help you search for rentals of 4WD vehicles in areas with winter weather. However, it's probably too late to look for these vehicles once winter weather's already arrived (or been announced). During snow storms and other projected periods of high demand such as holidays, we will often see these vehicles renting for more than $300 per day, and that's after AutoSlash finds the best possible discounts!

Other Intended Uses for 4WD Vehicles

There tend to be two other times when 4WD are requested by renters. The first is for off-road activities. The second is for towing. The rental company anticipates making zero revenue from these uses. Why?

  • Off-road activities are a prohibited use of a rental car.
  • Towing or pushing is a prohibited use of a rental car.

It's hard for some renters to believe but rental cars can't be used off-road and can't be used for towing. It's listed as a prohibited use along with activities like using the rental car for committing felonies, racing, stunting, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, and unauthorized operators.

We're not kidding -- if you take a rental car off-road or use it to tow a travel trailer, the rental car company will place you in the same category as a drunk driver, especially if damage occurs as a result.

Prohibited uses are in the rental car agreements that everyone signs and receives, despite some of the rental car companies (namely Payless) insisting upon showing repeated off-road usage of rental cars. That's one of our (well, my) pet peeves, with Payless using at least eight non-compliant examples in January 2017 alone on their Twitter feed (see example, example, example, example, example, example, example, example). Then again, Payless just might have a prohibited use fee ...

Payless makes violating the rental car contract seem so much fun!

Getting Caught in a Prohibited Use

Quite frankly, there’s almost no chance the rental car company will find out about the prohibited use of a vehicle offroad of for towing. That is unless the car breaks down while the renter’s off-road, there's an accident, a traffic citation, or video of the rental vehicle gets posted online during an activity. Then, the rental car company is almost assured of learning about the prohibited use. Even towing expenses for a mechanical breakdown will be billed to the renter if the car’s determined to be in a prohibited use. After paying any fees and damages to the rental car company, there’s still a risk of landing on the company’s Do Not Rent list.

If the rental car company deems the rental car contract has been violated due to a prohibited use:

  • Any insurance included in the rental is void, and
  • Any insurance paid for as part of the rental is void, and.
  • Any damage waiver provided by a credit card is void (see AmEx and Visa Signature as examples), and
  • Any personal automobile insurance will probably be void.

Even the Federal Trade Commission reminds renters of actions that can revoke rental car coverage. The land of "Prohibited Use" is a bad place to be. We hate to sound like parents (or grandparents) but the rules of a rental car should always be understood and followed. If a rental car company acquires a 4WD vehicle, the most probable explanations are that the vehicle only comes in a 4WD model or the vehicle was intended for an area with frequent winter weather. The rental car companies have no other business case to purchase 4WD vehicles! 

Closing Take

A few rental car companies are willing to provide a small selection of 4WD vehicles but they are generally very limited. As rental car companies have to renew their fleets frequently, there are small windows of time -- primarily winter weather -- for the rental car companies to make any return on their investment. In addition, the rental car companies prohibit the other activities where a 4WD vehicle might otherwise be used. What does this mean for the renter?

  • A 4WD/AWD vehicle is unlikely to be available at a neighborhood location.
  • The airports with any of these vehicles are most likely to serve ski resorts in the winter.
  • The 4WD/AWD vehicles are almost exclusively categorized as SUVs or trucks.
  • The cost to reserve one of these vehicles in the winter is likely to be far more costly than a 2WD rental car option with all-season tires.
  • These rentals often have punitive late return fees in high-demand periods, as a late return means the next customer doesn't get the proper type of vehicle.

Looking to Book?

Again, the rental car companies themselves don't believe it's necessary to list AWD/4WD vehicles and most residents of extreme-winter environments state that if 4WD/AWD is absolutely necessary, those situations are to be avoided! The number of vehicles that are even described by the rental car companies as 4WD/AWD is minimal. Rental cars, vans, trucks, and SUVs are rarely 4WD/AWD-equipped -- quite frankly, the rental car companies are consistently buying fleets of vehicles at the lowest cost possible. The best probability of getting a 4WD/AWD vehicle is to consider a Full-Size SUV at Hertz. Most large SUV's are 4WD/AWD but Hertz is the only major company that internally describes their large SUVs as a "4WD/AWD Large SUV" in their own documentation. Otherwise, drivers should expect to follow safe driving rules (as always) and avoid situations where 4WD/AWD is required by law due to adverse weather conditions.

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