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If you’re renting a car in Canada, you’ll get all-season tires unless you ask for winter ones, except in Quebec, where it’s required by law.AGrigorjeva/Getty Images/iStockphoto

We'll be renting a car in Winnipeg in December. Are the cars winterized and able to withstand frigid nights, or do they have engine block heaters and need to be plugged in? – Mike, Tempe, Arizona

They call it Winterpeg for a reason. Any car you rent there – or anywhere else in Canada – should be able to handle the cold.

However, they may not be equipped with winter tires.

"All cars in Canada will be winterized. Really the only thing that means to me is it has sufficient antifreeze in the coolant and winter windshield washer fluid," said Calvin Feist, automotive instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton.

"Major rental car companies have maintenance schedules they follow so all of that should be done – so the people from Arizona shouldn't worry about the car, but they better make sure they are winterized."

We checked with rental companies. They all said their cars can take the cold. And they said their cars normally don't need to be plugged in – and, only some of them will come with a block heater.

"Our vehicles are equipped with the proper winter liquids including windshield fluid and antifreeze," Lisa Martini, spokeswoman for National Car Rental, Alamo Rent A Car and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says in an email. "We do not typically use the engine block heaters that come equipped in some of our vehicles (it varies among locations) nor do we require that our customers use them, either."

More car makers are using synthetic oil, which flows more easily when it's cold than traditional oil. That makes block heaters less essential than they used to be, Karen Drake, Hertz spokeswoman, says in an e-mail.

A cord winter's day?

While any modern car should start without plugging in when it's -30C, it won't like it.

But that might only matter to you if it's actually your car.

"We highly recommend plugging in your car around -15, no matter how new or how old it is," said Liz Kulyk, spokeswoman for CAA Manitoba. "It's better for long-term wear and tear."

When it's below -15C outside, the oil in your car, even when it's synthetic, gets thicker and doesn't flow like it should. That means more friction and more wear and tear on your engine – and your battery.

"The older your battery is, the harder it is to turn over your engine. It actually takes about half of a battery's charge to turn over on a cold day," Kulyk said. "Proactively plugging in for about four hours before you intend to drive keeps the internal components of your car warm and assists in an easier start."

A block heater warms the engine coolant, which warms the engine block and the oil, so the oil flows better.

Again, chances are that your rental car has a fairly new battery. But if you want to plug your car in for peace of mind, you might have to find an extension cord.

"Rental cars don't usually leave the cord out, so there won't be an extension cord," Feist said. "Too many people who don't normally plug in their cars tend to drive away with it still plugged in."

Winter tires not just for snowflakes

So if Canadian rental cars are ready for winter, that means they all have winter tires, right?

Nope. If you're in Quebec – where winter tires are required from Dec. 15 to March 15 every year – all rental cars have to have them at no extra cost.

But everywhere else, you'll get all-seasons unless you ask for winter tires. And they're only available on a few cars.

Typically, they're mainly at airport locations and intended for people who are heading off to ski.

"About 10 per cent of the fleet at the Winnipeg airport is equipped with winter tires, however, this percentage will both increase and decrease based on seasonal demands and trends," Martini said. "Customers can reserve them ahead of time, however, they are also be offered at the counter if available."

It's a good idea to get them, CAA Manitoba's Kulyk said.

"If you come to a rental company in Winnipeg and tell them, 'I'm travelling to Flin Flon,' I hope they'd offer winter tires," Kulyk said. "And that's the same even if you stay in Winnipeg – they increase stopping distance hugely."

The Enterprise group charges $12 a day for winter tires, Martini said. Avis and Budget charge the same. Hertz charges $20 a day for compact cars through to full-sized sedans and $25 a day for specialty vehicles like SUVs, vans or luxury cars.

Quebec is the only province that requires winter tires. British Columbia requires either all-season tires with the M+S symbol or winter tires with the mountain snowflake symbol, on most highways from October 1 to March 31.

"About a quarter of our B.C. fleet will have winter tires," Hertz's Drake said.

Be prepared

Winterizing isn't just for rental cars. Anybody who will be driving in the winter should get ready soon. That includes checking batteries, making sure the block heater is working, getting a synthetic oil change, making sure winter tires have enough tread, topping up all the fluids and checking your windshield wipers and washer fluid, Kulyk said.

"You should also have a snow brush and a winter emergency kit," she said.

That kit should include extra food and water, blankets and, in case you get stuck, an emergency shovel and sand or kitty litter.

Rental cars usually come with snow brushes – but not winter emergency kits, Martini said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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