Snow Days: The Best Winter Cars

Photo: Shutterstock.

It’s the luck of the draw what car I happen to be driving any given week, but an all-wheel-drive Cadillac XTS 4 fortunately arrived just in time for the big Northeast snowstorm. I was right in the middle of that major blizzard, and the 36 inches of snow my neighborhood got far surpassed even some of the surrounding towns. I was snowbound for two full days, because it took that long for my road to get plowed. Below is the Cadillac, just dug out.

And when I did get out on Sunday, the roads were still a total mess. Things were bad all over—hundreds of cars got stranded on the Long Island Expressway, leading to it being closed. This was a classic blizzard, involving snow and not that much ice. I had drifts that reached four feet of powder. So the cars that got through were the ones with the most traction in drifting snow. That's me below, trying to dig out on Saturday. The snow mound at right is the Caddy.

Personally, I think you’re better off overall with an all-wheel-drive car like my XTS 4 than a huge four-wheel-drive SUV, because the former acts more intelligently under different weather conditions—electronic sensors make the decision about which wheel gets power for maximum traction. On a 4WD vehicle, the driver switches on power to all four wheels, whether that’s the best solution or not. In general 4WD cars will get you through snow; some aren’t so great on ice, though.

There’s a tradeoff with all-wheel drive cars, though, usually in fuel economy and price. Start with big and heavy and add expensive drive systems and both the weight and bottom line climb. With that in mind, here are some good AWD choices, starting with my Cadillac for those in higher tax brackets:

Cadillac XTS 4. The bad news first: 20 mpg combined (just 17 in the city, 26 on the highway). Compared to the average new vehicle, it will cost you $1,650 more for gasoline over five years (total cost annually, $2,650). Smog rating is an OK six out of 10. And with the Swedish Haldex AWD system (electronically controlled limited slip differential on the rear axle) the price soars to $64,695 as tested. The good news: great road holding in bad weather, five-star safety ratings (except for rollover) and every conceivable state-of-the-art occupant protection and infotainment system, including stability and traction control. I didn’t get stuck in this car, though many others did. When traction is low, the Haldex directs the car to assign power to the wheel with the most grip. It also works to maximize your roadholding during cornering and lane changing. If price isn’t an obstacle, and if you want to maximize car comforts while still maxing out snow and ice safety, this is a good choice.

Subaru Outback and Impreza. All Subarus offer all-wheel drive, and the Outback wagon is a tried-and-true all weather car. Its hugely popular in certain pockets (been to Portland, Oregon lately?) and among certain populations (one nickname is the "Lesbaru"). Check out the bottom-of-the-range Outback 2.5i($23,495 MSRP), which as the name implies is powered by a 2.5-liter four, backed by both the Symmetrical AWD system and Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC). All that, plus 30 mpg on the highway (and 26 combined). You can bump that up to the 3.6R if you really need (or want) more horsepower, and there are premium and limited models for more luxury features (plus a cold weather package). The two-liter Impreza AWD is even better on gas (30 mpg combined), and it starts at $17,895.

Volvo XC60. Don’t worry that safety is slipping at Volvo just because the company has Chinese owners. It’s still a Swedish car, and protecting occupants is its primary mission. Most buyers go for the turbocharged six that is part of the T6 model, but that means a higher price and 17/23 mpg (instead of 19/25). Of course, Haldex AWD is standard on the T6 and available on the base car. The cheapest non-turbo XC60 with AWD is $34,350, and you still get a six-speed automatic, high-tech occupant protection, 240 horsepower and 236 foot pounds of torque. Maybe you use the neighbor’s truck for pulling out stumps, but it’s still a good choice.

Volkswagen Golf R. I’d say $34,000 is a fair amount to pay for an AWD VW, but this cute hatch does offer 256 horsepower under the hood and Car and Driver says it “will tan the hide of a 200-hp GTI.” Zero to 60 takes 5.6 seconds, so it’s more of a performance than an all-weather car, though if it does both (with a Haldex AWD system as in the Volvo and Cadillac) you’re ahead of the game. Fuel economy is projected at a respectable 19/27 mpg.

Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic. Powered by a 268-horsepower V-6, this is Benz’ entry-level AWD, starting at $39,360. A seven-speed automatic optimizes fuel economy, but you’re still looking at 17/24 mpg. The C-Class has had very good reliability.

2012 Honda CR-V AWD and Toyota RAV4 AWD. You can get into an AWD Honda CR-V for $24,045, which makes it the bargain on this page. Honda introduced Real Time AWD with Intelligent Control System in 2012, providing a degree of traction peace of mind at an alluring price. A RAV4 LE with AWD is $24,700, pretty close to the Honda. AWD is a $1,400 option on this Toyota, and it locks the rear wheels in line in bad weather, and controls torque in cornering. Fuel economy is great on both cars: CR-V is 22/30; RAV4 is 22/29. They’re good, reliable cars.

Other cars to consider are the Mini Cooper S Countryman ALL4, the BMW 335i xDrive and, just for fun, the Suzuki SX4. That’s the cheapest AWD car available, but only for a little while—the company is leaving the American market. I’ve seen them go for $15,000, which is $2,000 off the $16,999 MSRP. Parts and service support will continue, so it isn’t too much of a gamble. Oh, and click here for choices to help you get through a Canadian winter--if anyone knows winter, it's our neighbors to the north.