With winter looming ahead, choosing a vehicle that delivers top traction in the snow can be paramount in many car and truck-shoppers’ minds.
Which vehicles fare best under snowy conditions? Those living in remote areas within the nation’s most snow-packed regions like Vermont (average yearly snowfall 89.25 inches) often find that nothing less than a rugged four-wheel-drive (4WD) pickup or truck-based sport-utility vehicle that can plow its way out of the deepest drifts will suffice.
Today’s 4WD systems run the gamut of sophistication from the rather basic part-time arrays offered on some pickups and lower-cost truck-based SUVs (the engine powers only the rear axle until the driver engages the front wheels via a button or dial) to automatic engaging full-time hardware that allow a driver to choose between rear-drive, 4WD and a safety minded “automatic” mode that engages the front axle as needed when sensors detect wheel slippage. A few models even include selectable modes that fine-tune the system’s traction for various road surfaces and conditions.
All types of four-wheel drive systems include “low range” gearing for times when maximum traction is needed, such as getting out of deep mud or snow or traversing steep hills and extreme off-road trails at slow speeds. It is important to note, however, that while 4WD helps you “go in the snow,” it does little to aid a vehicle’s cornering abilities and virtually nothing for braking.
Some AWD vehicles will drive only one axle (usually the front) under normal circumstances, while others will operate permanently in all-wheel mode, usually on a 50/50 front-to-rear split, with the ability to send additional torque to the wheels that need added traction, again when sensors detect wheel slippage. Many AWD-equipped sport sedans bias the engine’s power to the rear wheels, say, on a 40-front/60-rear ratio, for livelier handling and with added stability through the curves.
Unlike 4WD, however, all-wheel drive doesn’t include low range gearing, which means an AWD-equipped vehicle could still leave a motorist stranded if he or she attempts to traverse deeply snow-packed pavement or trails.
Either way, be aware that owning a vehicle that drives all four wheels doesn’t mean a motorist can ignore the laws of physics and drive faster or more recklessly than conditions allow. All vehicles eventually reach their handling limits, and they usually approach them all too quickly while traversing wet, snowy or – especially – icy pavement.
Okay, but what if you don’t want to drive a truck or an SUV and/or prefer not to choose a model equipped with AWD for cost concerns or other reasons? City dwellers and those residing in areas that see moderate-to-minimal amounts of snow can usually get by with a basic front-wheel-drive (FWD) car or crossover. Because FWD vehicles place more weight over the drive wheels and “pull” rather than “push” the vehicle, they tend to fare far better in snowy conditions (and over otherwise slick roads) than do rear-drive models.
The advent of modern chassis control systems combined with improved tire technology now help overcome rear-drive’s traditional tendency to fishtail on slick surfaces and minimize sudden “oversteer” around sharp curves. Still, RWD cars and trucks tend to afford the least traction over wet or snowy roads and if you live in a wintry climate you’ll probably need a hand pushing a rear-drive vehicle out of a snowbound parking space unless you have a set of deep-treaded snow tires installed on the rear wheels. This is why a growing number of RWD models now offer optional AWD systems.
However, even if it’s equipped with AWD, if you own a sporty car and it’s fitted with high-performance (also called “summer”) tires optimized for dry-pavement use, you might as well leave it garaged for the duration of a snowy winter unless you swap them for a set of all-season tires.
We scoured automakers’ spec sheets to compile a list of 10 cars and wagons (including one minivan for good measure) that can be expected to make short work of all but the most severe winter conditions. Each includes all-wheel-drive for superior traction and features a ground clearance (the distance between the pavement and the lowest part of a vehicle) of at least 5.5 inches that enables them to traverse moderately snow-packed roads or driveways without unduly scraping the undercarriage or otherwise becoming snowbound. In addition, most offer winter-friendly amenities like heated seats and a heated steering wheel, and are every bit as enjoyable to pilot on dry pavement as they are capable in the snow.
The best models in this regard tend to be the few “pseudo SUV” AWD station wagons on the market.
Note that we did, however, have to take pass on a few models for which ground clearance specs weren’t available, as well as higher performance AWD-equipped vehicles with adequate ground clearance that otherwise come standard with traction-deficient summer tires.
1. Subaru Outback
Like all the cars on our “best in snow” list, the midsize Subaru Outback comes with all-wheel-drive for superior traction on wet or snowy pavement and a higher-than-average (but still far from truck-like) ground clearance to help it plow through moderate drifts. It’s essentially a station wagon version of Subaru’s Legacy sedan with a higher ride height and burly-looking styling cues that mimic a crossover SUV. Subaru makes one of the best AWD systems in the business, and the Outback offers either of three variations optimized according to the powertrain. It further benefits from a robust 8.7-inch ground clearance. It comes powered by either a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 173-horsepower four-cylinder engine or a peppier 3.6-liter 256-horsepower six-cylinder version. Winter-hearty options include heated front seats, a windshield wiper de-icer and heated side mirrors.
2. Volvo XC70 T6 AWD
Like the Subarus in our list, the XC70 is an otherwise staid station wagon that’s gussied up to resemble an SUV, but it’s a noteworthy execution, with a tall 8.3-inch ground clearance. While a 240-hp 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive is standard, the winter-minded choice is one of the T6 models with all-wheel-drive and a 300-horsepower turbocharged six-cylinder engine. Available foul weather amenities include heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, heated windshield with heated washer nozzles, and headlamp washers.
3. Audi Allroad
Yet another “pseudo SUV,” this is basically an Audi A4 Avant station wagon with a higher 7.1-inch ground clearance and more-rugged pretentions. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts a peppy 220 horsepower to the pavement via the automaker’s acclaimed “quattro” AWD system. Best of all it handles more energetically than most small SUVs or wagons over both wet and dry pavement. The Allroad includes heated outside mirrors, headlamp washers and rain-sensing windshield wipers, with heated front seats optional.