Every neighborhood has one. The guy with the monstrous SUV and a driveway covered in ice. No matter how shiny their brand new snow-blower is (they usually have a snowblower), when the white stuff starts to accumulate, they hop in their Suburban, step on the gas, and let the 4-wheel drive do the rest. The machine specifically designed to clear driveways never even gets primed — why let your hands freeze pushing that contraption around when your SUV isn’t even really stuck?
We’re not necessarily condoning this kind of behavior. Letting your car pack down the snow all winter just leads to an icy driveway (something that’s both dangerous and a pain for your kids to shovel — a chore they are ultimately tasked with once they’re on a third straight snow day and driving you up the wall). That being said, having a capable winter vehicle is often more necessity than luxury for many of us in the northern states. While we always recommend a set of all-conquering snow tires, these ten cars would be our top picks the next time Snowmageddon rains down upon us.
Of course, pickup trucks are usually the go-to vehicle for the snow. There’s a reason they are the driving force on the back end of that snow plow, though you usually see trucks with a higher tonnage moving the heavy piles of snow. In the world of lighter pickups, the Ram 1500 Rebel may be the best option when it comes to extreme weather. Along with its 395-hp V8, the Rebel brings a 4-corner air suspension and Bilstein shocks to add some clearance during vigorous activities. The Rebel also has a completely different look to help it stand out from the more casual Ram trim levels, with a meaner-looking powder-coated steel front bumper that – although it probably doesn’t actually help its performance – makes the Rebel look like it could conquer any obstacle in its path. Although some may try to call it a competitor with the Ford F-150 Raptor, it really falls more in line with the F-150 FX4, the Nissan Titan PRO-4X, and the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Z71. The 1500 Rebel is the furthest Ram has gone in the truly rugged off-road enthusiast direction, but it still focuses primarily on its road performance. It’s a daily driver, despite how well it can handle some of the more treacherous terrains. This, of course, includes snow.
As the longest-tenured crossover in Ford’s now-robust AWD portfolio, the Ford Escape has certainly earned a reputation for handling nasty weather conditions. As it stands, the Escape brings a good amount of the versatility found in Ford’s more hefty SUVs – the Expedition and the Explorer – in a more petite form. Although these larger SUVs will generally out-perform their slightly smaller brethren, crossovers like the Escape are better suited for city driving. You’ll appreciate the absence of those extra couple of feet if you’re a city dweller, especially when the snow starts to pile up along the sides of the road. The newly redesigned 2017 Ford Escape is on the horizon, and this fourth generation continues to refine one of the most popular crossovers on the market. With the new design, Ford is bringing the Escape’s aesthetics in line with its other compact crossovers, altering the Escape’s grille with Edge-like facial features. Ford is also debuting its new engine stop/start technology in the 2017’s EcoBoost engines, which shuts down the engine when at a complete stop and restarts the engine when the accelerator is pressed. This will certainly help save some fuel, which is especially useful when battling through snowy roads.
Some folks require a truck big enough to tow snowmobiles with a whole family and a week of provisions inside for their winter adventures. Others just need a vehicle that can accommodate a driver, possibly a significant other, and a snowboard. Those others might want to check out Mercedes-Benz’s GLA-Class. (Yes, it’ll cost more, but a classy new German crossover might provide more help to anyone looking for a significant other than would a hulking pickup.) Based on the CLA-Class platform, this new small crossover doesn’t offer a wealth of cargo area or towing capacity, but it can provide lots of driving excitement, luxurious accommodations, and a wealth of safety features. All versions use a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, which puts out 208 hp in GLA250 trims and features 375 hp, a single craftsman’s signature, and a fantastic chorus of burbles in the GLA45 AMG.
Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive (AWD) system has been built into more than 6 million vehicles and earned awards around the world over the last 35 years. Adding that refined and proven AWD system to a great-looking luxury compact crossover has provided a fine tool for anyone who wants to pack up some winter toys and friends to get out and enjoy the outdoors: the Audi Q5. The Q5 won’t top any cargo-capacity charts, but it comes with roof-rack rails that can help get skis or snowboards outside the cabin, and its Audi Connect system can provide Wi-Fi connectivity for up to 8 devices, ensuring that everyone inside can stay in touch and watch their own favorite ski movie on the way to and from that winter wonderland. And the 2016 Q5’s Driver Assistance Package includes what may be 2016’s most important safety feature: automatic emergency braking.
It doesn’t get quite as much coverage as some of its rivals, but the Nissan Pathfinder has a history of running ahead of the curve. While competitors like the Toyota 4Runner or Chevy Tahoe made their mark as capable 4-wheel-drive SUVs, Nissan helped lead the Crossover generation by transitioning the Pathfinder from body-on-frame to unibody with its second generation, way back in 1995. After Nissan introduced the Murano crossover, the Pathfinder became an opportunity for the company to help put the “Utility” back in Sport Utility Vehicle, reverting to a truck-based platform and adding an optional V8 and third-row seat. In its third generation, the Pathfinder has evolved yet again. The 2016 Pathfinder, back to a crossover’s unibody underpinnings, now shines as a truly modern vehicle. The third row is still there, but the V8 has been replaced with a more economical V6. Combine best-in-class 27 mpg highway with selectable 4-wheel drive, and the Nissan Pathfinder is a safe choice for your next trip to planet Hoth.
If the Pathfinder helped establish the crossover segment, the Toyota RAV4 gave birth to it. Since its Japanese launch in 1994, the RAV4 has offered unmatched functionality thanks to all-wheel drive and impressive cargo capacity, despite compact dimensions. This mini-crossover formula has been copied ever since, with cars like the Ford Escape mimicking Toyota’s success, and today’s new generation of even smaller CUVs developing into one of the auto industry’s most competitive markets. So, with all this in mind, how does a company like Toyota go about improving the RAV4? Batteries. Enthusiasts may look at hybrid cars with a general disdain, but remember the role the RAV4 plays. For a vehicle already focused on functionality, integrating a hybrid drivetrain improves fuel economy, and perhaps surprisingly, drops the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid’s 0-60 mph time by nearly a second, to 8.1. Thanks to on-demand all-wheel drive, the RAV4 has always been a solid choice for snowy roads. Add in improved fuel economy, and the RAV4 Hybrid makes the great even greater.
Yes, one of the most competitive cars in the affordable, enthusiast-driven performance vehicle market is a also one of the best cars around for driving in wintry conditions. Although traditionally seen as a direct competitor with the likes of Volkswagen’s GTI and Ford’s Focus and Fiesta STs, Subaru’s WRX has a huge advantage over the rest of the segment with its all-wheel-drive system. It’s true that the Focus RS and Golf R have their own AWD systems, but the price tags on those two are a bit toward the north end of affordable. The WRX is the performance vehicle that can rival the control of even some of the more rugged and versatile crossovers on this list. It – combined with a manual transmission, the right set of tires, and an experienced driver – has everything you need to conquer whatever road may be covered in ice and snow. And you’ll have a little more fun doing that in a WRX than in a more traditionally “sensible” sedan, such as the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 300, which often find their way onto many winter-driving lists.
A blanket of white gives people heading outdoors in winter a great opportunity to make themselves stand out with a brightly colored scarf or hat, but the dangers of really pushing that opportunity made themselves a little too evident on many ski slopes throughout the ‘90s. Anyone who finds the average winter hotspot too loud and colorful might want to consider a Cadillac Escalade. Yes, the Escalade’s vast capacity, heaping helpings of chrome, and 6.2-liter V8 won’t have much trouble attracting attention, but it’s available in a range of subdued colors that shouldn’t strain the retinas or compete with the fluorescent green snowsuit on the person in the next parking space. And given the Escalade’s popularity with those who hire armed drivers, it might also help you maintain a safe distance and anonymity from the neon-clad hordes.
The general consensus on the 1990s’ Jeep Cherokee is exceedingly positive. Maybe it’s because gas was cheap and few people noticed the poor fuel economy. Maybe it was the looks; like with an old Volvo 240, the squared-off shape of the Cherokee has become a timeless design. Ask anyone north of the 40th parallel, however, and you’ll most likely hear about how slapping a pair of snow tires on a Cherokee would give you a 4-wheel-drive machine capable of climbing Redwoods. The Cherokee is so revered, in fact, that Jeep opted to revive the name. We found out this year however, that the true successor to the Cherokee may just be the Jeep Renegade. Although its appearance may be polarizing, to say the least, the Jeep Renegade’s capabilities are impossible to refute. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance on the Trailhawk trim, combined with a selectable terrain traction system with a specific “Snow” setting, make the Renegade the CUV to take on any adventures north of the wall.
Swedish origins and a legendary focus on safety make Volvo’s cars winter champions, and the last XC90 earned a spot on lists of great winter vehicles during both 2013 and 2014. But the 2016 XC90 features so many changes and improvements it had to take a year off before returning to availability as a new car. The base XC90 will use a new 316-hp turbo four, but it will also offer a plug-in hybrid version that will augment the four’s power with an electric hybrid system to get 400 hp and about 59 mpg-e. More important for those who want a car to get to the slopes, the new XC90 will feature an advanced auto-braking system called City Safety that has already earned its own Wikipedia page and helped the XC90 earn the IIHS’s coveted Top Safety Pick Plus rating. Thor’s-hammer headlights might help win parking-spot battles at the slopes, too.
What vehicle gets you through the winter?
–John Harrington, Matt Smith, and Steve Halloran
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