What to Look For in a Winter Vehicle

2017 Subaru Outback - Photo by Matt Smith

Winter may have taken its sweet time arriving in the Northeast, but after this past weekend, our city of Boston is a certifiable wonderland. The storms came just in time, too, as CarGurus headed down to Bugsy Lawlor’s headquarters for the annual New England Motor Press Association’s Winter Vehicle Testing. Last year, we made do with dry, frozen ground to judge the 2016 Winter Car of the Year, but after a winter storm strong enough to convince Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to declare a snow emergency, we were able to enjoy fresh snow on our favorite trail.

But what exactly should you be looking for in a winter vehicle? If television commercials are to be trusted, the only winter cars worth their salt are those capable of 4-wheel drifts down the back bowls of Colorado’s highest peaks. Blasting through fresh snow, rather than traveling up the I-95 corridor, may make for more attractive marketing materials, but most folks in the market for a winter vehicle are more interested in one that can reliably take them to work during the week and to the mountains on the weekend. If you’re looking for a car primarily to handle winter roads, there are a few details worth your attention.

Ride Height
Arguably the most valuable measurement on a winter vehicle is the distance between the ground and the underside of the frame. All-wheel drive (AWD) and traction control will help you get and stay moving, but if your trip takes you over any unplowed roads, dirt or gravel roads, or off-road, driving a low-slung coupe is a recipe for damaged bodywork or worse. Generally speaking, we consider 6 and a half inches of ride height to be the minimum for a capable winter car. Subaru’s boxer engines have plenty of benefits, the foremost of which is a compact package that allows for a low center of gravity in the company’s sports cars, like the BRZ, and an exceptionally high ride in the Outback—the only crossovers with more also sport 7-slot grilles up front.

Drivetrain
Here’s a secret: You probably don’t need all-wheel drive. Although AWD is undoubtedly the best option, and the one most likely to keep you out of trouble (and get you out of trouble, if need be), many experts think it’s overkill for the majority of drivers. Paired with a good set of snow tires—which you should own, regardless of whether you’re driving a 2-wheel- or 4-wheel-drive car—front-wheel drive is often enough to get you up hills, and all-wheel drive does nothing to improve your car’s stopping power. That said, there may come a time when AWD is necessary, and while the times it’ll matter will likely be few and far between, there is sound logic behind “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

One more note: Rear-wheel drive may be plenty of fun, but if you’re shopping specifically for a winter vehicle, it’s not the drivetrain for you.

Wheel Size
In dry conditions, larger wheels and low-profile tires can dramatically improve a car’s handling. But put a car on slushy, wet roads, and you’ll quickly forget about your tire’s maximum g-force ratings and hope instead for something that will just go, stop, and turn in a predictable manner. Smaller, narrower tires have better traction in winter conditions, because they cut more cleanly through snow and slush. The contact patch of the tire (the rubber that physically touches the ground) is also smaller, meaning more weight gets applied to that specific area, generating better traction. On top of the physics supporting smaller wheels on a winter vehicle, they’ll be lighter on your wallet, too. A 16-inch winter tire can cost at least $50 less than the 18-inch equivalent.

Air Conditioning
Admittedly, this one sounds a bit strange. But air conditioners actually dry air, not just cool it. A strong system will defrost your windshield faster and help keep it clear. Additionally, cars that offer a fresh-air option along with a recirculating air system are great choices in winter months. Bringing in fresh air (and running the air conditioner) is the fastest way to clear foggy windows. There’s no need to freeze yourself out, however. Once things are dry and clear, feel free to crank up that heat.

Antilock Brakes and Vehicle Stability Control
If you’re shopping for a winter car that does not have antilock brakes, you can feel confident it will not have vehicle stability control, either. Antilock brakes have been around since the 1970s and are designed to replace the practice of “pumping” brakes in slick driving conditions. If a car’s wheel “locks up” under braking and loses traction—imagine a car sliding on snow or ice—the ABS will release the brakes momentarily and allow the wheel to turn, generating traction. The correct practice in these situations is not to alternately stomp on and let your foot off the brake (or “pump” it), but instead to keep your foot firmly on the brake pedal and allow the ABS to do its job. Vehicle Stability Control takes computer-controlled actions like this to another level, allowing the car to sense which wheels need more traction and delivering it accordingly.

Finally, nobody wants to walk out to their driveway and find a dead car, particularly in winter, so be sure the battery is new, too. Any winter vehicle deserves a thorough look by an independent mechanic, and you should be sure that its windshield wipers are in good shape and it has the appropriate amount of any and all necessary fluids.

What’s your favorite car to drive in the winter and why?

-Matt Smith

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