What to Drive in Winter

When it snows, driving can be awfully dangerous, but the right car can provide an edge over the elements

Experts' best advice for driving on snow and ice: Don't, if you can possibly avoid it.

The Washington State Transportation Dept. advertises this catchier jingle: "Ice and snow, take it slow, or just don't go." It's safe to assume they know all there is to know about snow up in the Cascade Mountains, but most of the time, "just don't go" isn't realistic advice. On weekdays, most people need to reach the workplace, or at least the train station, regardless of bad weather. On weekends, a gallon of milk or that one missing ingredient for pumpkin pie can take us out of the house and onto slippery roads.

Fortunately, there are plenty of good choices for winter driving. These include a cross-section of vehicles from most product segments—cars and trucks; luxury and nonluxury brands; small, medium, and large. For obvious reasons, we didn't consider convertibles. Most of our winter driving choices have all-wheel drive, for extra peace of mind, despite added cost and a gas mileage penalty.

Subarus are a popular choice in snow country, and Subaru (9632) only offers all-wheel drive. Nationwide, Subaru has a market share of just over 1%. That rises to around 4% in New England, 5% in Colorado, and 6% in Alaska, according to spokesman Dominick Infante. In Vermont, where Subaru has close to an 8% share, Infante jokes that, "Subarus are standard issue when you arrive."

Wait for the Plow

Most of the cars Audi sells in the U.S. have the company's optional Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Many of Audi's (NSUG) more expensive cars are only offered with Quattro, including the A6 Avant station wagon, which is one of our winter choices. Overall, AWD accounts for 85% of Audi's U.S. sales, according to spokesman Chris Bokich.

For most people in most regions of the country, once the roads have been plowed, front-wheel-drive vehicles with winter tires provide enough traction, according to David Champion, director of Consumer Reports' auto test department. Note the two important caveats: "once the roads have been plowed" and "with winter tires." Champion estimates the additional cost for snow tires at around $800 for a set of four.

It's best to wait for the plows. For those who can't wait, we included the ground clearance for each vehicle. Keep in mind how much snow is on the ground, since it's best to avoid using the underside of the vehicle as an ersatz snowplow.

All-Wheel-Drive Overconfidence

Champion allows that many people opt for AWD, "if you live in a part of the country where it snows, and it's just something you don't want to be bothered about." He adds: "If you really have to go out and it's really critical—if you're a police officer, or a medical worker, say—then you really need it," Champion says all-wheel drive costs an additional $1,000 to $2,000 on average, plus a mileage penalty of 1 mpg to 2 mpg.

But even all-wheel drive isn't 100% guaranteed against skidding out over black ice. Several experts cautioned against getting overconfident in an all-wheel-drive vehicle, including engineer Aram Setian. Setian, who is now retired, conducted cold-weather testing for Mercedes-Benz USA for many years, sometimes in weather so cold that traces of moisture in the gasoline could freeze and disable a vehicle. The glass in a competing vehicle once "exploded" because it got brittle in the cold, he says.

"That's who you always see in the ditch first. People with all-wheel drive can get overconfident," he says.

A Cross-Section

In reviewing which cars were best for winter driving, we took the "be prepared" approach—choosing, for instance, Toyota's (TM) Sienna minivan with optional all-wheel drive, even though a front-wheel-drive model would probably suffice for most people in most regions, most of the time. Rear-wheel drive is on the bottom of the traction totem pole, since nearly all cars have the engine in the front, so there's less weight over the driving wheels, compared with a front-wheel-drive car.

Rather than picking one product segment over another for winter driving—say, SUVs instead of small cars—we included a cross-section of products, to cover a wider range of shopping lists. Nor did we pick one vehicle over another in the same category based on weight. There are arguments both ways on weight. Crosswinds are less likely to blow a heavy vehicle off course, but big, heavy vehicles can also be more top-heavy.

Besides AWD, we also picked vehicles that come with antilock brakes, traction control, and stability control as standard equipment. The growing availability of those features has made driving safer on both dry and slippery roads—but especially on slippery roads, and especially for newer drivers. Antilock brakes in effect "pump" the brakes far faster than a human could do it. Traction control does the same thing when accelerating, instead of slowing down. Those two systems react to forward-and-back motion. Stability control uses the brakes and the throttle to reduce the vehicle's tendency to yaw, or spin around a vertical axis.

Practice Makes Perfect

These systems reduce, but don't eliminate, the need for acquired driver skills. Bob Burns, an off-road driving instructor for Land Rover, says it's still important to practice driving—and especially braking—in the snow and ice, for instance, in an empty parking lot.

"Four-wheel-drive vehicles provide twice the traction for steering and accelerating but offer the same amount of traction for braking as a two-wheel-drive vehicle," he says.

One important reason to practice is that most antilock brake systems make the brake pedal pulsate, or "chatter." Thinking something's wrong, drivers who aren't expecting that can react the wrong way and let up on the brakes. Burns also recommends practice steering while braking at the same time.

John Kochevar, president of the International Ice Racing Assn., based in St. Paul, Minn., says that in racing on frozen lakes, all-wheel-drive cars have such an advantage over all other cars, they're automatically put in the most competitive bracket of street-legal cars.

Not that we advocate racing on the ice, except on a closed course. For everywhere else: "Ice and snow, take it slow, or just don't go."

Click here to see a roundup of the best cars for winter driving.

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