1997-99 Subaru Impreza (Subaru)

Tired of kicking frozen slush off of your Ferrari’s shapely rocker panels? Do the tire chains clatter inside your precious Bentley’s wheel wells? Maybe it’s time to consider a winter beater.

Driving an inexpensive winter-use car can go a long way towards preserving your favourite auto's looks and value. Enthusiasts think nothing of hibernating their Porsches and Corvettes and climbing into a cheapo car or truck to battle the elements.

Drive a beater and you can avoid rust, rock chips, unnecessary mileage and bad-weather mishaps from taking the shine off your summertime fling. Others find driving a high-performance vehicle in winter weather tricky.

Even the most skilled driver has no control over other motorists sliding into him or her, and expensive or rare vehicles are more difficult to restore compared to a run of the mill Chevrolet.

Here are 10 winter beaters you can find for around $5,000 - plus $600 for a good set of snow tires. Buy one and you can tuck your summer love into a warm garage until the vernal season.

1999-2001 Mazda Protegé

1999-2001 Mazda Protegé (Mazda)

The Japanese-built Mazda Protegé is a surprisingly good driver's car that pretends it's an econobox. The redesigned front-drive 1999 Protegé incorporated a stiffer platform, yielding a smoother ride and more spirited handling.

While the base DX and mid-grade LX models used a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine rated at a measly 105 hp, the range-topping ES earned an all-aluminum 1.8L DOHC inline-four that developed 122 hp and 120 lb.-ft. of torque. It'll have you grinning on your commute.

This little four-door offers good space inside and everything falls readily to hand. Watch for a frequently lit "Check Engine" lamp, which can result in expensive replacements of oxygen sensors, throttle position sensors, catalytic converters and EGR valves.

Ten great winter beaters

1997-99 Subaru Impreza

1997-99 Subaru Impreza (Photo: Subaru)

The Impreza came as a two- or four-door sedan, or as a five-door wagonette that resembled Wayne and Garth's AMC Pacer. Its real claim to fame, though, is the standard all-wheel-drive system, underpinning every Subaru since 1997.

There's not much ground clearance, but four-wheel grip is there precisely when you require it. It's the best choice for clandestine four wheeling, offering all the benefits and none of the trappings of owning a SUV. The system endows the car with remarkable stability at speed.

Imprezas are very reliable and cheap to keep, with good fuel economy. The 2.2-litre "boxer" four is preferred over the larger 2.5L four, which is prone to eating its gaskets. Otherwise, the Impreza is impressive winter transportation, which is why finding one for sale isn't easy.

1997-2000 Acura Integra

1997-2000 Acura Integra (Photo: Acura)

Here's a car that's a reasonable facsimile of your high-powered performance vehicle cloistered in the garage. Because the Integra makes use of a modified front-drive Honda Civic platform, it's uncommonly fun to drive.

The base 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine spins out 140 hp, enough to move this lightweight coupe with authority (there's an uplevel 172-hp GS-R model, too). The interior is pretty cramped, but at least it's a hatchback, so it can be configured to carry a lot of winter gear like snowboards and, uh, crutches.

The engine and manual transmission are the epitome of smoothness, and the automatic is no slouch, either. The Integra has an enviable reliability record, though buyers should watch for worn clutches and rust.

2001-02 Hyundai Elantra

2001-02 Hyundai Elantra (Photo: Hyundai)

Hyundai's redesigned Corolla fighter came back in 2001 in fine form. While it carried over its DOHC 2.0-litre four cylinder "Beta" engine, it was thoroughly renovated with a ribbed iron block and eight-counterweight crank, putting out a robust 140 hp.

You'll find a thoroughly modern and comfy interior with excellent ergonomics and good sight lines all around. To compensate for the demise of its wagon, Hyundai introduced a handy five-door hatchback for 2002.

Early 2001 models exhibited some electrical problems, including faulty headlamps, power windows, CD players and other accessories. Also reported are short-lived clutches, fuel pumps and a few cracked exhaust manifolds. Despite the weaknesses, this Elantra has won over lots of skeptics.

2000-2002 Suzuki Esteem

2000-2002 Suzuki Esteem (Photo: Suzuki)

The ironically named Suzuki Esteem slipped into the country under the radar and never sold well - making it an ideal used-car bargain. While specifying tidy dimensions outside, Suzuki was able to carve out a roomy interior with upright seats and good headroom.

Used to be an all-aluminum DOHC 1.6-litre four sending 98 horses to the front wheels was all you could buy, but that was fixed in 2000 with a larger, optional 1.8L four, good for 122 hp. Also available is a spacious wagon - a rarity in this class.

The Japanese-built Esteem may be a little less refined in terms of ride, noise and smoothness compared to rivals such as the Civic, but beyond some brake issues the Esteem is reliable and great on gas to boot.

1998-2001 Nissan Altima

1998-2001 Nissan Altima (Photo: Nissan)

If you need something in a mid-size sedan, take a look at Nissan's answer to the Honda Accord. While not as fun to drive or as frugal with a litre of gas, the front-drive Altima is reasonably spacious and quite reliable.

The 2.4-litre inline-four made 150 hp and employed a timing chain, negating the need for timing belt changes every 100,000 km or so. What it didn't have, however, was balance shafts to quell the big four's lumpy nature.

Still, the Altima is a good alternative to the pricy Accord and Toyota Camry, and is reputed for racking up the odometer with few mechanical hiccups. Do watch for bad starters and alternators, and the brakes tend to be a little noisy.

2000-02 Chevrolet Impala

2000-02 Chevrolet Impala (Photo: Chevrolet)

There's nothing like a big ol' American car to insulate the family from the cold realities of winter. Introduced in 2000, Chevrolet's redesigned front-drive sedan was smaller than the tubby old rear-drive Impala of yore, but it could seat six if it came with split-bench front seats.

GM's 180-hp 3.4-litre pushrod V6 was the base engine, while the upscale Impala LS got the venerable 3.8L V6, good for 200 hp. All models included a standard four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes and air conditioning.

The Canadian-built Impala has earned a good reputation among fleet operators; it even won a couple of industry awards for its durability and ease of ownership. Chances are your old man drove an Impala back in the day. No reason why you shouldn't either.

1997-99 Nissan Pathfinder

1997-99 Nissan Pathfinder (Photo: Nissan)

The groundbreaking Pathfinder - or "Mallfinder" as some cynics dubbed it - changed significantly for 1996 when Nissan switched to a unibody platform, but took great pains to prove that the SUV lost none of its trucky genes.

Not that you could tell. The Pathfinder oozed refinement. The ride is exceptionally smooth and compliant, road noise wonderfully suppressed. It's easy to drive and the cabin is reasonably roomy.

The only real liability is the lethargic 3.3-litre V6, a 168-hp weakling for such a weighty vehicle (Nissan addressed that in its 1999.5 model, but it's beyond our price range). It's also fond of gasoline. Watch for alignment problems and premature brake and tire wear.

1999-2002 Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Vitara

1999-2002 Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Vitara (Photo: Chevrolet)

Despite their diminutive size, the Ontario-built Chevrolet Tracker and Suzuki Vitara are body-on-frame off-roaders that take their knocks well. Redesigned for 1999, they gained more power with a 127-hp 2.0-litre inline-four, more refinement and a fourth gear in their automatic transmission.

The four-door wagon is the way to go, which is considerably less noisy and nervous on the highway than the two-door softtop. Still, nobody will mistake one of these for a Lexus RX 350.

Any of these 4x4 models are generally the lowest priced four-wheelers in the country (excepting any Lada Nivas that may still be kicking around). These trucklets are fairly durable, but avoid high mileage examples since oil consumption and head gasket failures have been reported. Watch for rust.

1998-2000 Jeep Cherokee

1998-2000 Jeep Cherokee (Photo: Jeep)

Thanks to the mad scientists at American Motors, the Jeep Cherokee is the granddaddy of all of today's SUVs. It debuted in 1983 as a modern interpretation of an off-road vehicle, with enough creature comforts - and four passenger doors - to satisfy soccer moms.

Sublimely updated in 1997, the most noticeable improvement was the new interior, which unfortunately did nothing to enhance the tight rear seat. Updated looks aside, it still drives like a 1984 model with lots of wind and powertrain noise.

Its 4.0-litre inline-six engine, which dates back to the 1964 AMC Rambler has proven to be remarkably durable, if unrefined. Beware of leaky seals, bad transmissions and lots of electrical gremlins - all of which are badges of honour for Jeepheads.

Related Autos Links

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Winter tire basics
How to drive like a pro this winter