Top 10 Winter Cars and ‘Light-Utilities’
Driving expert and MSN Autos reviewer Richard Russell offers his top current picks for the best cars and ‘light-utilities” you can buy to conquer and enjoy the Canadian winter.
It used to be that Audi and Subaru had a lock on the “best winter car” category with their sophisticated and proven full-time all-wheel-drive systems. Close behind were vehicles designed and developed in Europe where they knew about winter.
But with the proliferation of electronics, more compact and efficient transfer cases and drive systems and the industry trend to outsourcing drive train components, there are a whole raft of new vehicles on the market that take the bite out of winter. Consumers have spoken with their wallets and every major motor vehicle manufacturer boasting the all-season security of four driven wheels.
Hundreds of Prospects
Let’s take a look at a number of them with an eye to a “Top Ten” list. Due to the sheer size of the market – more than 350 unique vehicles – I’ve tried to break the list into logical categories and name a top choice in each as well as a major contender. In some cases, I’ve tossed in another worthy of consideration.
My winter wish list is centered on three main factors: 1) cost; 2) use; and: 3) grip. Cost is a factor for most consumers, so I have broken the list into several price ranges. By use, I am referring to the intended role of the vehicle. Some want a conventional car with its lower weight, height and operating costs, combined with better driving dynamics. Others want or need plenty of storage and regularly car pool or ferry numbers of people and want more space. So in each category I have picked a top car and a top SUV or CUV.
Maximum Grip and Traction Required
The whole purpose of this exercise is to try to identify a variety of vehicles that give us an edge in slippery conditions. Grip or traction is the key – not only for getting underway, but also to help us steer and stop. An ideal winter vehicle must have four tires distributing power, grappling for grip.
In all but the least expensive category, vehicles had to have a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system to be considered. That’s tough to do at the lower end of the market. I have also made the assumption that anyone serious about driving in winter will ensure their vehicle is equipped with a set of four premium winter tires. For some of the vehicles listed below, this may require some serious shopping and/or the move to a different-size wheel/tire package.
In addition to our requirements for AWD/FWD, my must-have list includes antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control. These two key critical safety features provide an alert driver with some added assistance in avoiding nasty situations.
Maximum Grip and Traction Required
Comfort plays a key factor in my personal wish list. After spending more than enough winter seat time above the Arctic Circle in both North America and Europe, I place heavy emphasis on such things as seat heaters and am a huge fan of heated steering wheels.
But almost as important as the ability to enjoy traction on slippery surfaces is the ability to see, so I put great emphasis on such things as heated mirrors, heated windscreens where the windshield wipers park, efficient ventilation systems that allow you to keep ALL windows clear.
Similarly, I tend to be pretty critical about head and tail light systems, not only for their efficiency, brightness and visibility, but also whether they are recessed in some stylish housing that is likely to fill in during a nasty, blowing snowstorm.
OK, let’s get to it.
- $75,000 and up
- Top Car: Mercedes S550 4Matic
- Top Contender: Audi A6 4.2
- Top Utility: Mercedes GL450,
- Top Contender: Lexus LX470
When price is no object, it is no surprise that technology and features abound. You can’t go wrong with any of these. The new S-Class is one of the most sophisticated sedans in the world, positively bloated with technology. We considered the ##%Audi S8[[%LNK|VipTrims||Audi|S8|73591522007%]]2%## for this one, but 20” or even substitute 19” winter tires may be hard to find. So we go to the smaller ##%A6 4.2[[%LNK|VipTrims||Audi|A6|6155872007%]]3%## with its reknowned Quattro system. The Mercedes GL just won top honours for SUV’s in this price range following intensive testing for the AJAC Car Of The Year awards and we concur. The big Lexus is aging well and offers loads of comfort and features combined with a proven drive train and Lexus quality
- $50,000 - $75,000
- Top Car: Acura RL
- Top Contender: Mercedes E-Class
- Top Utility: BMW X5 4.8i
- Top Contender – Acura MDX
- Honourable Mention – Mercedes ML 320 Bluetec
Here again we find the advantages of pricing that allows for inclusion of some of the most sophisticated systems in the industry. Among luxury cars in this range, the ##%RL[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|RL|%]]5%## stands out because of the sophisticated Super Handling All Wheel Drive system developed by the fertile minds at Honda engineering. This not only apportions grip as available and needed, it comes to the fore in serious summer driving as well, sending more power to the outside wheels during cornering to help push the ##%RL[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|RL|%]]21%## around the turn. Slick! The new ##%E-Class[[%LNK|VipTrims||Mercedes-Benz|E-Class|%]]22%## has a proven and very sophisticated AWD system and a host of other driver aids.
On the SUV front, the new ##%X5[[%LNK|VipTrims||BMW|X5|%]]6%## is right at the head of the pack. The combination of grip, handling, balance and traction have impressed all who have been exposed to this newcomer. The dreaded iDrive has been improved a bit and the muscle and music from the 4.8-litre V8 is delightful. The new ##%Acura MDX[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|MDX|%]]7%## boasts a version of the SH-AWD system that so impressed us in the ##%RL[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|RL|%]]8%##. Combined with a tight new chassis and packed with features, the ##%MDX[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|MDX|%]]9%## also makes a pretty impressive value statement. We tossed the ##%ML[[%LNK|VipTrims||Mercedes-Benz|M-Class|73591472007%]]10%## diesel in here because it is not only the only diesel SUV offered for 2007, it is an incredibly sophisticated fuel-sipper using a system that has been licensed to a number of other manufacturers. Great mileage, incredible grunt and lots of luxury!
- $35,000 - $50,000
- Top Car: Infiniti G35x
- Top Contender: Volvo V70
- Honourable Mention – BMW 328ix -
- Top Utility: Acura RDX
- Top Contender – Subaru Forester XT
- Honourable mention: Toyota Sienna
The ##%G35x[[%LNK|VipTrims||Infiniti|G35 Sedan|6318572007%]]11%## is a sports sedan you don’t have to store for the winter: Wonderful engine, slick gearbox and terrific suspension, with luxury and features to boot. They’ve even spruced up the interior in the new version. We are fans of ##%Volvo[[%LNK|VipTrims||Volvo|V70|%]]24%## for the very reason they are sometimes criticised. Its cars are not terribly exciting, perhaps, but everything from the lights to the ventilation system has been developed in a place where they know a lot about winter. Of course, the best seats and one of the safest structures in the business don’t go unappreciated. BMW’s xDrive has earned a spot among the most revered AWD systems so it’s appearance in the new ##%3-Series[[%LNK|VipTrims||BMW|3 Series|%]]23%##, widely believed to be the best car in the world, is worthy of mention.
The ##%Acura RDX[[%LNK|VipTrims||Acura|RDX|%]]12%## has earned kudos in its first months on the market for a great drive train/value combination, while the ##%Forester XT[[%LNK|VipTrims||Subaru|Forester|6318082007%]]13%## is a genuine Q-Ship, one of those engineering marvels that slip under the radar. It may be boxy and dated, but it has Subaru’s exceptional AWD system and plenty of turbocharged power and torque. It offers good value, rock-solid reliability and tons of room for its size. We threw the ##%Toyota Sienna[[%LNK|VipTrims||Toyota|Sienna|6317852006%]]14%## in here because it is the only minivan available with AWD, and plenty of people still want and need the utility and seating capacity of a minivan. This one has a silky new 3.5-litre, 266-hp V6 engine for 2007, and legendary quality to boot.
- $25,000 - $35,000
- Top Car: Ford Fusion AWD
- Top Contender: Subaru Impreza or Legacy
- Top Utility: Mazda CX-7
- Top Contender: Hyundai Santa Fe
The ##%Fusion[[%LNK|VipTrims||Ford|Fusion|%]]15%## is quietly earning an excellent reputation for both value and driving dynamics. The modified ##%Mazda6[[%LNK|VipTrims||Mazda|Mazda6|%]]16%## platform it is built on is a wonderful base, and the addition of an AWD system makes this a year-rounder. The aging Subarus have one of the best AWD systems on the planet: No serious shopping list in this range should be without one.
As for SUV’s, there are a whole host of players – especially when you include the raft of new CUVs (crossover-utility vehicles) hitting the market. But heading the pack, in my mind, is the sharply-styled ##%Mazda CX-7[[%LNK|VipTrims||Mazda|CX-7|%]]17%##. With plenty of turbocharged power (244 hp from a 2.3-litre displacement) and one of the shapeliest bodies in the business, this looker has it all. But the ##%Hyundai Santa Fe[[%LNK|VipTrims||Hyundai|Santa Fe|5071452007%]]18%## also stands out for a number of reasons, not the least of which are style, drive train and value. If you need seating for more than five, this might be the best bet.
- Under $27,000
- Top Car: Suzuki SX4
- Top Utility: Kia Sportage
Easy call here: These two are the least expensive way to get into four drive wheels in their respective classes. Both offer modern 4WD systems and serious value. We racked up more than 25,000 trouble-free km in a ##%Kia Sportage[[%LNK|VipTrims||Kia|Sportage|%]]19%## over last winter and currently have an ##%Suzuki SX4[[%LNK|VipTrims||Suzuki|SX4|%]]20%## in the long-term fleet. It handled the first heavy snow fall and icy weather of the year with complete aplomb. This funky little hatchback is the least expensive AWD vehicle on the market, and also a model of utility. The Sportage boasts a full array of front, side and side-curtain airbags as well as a lot more unexpected features at a great price.
We didn’t include any others here because of the dearth of AWD in this bracket. But just above the price ceiling, rest a host of serious players. And let’s not ignore the fact that a front-wheel drive compact or subcompact with ABS and serious winter rubber is a pretty darn capable winter car.
So there you have it. One man’s opinion, riddled with opportunity for disagreement and debate.
How prepared are you and your car for spring?
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- 65 %Winter tires are off tune-up has been done and I'm set to take on the hot season!
- I've been procrastinating getting my winter tires put off. This weekend, I promise!
- I'm daydreaming of warmer days and to protest winter, I'm driving my convertible.
- Excited, see you around!