By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
What’s the best car for winter driving?
It’s one of those questions with no one size-fits-all answer. But I’ll tell you what I think makes for a good winter car:
* It’s older … and it’s paid for –
Driving on ice/snow — and among drivers who don’t know how to — is a lot less stressful when your car’s paid-for and already less than perfect. Another dent’s not going to matter. If you slide off the road and scrape some guardrail in the process your only real worry is how to get it back on the road. So long as it’s still drivable and basically intact, you’re good. But you’re far from good when you slide off the road in your $40,000 pride and joy — that you still owe three years’ of payments on. On top of the pain of that first big dent — or worse — is the pain of having to deal with your insurance company if it is worse. With an old beater, who cares? Get some crowbars and come-alongs and pull the fender back out enough to clear the tire — and you’re done!
And if someone hits you, it’s Christmas in January! So long as the car’s still drivable, you don’t have to get it fixed. Consider the insurance check a winter bonus. Gas money for the next six months.
* It has a good defroster –
This often means, it has a functioning AC system. The AC is an important element of the heater/defroster system because it dries out the moisture from the air that will otherwise fog up your windshield and leave you guessing where the road is at 50 MPH. This is one of the reasons why cars without working AC can be as un-fun in winter as they are in July, when it’s 102 degrees outside. And why it’s a good idea to make sure the AC is working in Fall — before the bad weather starts rolling in.
* It has good (winter weather) tires –
Many people think having 4WD or AWD is all that matters when it comes to getting through a blizzard. It does help having power routed to all four wheels instead of just two — but without a good seat of winter-weather tires, you’ll discover what the weakest link really is.
Personal story: I have a 4WD truck. It has manly 4WD Low range gearing, too. And a locking differential. Tough enough, right? Wrong. Without good tires — tires built for snow, with blocky tread and made out of rubber designed for cold weather — my truck’s wheels (all four of them) will spin as helplessly as a RWD ’78 Caprice Classic . An AWD — or even FWD — car with a set of Blizzaks (or equivalent) will do better than a 4WD truck with “summer” tires.
Be aware that many late-model AWD-equipped crossovers and even 4WD SUVs come from the factory with “sport” wheel and tire packages — which look great in the showroom and are great on dry, paved roads, but suck in the snow. All that money you paid for AWD or 4WD won’t do you much good in the next white-out if you didn’t put those “sporty” tires into retirement for the season — and slotted on some proper snow-season tires in their place.
* It’s reliable –
All late model cars are. They start easily, don’t stall in traffic and run reliably for years without much attention.
The problem is that a good winter weather beater (see Point 1 above) is no longer late-model. It is likely old. And old cars are sometimes no longer reliable, which is why it’s important to be more careful about which old car you choose. There are beaters you can bet your life on — 1990s-era Toyota Corollas, for example. They should star in Dracula movies because they never die. Then there are cars that like to die in the middle of a busy intersection, or won’t come to life in the first place. I won’t mention any names. Just do some sussing round before you buy that winter weather beater. Google has made it super easy to discover whether you should avoid a particular make/model car. If it’s a stinker, you’ll find out soon enough.
* And finally — a full tank of gas.
Not just because you might find yourself entombed in a snowdrift and that full tank of fuel can keep the engine — and heater — going (to keep you going). But also because the extra weight on the wheels will give you better traction. And that will help keep the car going.