Cars That Handle Snow and Steeps.
Living in the Northeast all my life, I’ve had my share of 4-wheel and all-wheel-drive vehicles. My clan currently has three – one for me, one for my wife, and one shared by my two teenage daughters. Frankly, I can’t imagine winter driving without one.
The list below is a totally subjective collection of my favorites, based my own experiences. It’s by no means intended to be a compendium of the “best” all-wheel-drive vehicles available. That’s because everyone’s different, with different likes and dislikes and priorities (heck, my wife and I couldn’t even agree on our last purchase, though I was smart enough to let her decide!). Plus, there’s a ridiculously wide price range.
But each of these rigs has the basics necessities, including decent power and torque, road-hugging traction, ample clearance, comfortable interiors, and a nice selection of amenities. If my highlighted choices don’t grab you, check out the “honorable mentions.” All are worth a look.
(MSRP: $25,600-$38,200. Trim levels: 6. Combined MPG: 23-28 Seats: 5.)
Full disclosure – I’m an unabashed Subaru fan. We’ve owned three, and currently have two Outbacks in the driveway. Mine is a 2005 model, with 180,000 miles on it. More impressively, it’s still going strong despite a head-on collision with a kamikaze moose in upstate New Hampshire in the spring of 2007. When it came time to add another car to the stable in 2014, my wife and I looked at dozens of vehicles. What did we come home with? Yup, another Subaru Outback wagon.
The current Outback has great lines, inside and out, with plenty of room, front and back. Subaru’s all-wheel drive lineage is peerless, and my wife and I often remark how we feel glued to the road (and that sense of security can’t be understated in winter time). The 6-cylinder engine provides extra power that’s well worth the extra coin, provided you don’t mind sacrificing fuel efficiency. The one drawback is the clunky Subaru roof-rail system, which not only makes adding after-market racks like Thule or Yakima more complicated (and expensive), but also leaves the Outback susceptible to high winds.
Honorable mention: Subaru Forrester, Volvo V60, Mitsubishi Outlander.
(MSRP: $24,900-$36,400. Trim levels: 8. Combined MPG: 23. Seats: 5.)
This rig is flat-out fun, as in F-U-N! Quick and nimble, the Tiguan is a driver’s delight, at a decent price point. It prefers premium gas, which is an added hit in the wallet, but those drawn to German-engineered vehicles know that performance is a value-added concept. The cockpit for the driver and front-seat passenger is compact but comfortable, like a sports car. The back seat, though adjustable, is still sparse on legroom. Headroom, however, is excellent.
For owners thinking long-term, the Tiguan’s turbo-charged power plant typically means additional maintenance costs. Again that’s a reasonable tradeoff for performance, in my estimation. And there’s the unmistakable sturdy “feel” of a vehicle from Deutschland that translates right through the steering wheel. If you want something a little burlier and a little bigger, while staying in the VW family, the Toureg should fit the bill.
Honorable mention: BMW X1, Infiniti QX30, Audi Q3, Subaru Crosstrek.
(MSRP: $21,800-$30,000. Trim levels: 12. Combined MPG: 27-30. Seats: 5)
When it comes time to replace my beloved ’05 Outback, Mazda’s sporty CX-5 is my leader in the clubhouse. Like the Tiguan, this compact SUV was one of my favorites during our recent car search, but it didn’t have the backseat legroom of the Outback. Since the shortest member of our clan stands at 5-foot-10, that was a critical consideration. But with two other roomier vehicles in the household now, I can afford to be a little more selfish. And the CX-5 allows for some guilt-free self-indulgence.
The solid handling of the all-wheel drive and crisp acceleration of the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine (far superior to the 2.0 option, in my opinion) in the Touring model offers a smile-per-mile quotient that equals any vehicle that you’ll find under $30,000. Improved insulation and a nice sound system creates a wonderful on-road experience. Need room for 7? Check out the elegant and utilitarian Mazda CX-9.
Honorable mention: Mini Cooper Countryman, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota FJ Cruiser.
(MSRP: $30,500-$45,000. Trim levels: 11. Combined MPG: 21-22. Seats: 7-8)
The Highlander has come a long way since it was introduced into the Toyota line-up, replacing the frisky 4Runner. The electronic stability system, coupled with the all-wheel drive, promotes confidence. Unfortunately, the standard 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine doesn’t. The 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, coupled with the 6-speed transmission, is by far the better choice, even with the corresponding drop in miles per gallon.
Today’s Highlander also features improved styling inside and out. Thankfully, the boxy exterior of previous models has been replaced with flowing lines, and the interior, complete with leather upholstery and top-flight entertainment system, takes the edge off any long drive. Safety systems, including pre-collision, blind-spot, and lane-departure warnings, are superb. All models are equipped with a tow-prep package, which adds to its versatility (it also makes another strong argument for the V-6 engine). There’s also a hybrid model.
Honorable mention: Volkswagen Toureg, Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano.
(MSRP: $23,500-$38,400. Trim levels: 9. Combined MPG: 22-26. Seats: 5)
Jeep has a long history when it comes to handling rugged terrain. The Cherokee is a worthy ambassador of that tradition. The 5-person Cherokee offers three 4-wheel drive systems that all offer true off-road capability, especially when combined with the standard nine-speed automatic transmission. The base model offers a 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, which is adequate but underpowered. The available 271-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 is worth every extra penny.
Parents with young drivers will like the automated parking system, and safety features like forward-collision warning with autonomous braking and lane-keeping assist. For high-tech aficionados, there’s the available Uconnect multimedia system with the 8.4-inch touch-screen, Siri EyesFree voice recognition for iPhones, drag and drop capability to customize the screen, and a do-not-disturb feature for incoming calls and text messages. Very cool indeed.
Honorable mention: Chevrolet Tahoe, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Explorer.
(MSRP: $44,000-$58,400. Trim levels: 10. Combined MPG: 22-23. Seats: 7.)
I’m a big fan of the Acura RDX, the smaller, more agile sibling of the MDX. But when it comes to versatility and brute strength, big brother rules. Coupling a 290-horsepower V-6 engine with a silky smooth nine-speed automatic transmission, the MDX delivers a responsive ride quality. Now add an updated all-wheel-drive system, and you’ve got enhanced handling that feels almost intuitive.
Inside, sumptuous leather seats and a state-of-the art entertainment system, including rear-seat video displays, create an atmosphere more relaxing than most living rooms (although the third seat is a bit snug). The AcuraWatch collection of advanced safety features includes autonomous braking to avoid front-end collisions, camera-based road-departure prevention, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Honorable mention: Lexus RX400, Nissan Pathfinder, BMX X5.
(MSRP: $45,750-$57,200. Trim levels: 7. Combined MPG: 22-24. Seats: 5-7.)
Clearly, the Swedes know a thing or two about nasty weather. The Volvo XC90 is capable of handling just about anything that Old Man Winter can throw at us, and can do it with style. The XC90 looks like a Volvo wagon on steroids, but it’s really a wonderful combination of technology, safety, and comfort. The 8-speed automatic transmission is flawless, and you have a choice of four-cylinder engines – one supercharged, and one turbocharged (319 horsepower in the former, 250 for the latter) – that are capable if not particularly inspiring.
But the ride quality and the quality and design of the interior are outstanding. You’ll have a choice of 5- and 7-seat models, both of which are cozy (though access to the third-row seat is a bit clumsy) and offer plenty of headroom. There’s also an optional plug-in hybrid model available for the environmentally conscious consumer.
Honorable mention: Audi Q5, Porsche Macan S or GTS, Toyota Sienna minivan (if you need a ton of space).
Mercedes-Benz GLE Class
(MSRP: $51,100-$65,550. Trim levels: 6. Combined MPG: 19-25. Seats: 5)
Luxury, thy name is Mercedes-Benz. The German manufacturer is the standard bearer for both sophistication and superior engineering. Now, that comes with a hefty price tag, but friends who own Mercedes consider them an investment. Born from the M-Class, each of the GLE trims except the base model come with road-gripping all-wheel drive. The optional adaptive air suspension can increase ground clearance to 11 inches, and can include active stabilizer bars that counter body roll in real time. Pretty neat.
Power is provided by variety of engines, depending on trim, but for this price, I wouldn’t settle for less than the GLE350’s 302-horesepower, 3.5-liter V-6, or the GLE400’s 329-horsepower, turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6. At the top of the heap is the GLE63’s turbocharged, 5.5-liter V-8 that produces 550 horsepower. Visibility, and interior comfort, are predictably exceptional (though the climate control system isn’t up to par, and luggage space is surprisingly sparse). Optional premium stereos come from Harman Kardon or Bang & Olufsen. Talk about a win/win. The GLS model (starting at $67,000) will seat seven.
Honorable mention: Jaguar F-Pace (starting at “only” $42,400), BMX X6, Porsche Cayenne Platinum or S, Range Rover Sport.
Last, a quick note of caution. Drive with care, no matter how much faith you have in the vehicle you’re piloting. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you have 4-wheel drive if all four wheels are on ice.
-Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer who spends far too much time during the winter driving north, skis and snowboards in tow. However, his wife makes the vehicle decisions.