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Ask Joanne

Choosing a small car for winter driving Add to ...

I live in Montreal and wondered whether you could recommend some economical small cars that run well during our cold snowy Quebec winters. My sister told me I should get a Toyota Echo, do you have any comments on this car or much feedback? – Jane in Montreal

The recent cold snap may well have people asking this same question as far down the eastern coast as Florida. Montreal winters are consistently severe, of course, and so it is important to choose a vehicle that can cope with the conditions.

Every new car sold in North America these days has undergone rigorous winter testing, but certain features make certain models a better choice for winter driving. If you plan to stay in the subcompact category, you’re not dealing with the luxury end of the market and so your focus should be on vehicles that cover the basics: dependability, safety and economy. Here are some guidelines and considerations to help you in your choice:

When you’re driving in winter, dependability is a key factor. The J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study names the most reliable vehicles based on feedback from original owners of three-year-old vehicles. Its top three cars in the subcompact car category in 2010, for example, are the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris (which replaced the Echo in 2005), and Hyundai Accent. (The Echo, back in its day, was also named on this list. If you opt to buy used, you can check other years and models at jdpower.com/autos).

Unfortunately, some of the features that help most in winter weather may not be available on the vehicle you want in the subcompact category. All-wheel-drive is the king of the road in slippery conditions, but rare in subcompacts. In recent years, even some of the most popular major manufacturers made you pay extra for things like an antilock braking system (ABS), which should be standard in every vehicle.

ABS is especially important when you’re trying to stop on icy roads. The 2011 Yaris provides ABS as a standard feature, as well as electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and traction control. Traction control, also optional on some vehicles, is helpful when you’re trying to accelerate on slippery roads. If one wheel loses traction, power is applied to the wheel with the most traction. Without traction control, you’re essentially in a one-wheel drive car.

Electronic stability control (ESC), which Transport Canada has deemed mandatory for all vehicles manufactured after Aug. 31, 2011, is a crash avoidance system that helps you maintain control of the vehicle when you need to swerve or brake suddenly.

“In Canada, ESC has been shown to reduce up to 60 per cent of accidents,” says Michel Trepanier of St. Leonard Toyota in Montreal. “Personally, I’ve driven for 15 years in winter and since trying ESC I feel more secure on the road. Any car equipped with ESC is a charm to drive in the snow.”

Remember, with some of these economy cars you may not get bonus winter weather features such as heated seats, heated mirrors or a heated steering wheel – but you could add an after-market remote starter. The Suzuki SX4 is an exception in this class, with heated mirrors and seats as options, and AWD as a standard feature in the top trim model.

Safety should also be taken into account. The 2009 and 2010 Yaris models, for example, received four out of five stars on rollover, frontal, and side impact tests in the U.S. National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s new-car assessment program. The hatchback version of the Yaris fared even better on some of the tests. You can check the ratings of other vehicles at safercar.gov.

“The Yaris is good value for the money. Repairs will cost you next to nothing. The engine is 1.5L, so the advantage here is with gas prices in Montreal now at $1.30, it’s a good choice for gas conservation. Whatever vehicle you choose, a good set of winter tires is essential, along with knowledge of how to drive properly in winter. It doesn’t matter which car you have if you don’t know how to drive in winter conditions. Driving schools offer winter driving lessons, which help you learn how to control the car when you’re sliding,” says Trepanier.

The Yaris is a good choice, but make sure you shop around. With the latest subcompact offerings, you’ll still be able to get around the city in winter, and you’ll save money up front – and at the pump.

E-Mail Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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