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An array of excellent winter-driving options for all budgets

The 2021 Nissan Kicks is a practical runabout with good ground clearance for driving on snowy roads.MikeDitz/Courtesy of manufacturer

There are two ways to deal with winter driving in Canada: flight or fight.

This year, for many of us, the flight option is off the table. With the COVID-19 pandemic, you cannot easily flee south to Florida or Arizona to escape those icy roads and wicked whiteout winds.

So you have to stay here and fight, equipped with a vehicle that’s up to the challenge. But what’s the right vehicle to get you safely where you need to go? More and more Canadians are opting for all-wheel drive (AWD) – even, experts say, when they don’t really need it.

Beyond increasing the purchase price by $1,300-$3,500 or more, AWD adds weight to a vehicle (because it has more parts) and creates more friction. Both factors harm fuel economy, says Hayato Mori, Honda Canada’s assistant vice-president of product planning and business development. And yet drivers may only need AWD three to five days out of the year. That’s why Honda/Acura doesn’t offer AWD on every car.

“This is always the dilemma that we face – the decision we have to make when considering adding AWD to a vehicle.”

Not only that, but there are also a variety of all-wheel drive systems to choose from. Honda/Acura, for example, offers a “light-duty” basic AWD system in its CR-V and HR-V compact crossovers. Bigger, more expensive models add such features as “torque-vectoring,” which adjusts the power to each wheel to improve cornering.

Many other automakers have similar systems. Toyota’s “pro-active” AWD, for example, can adjust the power going to the rear wheels from 10 to 50 per cent, depending on conditions. The company also has a hybrid AWD system on some Lexus models that uses electric motors to deliver power to the rear wheels (eliminating the need for a driveshaft to the rear).

To further muddy the waters, consumers must sort out the difference between AWD and four-wheel drive (4WD). The latter is typically a heavier-duty drivetrain system that has permanent drive, a differential between the front and rear drive shafts, and active management of torque transfer. AWD is a form of four-wheel drive that only engages when improved road traction is needed and disengages when not needed to reduce fuel consumption.

Safety experts warn that improving the ability to move forward does not necessarily lead to greater safety. Sometimes, it creates a kind of false confidence that leads to us driving faster than we should.

When choosing a winter-ready car, consider where you’re living and what your needs truly are. If your daily commute is on Highway 407 around the Greater Toronto Area, AWD may rarely be needed. If your driving involves snowy remote rural roads, AWD may be the best investment you’ll ever make.

One other factor comes into play: the length of the vehicle and its ground clearance. A vehicle with great traction is rendered useless if it becomes “high-centred” – basically suspended in the middle – on a lump of hardened snow. That’s one reason why low-slung AWD sedans are not on this list. Premium-priced cars tend to use AWD as a means to enhance high-speed-cornering performance, not to get you safely out of a snowdrift.

It also almost goes without saying that winter tires are superior to “all-season” (which many now call three-season) tires. One thing experts agree on: Rear-wheel-drive vehicles fare the worst in snow. Leave your Mustang in the garage this winter; even great snow tires are not going to save you.

Depending on your budget, here are some great winter car options.

Front-wheel-drive economy

Nissan Kicks

If you’re on a tight budget and think you won’t be plowing through a lot of snow, this FWD cute-ute could do the job for you. With a short wheelbase and ground clearance of 178 mm, this vehicle sits higher up than most of its competitors. This year, Nissan gave the Kicks a bold new exterior look and spacious interior. The only knock on this practical little runabout is the mediocre performance from its 122-hp four-cylinder engine paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Alternatives to consider:

Kia Soul: The peppy crossover has ground clearance of 170 mm. Engine problems on earlier models appear to be resolved.

Jeep Compass: The entry level is 2WD, and the vehicle boasts a generous ground clearance of 208 mm. The 2.4-litre engine, however, is rated as just adequate.

Mid-sized SUV/CUVs

Subaru Outback

The 2021 Subaru Outback.Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

The Japan-based automaker didn’t invent all-wheel drive (4WD systems go back nearly a century), but the company has gone all-in for more than 40 years. All that experience with its full-time Symmetrical AWD system has made Subaru an authority on the technology, and the Outback, with its 221 mm of ground clearance, is one of its best iterations. Unlike other brands, Subarus engage AWD at all times, never slipping into 2WD mode.

Alternatives to consider:

2021 Honda CR-V: Since this compact AWD SUV debuted in 1997, it has evolved into a fit and versatile vehicle capable of handling normal snow conditions with poise.

2021 Mazda CX-9: Not only does this popular crossover have a refined interior, but it also comes with 224 mm of ground clearance and several traction-control systems to manage nasty roads.

Off-road ready

Jeep Wrangler

The 2020 Jeep Wrangler.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Did you really think there could be a list like this without a Wrangler? A highly evolved descendent of the Second World War military vehicle, the Wrangler remains a true off-road champ, which means it’s capable of handling conditions as hostile as Mother Nature has to offer. And if you’re looking to improve fuel economy, the Wrangler 4Xe plug-in hybrid in now available.

Alternatives to consider:

Toyota 4Runner: Like the Wrangler, this vehicle puts the accent on utility and off-road toughness, and it comes with the company’s reputation for making reliable vehicles.

Ford Bronco: This retro-modern SUV, revived after a 15-year hiatus, is going head-to-head with Jeep in terms of off-road capabilities and sportiness.

Best AWD minivan

Chrysler Pacifica AWD

The 2021 Chrysler Pacifica.Courtesy of manufacturer

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, minivans remain the ultimate family car when it comes to comfort, space and utility. The Pacifica AWD is all that, and somehow even manages to retain stow-’n-go seats, despite fitting in a driveshaft and rear differential to enable AWD. It should come as no surprise that its relatively low (137 mm) ground clearance means this is meant for snowy roads, not off-road trails.

Alternative to consider

Toyota Sienna: There are a lot fewer contenders in the minivan field than there were 10 years ago, but the AWD Sienna, now available as a hybrid, is a solid performer.

Best AWD Wagon

Volvo XC60 Cross-Country

The 2021 Volvo XC60 Cross-Country.Courtesy of manufacturer

Sweden, where Volvo got its start, and Canada share one important thing in common – both countries have long snowy winters. Based on the S60 sedan, the XC60 Cross-Country has a respectable 211 mm of ground clearance, and its AWD system is more than capable of handling some unsavoury road conditions. Bonus: It comes with hill-descent control.

Alternatives to consider

Audi A4 Allroad: It sits 33 mm higher than the standard A4 wagon, and the AWD system even has an off-road mode.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain: Equipped with Mercedes’ 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, this wagon can seat up to seven when rear-facing jump seats are employed.

Best AWD pickup truck

Ford F-150 Raptor

The 2021 Ford F-150 Raptor.The Globe and Mail

The generous ground clearance of pickup trucks provides a natural advantage in deep snow. The Raptor sits a full 292 mm above the ground and features a combination of a clutch-based, torque-on-demand AWD system and a mechanically locking, two-speed transfer case, which delivers true 4WD in the toughest conditions.

Alternatives to consider:

Chevrolet Colorado ZR2: This capable mid-sized off-roader is also equipped with front- and rear-locking differentials for maximum traction.

Toyota Tundra SR5 Trail Edition: The brawny full-sized pickup features Toyota’s active traction-control and an automatic limited-slip differential.

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