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Motorists make their way along highway 40 near Montreal Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 during the first major snowstorm of winter in the region. (Graham Hughes/CP Photo)
Motorists make their way along highway 40 near Montreal Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 during the first major snowstorm of winter in the region. (Graham Hughes/CP Photo)

Safety

Compact cars made for winter driving Add to ...

Like it or not, Canada is a winter country and our cars should accommodate this. SUVs and crossovers base their reputations on conquering snow, but what are the best compact cars for tackling the cold climate?

An obvious advantage for any vehicle is all-wheel drive, which lets all four tires dig into snow and ice for better traction. AWD is common for SUVs and crossovers, but its extra weight, cost and complexity makes it rare on a non-premium compact car. The only vehicle in the segment to come standard with AWD is the Subaru Impreza and it has just been significantly updated for 2017.

Subaru

All of Subaru’s vehicles are AWD, except for the sporty BRZ coupe. It’s the maker’s main competitive advantage in the showroom, and the $19,995 Impreza benefits the most. Its boxer engine is mounted longitudinally under the hood, not transverse as with most vehicles, and so it connects more simply to a full-time AWD driveshaft.

Combined with the latest generation of traction control and ABS braking technology and properly equipped with winter tires, the little Subaru is exceptional in snow and ice – and exceptional on slippery roads year-round, too.

Winter driving isn’t all about good grip, however. It’s also about comfort in a cold climate. Heated seats are far more common now and their technology has improved, too. A decade ago, many heated seats just had electric wires that heated the foam around them, which would eventually deteriorate and burn out; today, while the principles are the same, the materials are more robust.

Heaters were originally developed for leather seats, which take a long time to warm up in winter. They feel so nice, though, that they’ve become an option for cloth seats, too, and in Canada, some models feature heated seats at even the most basic trim level. The Toyota Corolla iM, for example, is only sold with heated cloth front seats, starting at $22,540.

Toyota

Perhaps the least expensive car in Canada with heated front seats is the Hyundai Elantra, which includes them in its basic L Manual trim for $15,999. The Elantra even goes a step further and includes a heated steering wheel – glorious – in its GL trim for $20,349. And if you care about the comfort of your passengers in the rear, they can also have heated seats with the GLS trim for $22,699. Flick the switch and they’ll forget how cold it is outside.

Snowy, icy roads don’t mean driving can’t be fun, though – far from it. Minis have always been a hoot to drive in slippery conditions and the Paceman, Clubman and Countryman models have the option of AWD. Don’t let the Mini name fool you: Both Clubman and Countryman are large enough to be officially considered “compact.”

BMW

The Countryman has just been redesigned on the X1 SUV’s architecture to make it larger than the previous generation, but all Minis inspire confidence in slippery conditions, thanks to their comparatively large wheelbases and peppy turbocharged engines. The older Countryman was only available in AWD and with the more powerful Cooper S engine, and the new generation is improved in many ways. We’ve not driven the new, smaller engine in the Countryman, though, so can’t say if it’s as much fun.

A warning though: If you buy a manual-transmission Countryman with the optional large chrome gear-shifter knob, be prepared to buy a pair of gloves, too – the knob stays cold a long time in winter.

For the best of everything once the temperature drops, however, you can’t go wrong with an Audi A3. It’s expensive, starting at $32,800, because it’s a premium car and built to a high standard, but it offers all you’ll want to conquer winter. Heated front leather seats come standard.

Jessica Leeder/The Globe and Mail

It’s almost $5,000 extra to buy your A3 with AWD, but Audi’s Quattro system has been around since 1980 and is renowned for its tractability. Different models use different technologies and the A3 uses a hydraulic multiplate clutch to send up to half the engine’s available torque to the rear axle, almost instantly, as needed.

You want the heated steering wheel? Then you’ll have to buy the fully loaded Tecknik package for that, which includes a fancy sound system, the impressive virtual cockpit, navigation and LED lights front and rear. That starts at $45,100, which is more than twice the price of the Impreza.

There’s more, of course. Bigger cars with heated armrests, electrically heated washer fluid and windshields, even hot-stone massage that’s strong enough to push through a parka. But just because a car is compact doesn’t mean it has to make compromises. None of these does.

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