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Off-grid cottager needs a truck to tackle hills and snow

GMC Sierra SLT Crew Cab

General Motors

Hey folks: I have an off-grid cottage in the Pontiac region of Quebec with a 5-km drive on gravel with hills having 25 per cent or more grades. My neighbours have four-wheel-drive Ford F-150s or other big trucks, things that probably won't fit in my narrow urban Ottawa driveway.

I've got three kids and three dogs and we use a front-wheel drive Toyota Sienna minivan to get up there in summer. I'd like to consider a vehicle that would get us up there in winter. I looked at the Toyota 4Runner Trail Edition. With a roof rack, we could all fit, barely. A Ram 1500 with a cap would be the obvious answer, but I have 90 feet of narrow driveway through which the minivan barely fits. I don't think the Ram would work.

We love the Sienna minivan, but ours is "well used." Is the all-wheel drive Sienna worth considering? The alternative: snowmobiles with trailers for the dogs, but that opens up another can o' worms. – Michael in Ottawa

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Cato: I am tempted to suggest a Sikorsky. You know, a helicopter transport. At least for the winter. Dogs, kids, snowmobiles, trailers, luggage, snowshoes, cross-country skis, woolies, groceries, booze, generator. All the stuff needed for a simple cottage life.

Vaughan: Cato, two words: off-grid. It's one thing to enjoy a place like that in the summer, but who's he kidding about these winter trips? Electricity has its advantages. Without it, everything's going to be frozen solid, especially the plumbing. Maybe the three dogs will like it, but I guarantee the three kids won't. Try one weekend when it's really cold and then decide if you really need to fork out for a new AWD.

Cato: So Mike should also hire a caretaker to keep the place fired up in the winter months? While we're spending his money, I suggest Mike also get a new house in Ottawa, one with a wider driveway, one that will fit his Ram 1500 when the Sikorsky can't fly in because of the weather.

Vaughan: Get serious, Cato. Look, the AWD Sienna is an option, though minivans don't have much ground clearance. You can get beached in deep, heavy snow even if all the wheels are turning.

Mike's a Toyota fan, so as an alternative he should check out the Venza. It's a roomy AWD that rides a little higher. I've long dismissed it as a Camry station wagon, but my opinion isn't widely shared. I see lots of Venzas on the road. It's a good city car that will also get you to the cottage when you really shouldn't be going there.

Cato: Three kids, three dogs and a pile of winter gear simply will not fit comfortably into a Venza. Not a chance.

I suppose Mike could put the dogs on the roof in a carrier – like Mitt Romney – but that would not be too comfortable in the winter. For the dogs. No, there's a reason his cottage neighbours have big pickups and you identified it: ground clearance and space.

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The point is, if Mike skips the Sikorsky and a new Ottawa house, a four-door pickup is his best and safest winter option. As it happens, all the auto makers are throwing thousands and thousands of dollars in incentive at their pickups, so that's the answer – a pickup with a cap.

Vaughan: No SUV either? A Volvo XC90 might not be a bad idea. It is extremely comfortable and has a great interior. I think it would be capable enough for the winter drive that Mike describes, though this truly is a soft off-roader, not a rock-hopping Jeep destined for the Rubicon Trail. It has a smooth six-cylinder engine at 240 hp and all the safety features that make Volvo a Volvo.

Cato: No, room, Vaughan, no room. Not for three kids, three dogs.

Look, the last time I checked, Chrysler Canada had nearly $10,000 in sales sweeteners on a Quad Cab Ram 1500 Laramie 4x4 ($46,465) – the old, outgoing 2012, not the reinvented 2013. Or if Mike et al must have a Toyota, how about a Toyota Tundra SR5 Crewmax 4x4 ($42,425) with an $8,000 cash discount. Or a GMC Sierra Crew Cab SLT 4x4 ($48,385) with at least $10,000 in discounts.

Any of these would be just fine for winter cottaging – just slap on the right tires and crank up the four-wheel drive.

Vaughan: Not a Subaru Outback? The Subie people say it's a real SUV with excellent fuel economy. There's good ride height for getting through the snow with Subie's excellent AWD system. Except it's not as big as the Volvo and there's no third row.

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Cato: I say the Ram or a Sikorsky. And for the record, Mike, a Sienna minivan is 1,985 mm wide. The widest pickup here, the Sierra, is 2,013 mm. You should be able to squeeze it down the driveway.

Vaughan: Mike's a Toyota guy. If it's not the Venza or a 4Runner, then a Tundra.



2012 Toyota Tundra 4x4 Crew Max SR5 5.7L V-8

2012 GMC Sierra 1500 4x4 Crew Cab SLT

2012 Ram 1500 4x4 Quad Cab Laramie

Wheelbase (mm)




Length (mm)




Width (mm)




Track, front (mm)





5.7-litre V-8

5.3-litre V-8

5.7-litre V-8

Output (horsepower/torque)

381/401 lb-ft

326/348 lb-ft

390/407146 lb-ft

Drive system

Part-time four-wheel drive

Full-time four-wheel drivePart-time four-wheel drive


Six-speed automatic

Six-speed automatic

Six-speed automatic

Curb weight (kg)




Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

16.6 city/12.2 highway

14.3 city/9.4 highway

15.8 city/10.8 highway

Base price (MSRP)




Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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