Looking for a snow car
March 18, 2011 8:34 AM   Subscribe

What's the best possible used car for serious winter driving, for less than $15,000 with decent gas mileage?

I'm looking for the best possible car for serious winter driving on poorly maintained roads. I don't care if it's pretty. I also don't need a ton of space, as it's generally just me and a couple of dogs. Awd or 4wd is a necessity.

I'm about to move to a house on a mountain dirt road that is extremely steep, gets a ton of snow and is the last road in town to be plowed. We are the last house so about a mile of it is basically a class 4 road. My 99 saab 9-3 with decent snow tires kicked the bucket earlier this week, but it really wasn't cutting it anyway.

I'm looking for something for less than $15,000. So far I've limited my search to subarus and jeeps, but I'm open to other options. I've struggled to find a decent subaru for less than 15,000 which is why I've opened the door to jeeps as well. I consider combined 25mpg to be "good" gas mileage, but I don't know if that's going to happen (especially with a jeep).

I also need something with good clearance. Any suggestions?
posted by pintapicasso to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What is good clearance?

My gut would be to say Forester/Outback, Snow Tires, Chains, with the latter two really being the most important. If the road is going to be plowed but not ideal, then your first priority should be to make sure you have the best possible snow tires.

I feel your pain on the price, though... Subarus are silly expensive used.
posted by selfnoise at 8:47 AM on March 18, 2011

Suzuki Grand Vitara. Full-time real 4wd, locking differential (in case you have a wheel off the ground, you'll have 3 wheels still under power) . It has a V6 and is very capable off-road where the CRV and Rav4 would get stuck. I love mine... it's like having a big enclosed ATV. You can pick a recent one up with 10k miles at Carmax for well under $15k. Oh, and it's unbelievably great in snow -- better than our Outback. I drive it on the lakes to go ice fishing.
posted by PSB at 8:47 AM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I love my 2008 Subaru Impreza, which I bought new for for $18,500 or so. Subarus tend to retain their value pretty well, but I suspect that if you keep looking you could find a mid-2000's model in your price range. An Impreza, Outback, or Forester with good snow tires should suit your needs just fine. I don't even put snow tires on mine and I have never managed to get it stuck.

It's great in snow, mud, whatever. Fairly aggressive city driving gets me low to mid 20 MPG. I get 30-35 MPG highway.

If you can find an affordable one, it's definitely worth serious consideration.
posted by rollbiz at 8:52 AM on March 18, 2011

i would also suggest a jeep liberty, which can be had used in great condition for under 15K. great clearance, good power, great jeep 4x4. just make sure you (as mentioned on preview) get yourself some seriously good nobbly snow tires.
posted by chasles at 8:54 AM on March 18, 2011

I've got a 2007 Grand Vitara, and I've never hard any problems in snow (I live near the mountains in western Canada). But I definately want to add that tires will make a HUGE difference. Get the best winter tires you can afford. Make sure you keep a shovel in the car. If you're ever stuck, your floormats make great grips to go under the tires.

Alternatively, buy a truck that you can mount a small plow on the front of, and use then when you need to get through nasty snow.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:56 AM on March 18, 2011

This definitely sounds like more of an SUV or truck situation than a car with AWD situation. YMMV, but getting stuck because you don't have enough clearance for the snowdrifts isn't any better than getting stuck because your wheels are spinning.
A C-RV, an Escape, or a RAV4 might be the closest to your price range with not-terrible mileage. I've heard good things about the Grand Vitara, and the Hyundai Tucson, though I haven't been in either. A friend who swore by his old Pathfinder replaced it with an Xterra when Pathfinders got too expensive; I haven't heard him complain.
Good luck. IMHO, this is one of the trickier automotive questions going.
posted by willpie at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2011

On preview, chasles's mention of the Liberty reminds me that they briefly made a diesel-engined Liberty in the mid-90s. That might net you slightly better fuel mileage.
posted by willpie at 9:00 AM on March 18, 2011

Get a 1998 Chevy Z71 (1998 was the last year of the can't-kill-it classic small block) for the days when the road's not plowed, and an Accord wagon of the same vintage for days when it is plowed. Ten grand. You'll get 14 city, 17 highway with the truck, but around 30mpg with the accord.
posted by notsnot at 9:30 AM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing snow tires.

I live in the Sierra Nevadas and drive an ancient but sturdy, ugly but reliable 1997 Honda CRV with AWD. During the winter, I switch to studded tires, and it's amazing how great of a difference it makes. I have had to make some seriously hairy drives in blinding blizzards over 9,000 ft. mountains at midnight, and those tires are life-savers.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:37 AM on March 18, 2011

Response by poster: Hey all, no need to extoll the virtues of good snow tires. As stated in the question I am well aware and am planning on some good ones. Thanks for the awesome suggestions thus far, keep em coming!
posted by pintapicasso at 10:41 AM on March 18, 2011

2005 or newer Audi A4 (Quattro 2.0T). It will be expensive to maintain (and pushing close to your price limit), but not much more than your Saab.

Fantastic ride quality, great in the snow (better than most SUVs), and one of the nicest interiors I've ever seen on a car. I've gotten 34mpg on long trips (admittedly with an empty car, no AC, and one person), but 30+ on the highway is a pretty safe bet. It's a lot of fun to drive.

If you think it's in your budget, I'd consider looking at it!

Sidenote: When we bought it, Audi gave us *far* more for our old (mostly dead) Volvo than it was worth. I imagine that Saab parts are a pretty hot commodity right now, so you might be able to do the same.
posted by schmod at 10:47 AM on March 18, 2011

Be aware that many Subaru models don't accept tire chains, at least in the Legacy / Outback line (which is what we have). They have very tight clearance around the wheels, and "ordinary" chains from Costco or wherever just aren't going to fit. Reportedly, there are low clearance chains available, but I've not tried them.
posted by doorsnake at 11:05 AM on March 18, 2011

I think ground clearance might really be an issue here. I don't know how deep the snow gets where you when you get a really heavy snow. Here in Minnesota, we get some heavy snow but ground clearance has never been an issue for me.

If you're in an area that regularly gets 12" of snow at a time though, you're going to want a truck, SUV, or at least a cross-over that leans more towards the SUV part of its DNA than the car.

A Subaru Forester "might" be okay for the really deep stuff but I think you'll need something taller.

Any of the small SUVs should work well for you. In a perfect world, you would actually wait for a solid snow to go shopping and then ask the dealer to take it home and drive it up your driveway.

When I used to sell cars for a living, we actually had a customer who's only criteria for buying a car was its ability to make it up his driveway and we were happy to let him try it out.
posted by VTX at 11:20 AM on March 18, 2011

A 4-cylinder 4runner, Cherokee or Xterra might be a good fit.

How do you feel about pickups?
posted by box at 12:42 PM on March 18, 2011

If you're in an area that regularly gets 12" of snow at a time though, you're going to want a truck, SUV, or at least a cross-over that leans more towards the SUV part of its DNA than the car.

This has always amused me, because apparently, in Scandinavia, where virtually everybody drives a front-wheel-drive Saab or Volvo, it never snows more than 12" at a time.

The "you need an SUV to drive in the snow" mentality seems to have only blossomed in the past 10 years in the US. I can say with a fair bit of experience that it's not true.

Even in the Alaskan interior, Subaru station wagons are far and away the most popular cars, thanks to their excellent snow performance, low maintenance, and long life. You see a handful of small Jeeps and pickup trucks for those who need them, but rarely anything larger. (And, to put things in perspective: Alaska is a snowy climate. New England is not, no matter how much its residents seem to want to think it is)

Yes, an SUV will do just fine in the snow. However, you certainly don't need one.

And, yeah. In 2 feet of snow, and my Audi is useless, thanks to ground clearance issues. My car is actually an older model from 99. The newer ones have a slightly higher clearance. If you really think that you're going to be the first one down an unplowed road with ~2ft of unpacked snow all that frequently, I guess an SUV would be a good option.
posted by schmod at 12:47 PM on March 18, 2011

Jeep Wrangler owner for years. The 4 cylinder Wrangler fits your criteria, but I really recommend the 6 instead. You lose a bit on the mileage with the 6 cylinder, but you really do want that torque for this application. No other vehicle made can touch the versatility/fun factor of the Jeep, which is why they have been made for 70 years.

Ground clearance is a huge issue for the conditions described you've described, this is the determining factor for me ...

I'm about to move to a house on a mountain dirt road that is extremely steep, gets a ton of snow and is the last road in town to be plowed.

Nothing else will give you the peace of mind that having a Jeep with 30" snow tires on it will. I've driven mine through 3 feet of fresh snow on top of ice when even the tow-trucks were going into the ditch. Add a winch to the front, and you're golden under almost any circumstance.

In the spring, when the snow clears , you switch the hardtop for the convertible. Then in the midst of summer you can remove the doors, and even flip the windshield down. You'll be wondering why you didn't get one years ago, as every trip turns into a grin-inducing pleasure.

IF you do go this route, you want the in-line 6, manual, mid-level Sahara version, with the the Dana rear-axle and limited-slip differential. The Rubicon is for serious rock-crawling you really don't need the locking hubs and disconnect-able sway-bar, but if you find a good one, don't rule it out. Hard and soft tops with the hard doors are a necessity, do not buy one with-out the hard-top and hard doors under any circumstances. You can pick up Bestop aftermarket convertible top with the Sun-Rider feature for about $800, but the hard top and doors alone are about 4 grand.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:34 PM on March 18, 2011

Since deep snow has come up a couple of times, I thought I'd mention that we had 70 inches of snow in about 35 days here in Central MA this year. I do disaster services work, and when the call comes, I have to go. This winter, I twice drove in snow so deep that I was plowing it with my bumper, and my little Impreza soldiered on. The worst thing that happened to it this winter was that I cracked the plastic below the fog lights a bit, and that was kind of my fault but perhaps a reason to consider a bit more ground clearance.
posted by rollbiz at 8:59 PM on March 18, 2011

I'd also recommend a Wrangler.
Look for one from between 1991 and 1995 and it'll cost a fraction of your budget and there'll be no carb. If you really want to spend more money your budget will get a good looking and very capable newer Wrangler. No matter what the year, though, you'll be lucky to break 20 mpg.
Also, you can get a snow plow for a Wrangler for anywhere from $600 to $2000.
posted by gally99 at 11:17 PM on March 18, 2011

I got a 2005 Subaru Impreza 2.5rs wagon for $10k in Ithaca, NY. It doesn't have much ground clearance, but it handles tight curves on fresh snow on top of ice on hills (gotta love Ithaca) very well, even without snow tires. These conditions are obviously not comparable to a class four road with heavy snow. But fwiw, the little thing is like a tank, and they tend to be cheaper than the Forresters and Outbacks.

I once got it briefly stuck in 3 feet of snow, but got it unstuck by digging around the tires and was back on the road in <1>
MPG-wise, I get about 20-25 local and 30-32 highway.

Cars.com may be obvious, but that's where I found mine listed, just in case you haven't checked there yet.
posted by brackish.line at 10:38 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update:

I wound up getting a 2005 forester 2.5x and I LOVE IT. It has good enough clearance and AWD. Thanks for all of the recommendations!
posted by pintapicasso at 9:47 AM on April 5, 2011

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