Montreal-Vermont commutes: is AWD necessary?
October 31, 2007 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Do I need an AWD car for regular trips from Montreal to Vermont?

My GF and I will be moving to Montreal in two months. We are fortunate enough to also have a house about three hours away in central Vermont. This house is located about halfway up a (small) mountain, with well-kept and plowed dirt roads and a very steep but paved driveway. We plan on traveling between the two every couple of weeks, year round.

We currently live in Cleveland and own a 2004 Honda Accord. Having grown up on the East Coast and lived in Boston for 7 years, I am familiar with driving in poor weather conditions, and with the limitations of vehicles like the one that I own now. We are wondering whether we should sell the Accord and buy a 4WD or AWD. My questions:

(1) Do you think that an AWD vehicle is necessary, or would we be just fine with the Accord, snow tires, and chains?

(2) If we do decide to go for an AWD, here are our priorities, in rough order:

- Handling in bad weather.
- Reliability.
- Good gas mileage.
- Some extra room for cargo.
- Manual transmission (I really want this; my GF doesn't care)

Everything that we have read (including this and this) seem to point to a Subaru (Outback or Forester), Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, or Honda Element. The CR-V and RAV4 seem not to have manual transmission options; the Subaru seems to get slightly lower gas mileage. The Element is just...ugh. Do you have any suggestions on how to decide between these options?
posted by googly to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
I drove a non-AWD car in VT for years. Did I LOVE it? No.

If you have a choice, try getting one. Subarus seem to be the official car of VT.
posted by k8t at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: I have a Honda Element - and it's the bee's knees. I love the ugly factor.

In fact, I just put new tires on the car and went with four season studless snow tires (Nokian). Sticks to the road like a magnet now. Drives like a champ, has tons of room, and gets better gas mileage than the last two compact cars I've had (my Element averages 27-29 mpg, and it's a 2005 model).

Whether or not you need all wheel drive, four-wheel drive, traction control or just plain front wheel drive is a nearly useless question since everyone thinks they're an expert and has an opinion based solely only cherry-picked facts, anecdotes, and a bit of biased experience.

My expert advice is this: Steep driveways are a freaking mother without good tires and all-wheel/four-wheel drive. However, people have been known to park at the bottom of their steep driveways and walk to the door (much less awesome when carrying a child, groceries, or both).

The Element is also great for moving stuff around, due to it's unique door configuration.

It's also possible for you to delay the decision this winter, and simply rent the types of cars you're considering to try them out in your situation.
posted by terpia at 2:23 PM on October 31, 2007

The CR-V was available in manual before the new 2007 models came out.
posted by zsazsa at 2:33 PM on October 31, 2007

When I was younger, my friends and I would go out driving in the worst weather of the season along the suburban rabbit warrens. I drove a Honda Accord that was front wheel drive so every corner that I came up to I would pull on the hand brake and slide the back end of the car out. It was easy to correct out of, all I had to do was turn into the slide and give it a little gas.

One of my "friends" had a Subaru Impreza RS (pre-wrx) and thought that this sounded like a great idea. He came up to the first turn, pulled the hand brake to slide the back end out, turned into the slide and gave it a little gas. He promptly flew off the road into someones yard and got stuck.

Just remember that if you get a an all-wheel drive car that it will behave very differently when it loses traction when compared to a front wheel drive car.

I drove a manual Honda CR-V for a few months, so they do or did (it was a 2003, I think) exist for the CR-V but I think that they are rare. It's gas mileage wasn't all that great.
posted by 517 at 2:44 PM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: I have a cabin in Vermont atop a hill with a very steep section. I also drive a Honda Civic. If the hill hasn't been plowed and sanded since the last snow fall, I can't drive up without chains.

I don't think I've witnessed conditions on the hill where a) my car couldn't make it up with chains and b) a 4WD vehicle could do it without them. Chains can add a lot of traction to your car. On the other hand, they're a pain to take on and off (even the cable ones).

I suggest going through the first winter with chains, and if you get sick of them, trade-in next summer.
posted by justkevin at 2:46 PM on October 31, 2007

Best answer: Don't know much about Montreal in the winter but I know a bit about Vermont driving. Definitely, good winter tires make the most difference.

I drive my 2001 Subaru Outback VDC up to Vermont just about every weekend in ski season and the AWD is great even in blizzards (196k miles so far and no hiccups.) The thing's gotten me up, back and around between Bridgeport, CT and every part of Vermont in more full-out storms than I can count -- it even got me across two states (from Warrren, VT to Gorham NH) in the middle of this year's Valentine's day storm when it was just me and the plows and 2 feet of snow on the road. But given a choice between AWD or snows I'd go with the snow tires.

What an Outback or similar ride gets you is more flexibility in bad weather -- the higher clearance means if you have to drive on unplowed roads you're less likely to get stuck. And the AWD makes it easier to start without sliding and maybe gets you up an icy driveway but that depends on both the car and the driveway. And if you have to deal with dirt roads in high mud season, definitely AWD helps a lot.

But sticking to the road on curves and in stops is the most important thing in winter and is a problem even after the snow's stopped falling and the roads have been plowed -- and only good winter tires can provide that grip. (And you really want to good grip when the stereotypical Vermont driver pulls out in front of you as you're coming down a hill -- I swear, they don't even look.)

The one danger with AWD is because it starts so darn well in sketchy conditions it's easy to forget how tenuous your grip on the road really is (see 517's story.) There's a bit of a learning curve to it, and you need to put some snow driving time in before you learn the limits (ever notice how al the cars off the road backwards on 91 in blizzards are SUVs driven by young guys from Long Island? That's why.) So AWD is far from a magic pill.

Plenty of folks drive 2wd cars in VT with no major hassles -- putting snows on the thing in the winter really gets you the biggest improvement all around. And I personally have never had to use chains (thankfully -- they're a bit of a pain to get on and off) but I don't regularly have to deal with anything steeper than Rte. 100 between Weston and Ludlow. I suspect you'll know soon enough if you need 'em for your regular route.

So, whatever you choose to drive to VT definitely put snows on it (all 4 wheels!) and that'll do more for you than an AWD car with regular tires on it.

Now, let's talk new ride if you're still thinking that way -- Re: the manual transmission -- if you do buy a new ride you might be limited in your choices there. The tradeoff, at least with Subaru, is the more sophisticated traction controls and AWD distribution systems only come with automatic. My car is the first I've owned with automatic transmission, and I got it grudgingly but it really isn't that bad. And the power balancing/traction control really is miles ahead of my previous AWD (96 Subie with stick -- which meant no computer control, just a 50/50 fluid coupling in the tranny.)

Now I love my Outback but it's not perfect -- for starters it's kind of a pig on gas (25 highway on dry roads, 21 or so around town -- that'll go down to about 18-19 or less in hardcore trailblazing snow driving, even if you keep a steady pace.) The fog lights are almost useless except when you really, really need them (under 15 mph.) And in trailblazing snowy conditions, snow gets hung up in the wheel wells, ultimately lead ingto the traction control light going on unless you pull over and clean 'em out every 20-30 miles. This might have improved with the newer models, which I think have improved wheel clearance. And they're coming out with a restyled model in a year or two so if having the latest ride is a big deal for you that might be an issue.

The tires on most new cars, Subaru included, are usually picked by the manufacturer for fuel economy and are usualy pretty useless in the snow. So count on changing those out at least for the winter.

Now, having said all that, the Outback, for me, is an excellent winter ride. Good weight and power distribution. Great heat and window clearing -- even on the chilliest days. The regular (not fog) lights are very good. Gets you anywhere you need to be as long as it isn't a Jeep trail, in any conditions. Always starts on the first crank, even in 25-below (Fahrenheit) conditions (okay, maybe not the first crank in 25-below weather, but the thing is still on its original battery.) Just pop open the back and throw your skis/boards/poles/golf clubs/whatever in. And the thing handles like a car -- not a sports car -- but definitely far better than a truck-like SUV.
posted by Opposite George at 7:05 PM on October 31, 2007

You shouldn't have much trouble getting to your driveway (on ploughed roads, paved or unpaved) with your Accord. Lots of other people do it. Whether or not you can get up depends on your driveway. How steep is it? Will you be removing snow from it? How long is it?
The question you need to ask yourself is: do you want the extra cost (both economic and environmental) to have an AWD vehicle for that relatively small part of your drive that is your driveway?
posted by ssg at 8:49 PM on October 31, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers! This is all extremely helpful.

ssg, the driveway is about 500 feet long, mostly at a 40-45 degree angle. We will have it intermittently plowed if necessary. Its no big deal to park at the bottom and shlep up it, though of course its more convenient to be able to drive up!
posted by googly at 6:11 AM on November 1, 2007

Best answer: My friends (who own a Honda CRV) live up a steep hill in Vermont and I've been able to make it up their driveway in my 96 Accord when there is snow on the ground but not with any degree of confidence. If this is something that you need to be able to do every time, you either need chains or something with AWD and good tires. That said, I've been driving the Honda every year on all the roads Vermont has to offer and it's basically done it all with decent snow tires. Until last winter when I slid on some ice and hit a guardrail (I was fine, car was fine, it was scary) which is what prompted me to move to an AWD option this year. Really I think if you're a decent driver the Honda is good

Another thing to think about your driveway is if you try getting up it and fail, do you just slide down, or do you potentially go into a nasty ditch somewhere? I'm sometimes tempted to be reckless and try something if I know the worst that will happen is my car will need to be pushed back on the road, less so if I worry I'm going to hit a tree or flip the car.

My new [to me] car is a Subaru Legacy Wagon, standard shift, and gets 30+ MPG despite having 130K miles on it. I'm at the same decision point you are in terms of getting a newer car and I've also been looking at the Toyota Camry or the Matrix. They make an AWD model which is supposed to be awesome, though somewhat hard to find. Around here you pay a premium for hardy road cars like these. Also, my folks drive an Element and I like them pretty much though the mileage is only "eh" and visibility out of the backseat is terrible, but they're decent drive-around cars and comfy on the highway which is more than I can say for my Subaru.

So, sorry this is all over the place. I don't have strong suggestions except to say that I wonder about the same stuff and there's no way to be 100% certain about VT roads eithe rway, a lot depends on how you drive them more than what you're driving.
posted by jessamyn at 8:00 AM on November 1, 2007

Hi. I think I am the friend mentioned by jessamyn above, while everything jessamyn said is true, I'll chime in. (The MeFiMail was a help too! Great tool.)

You'll probably be fine with the Honda, so why not see how you do before worrying about it? Good snow tires are key. Throw a pair of chains in the trunk, just in case.

We had an Outback when we first moved here with "all seasons" (stupid flatlanders, that we were). We didn't feel like the AWD was any benefit though. We bought a Honda CRV last year and love it. For us, the "on demand" 4WD saves money on gas.

Much better for "commuting" to and from Montreal, in my opinion.

MeFiMail works if you have any additional questions, but jessamyn speaks the truth. Hope this means we'll see you at a meetup sometime.
posted by terrapin at 11:03 AM on November 1, 2007

« Older Increase my self-discipline? How?   |   Balls out Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.