Best economical 4WD car?
April 29, 2008 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What's the best 1-2 yr old 4WD-capable car? Best for us means: fuel economy, reliability, non-behemoth-SUV-ness, aesthetic and reasonable cost (<$25k). Also: any knowledge about Subaru Outbacks and SoCal 4WD dealers.

We're interested in getting a 4WD car to go to the mountains in winter and some minor desert-offroading in summer, but can also act as a daily driver in southern california. We don't need a huge (or medium!) SUV, and would like something that is economical and reliable as possible. I would think that having a selectable 2WD vs 4WD would improve fuel economy, yes?

Current frontrunner is a Subaru Outback: if you know anything about pros/cons/what to look for in these cars, please comment. If you have suggestions for other alternatives, those are welcome too. Things to look out for in general in 4WD welcome.

Suggestions for places to buy/avoid in SoCal a bonus....
posted by lalochezia to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you nailed it. My Dad loves his.
posted by sanka at 10:41 AM on April 29, 2008

I bought a 2006 Toyota 4Runner with a V6 and I have been pleasantly suprised by fuel economy (21 MPG average) and untruck-like ride. There are tons of these on the used market for around $20K. Avoid the V8.
posted by punkfloyd at 10:42 AM on April 29, 2008

Also consider the Impreza wagon, a relative of the Outback. I have a 2005 WRX (well, a saabaru, specifically) and love, love, love it. The turbo feeds my power lust, but is certainly not necessary for everyday use. I get about 26 MPG with mixed big-city highway/surface roads, and 28 on the highway. The AWD is amazing, and I wouldn't give it up for anything now that I'm used to it.

I don't personally like selectable 4wd - it's yet another system that can go wrong, and modern AWD systems on small cars don't hurt mileage as much as they used to.

While it didn't fit my driving style, also worthy of your consideration is the Toyota Matrix (available with awd and it's a Toyota).
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:51 AM on April 29, 2008

I heartily recommend an Audi A4 or A6 Wagon. Nobody makes better wagons than Audi. Depending on which engine you get, you'll get various fuel economy. The smaller engines will be similar to the Subaru.

Two places where Audi is superior to Subaru: (1) Audis hold their value better, and (2) from the Audi's I've owned and the Subaru's my friends have owned, they much better put together. Much less prone to random breakage.

Audi makes the best interiors on the market, too. Beautiful. Perfect gauge layout, nice colors, very comfortable. Subaru is kinda plasticy and chintsy. Some people care, some don't.

Of course, when something massive does go wrong its more expensive to fix a German car compared to a Japanese car. But as long as you take care of it--oil changes and regular service, you shouldn't have a problem. And Audi Warranties are pretty good.

All Audis (except some A3s) are All Wheel Drive (Quattro) and they are very good at what they do. When I had my S4 I basically just pointed it where I wanted it to go and stepped on the gas hard and it never slipped.

I have a Q7 now with the 3.2L V6 and it gets about 18MPG. Which kinda sucks, but we only really use it on the weekends. It's a great car.

Being able to choose 2WD v 4WD does save fuel economy on a full time AWD like the Audis, but its also one more thing you have to think about.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:52 AM on April 29, 2008

I had an Outback Sport (Impreza-based model) and was very disappointed in its mileage -- 19-21ish at best, lousy for a small car, in my book. I may have just had a bad one, as it seemed to have issues that few other Subarus encountered. Don't rule out the small Honda SUVs (CRV and Element), they have Civic and Accord heritage, very reliable and economical. Just because they're SUV form-factor doesn't make them hogs.

And AWD doesn't necessarily mean "off-road," check that clearance.
posted by sageleaf at 10:54 AM on April 29, 2008

Love, love, love my '07 Rav4. Even the V6 is *fairly* fuel efficient.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2008

The downside of the Subarus and Audis may be ground clearance. If you're doing desert offroading you'll have to be careful of washes - here in Nevada I've found things down what seemed like a well traveled dirt road that caused me to ride the skidplate on my Tacoma 4WD, and it's got reasonably high ground clearance. I'd imagine Socal desert terrain will be fairly similar.

As long as you're careful about where you go offroads, I'd recommend the Audi or Subaru. If you want higher ground clearance, the 4Runner is a good choice.

You may also want to consider small pickups like the Tacoma, Colorado, Ranger, etc. They can get good gas mileage, be comfortable daily drivers, and do well offroad.
posted by krisak at 10:59 AM on April 29, 2008

I adore my Honda Element but recommend it with the caveat that it only seats four. It definitely handles well in desert offroad conditions.
posted by padraigin at 11:10 AM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: Subaru wagon. Outback for ground clearance if you need it, Legacy or Impreza otherwise. The Outback has about two inches more clearance. Since you're looking at 1-2 year old cars, the depreciation mentioned is in your favor.

There are three engines available to you: H4 non-turbo with about 165hp; H4 turbo with 243, and H6 non-turbo with 220 or thereabouts. I have a Legacy with the turbo engine, my second Legacy wagon, and I'm very pleased with it. 23 mpg on my mountain-roads commute, 27 on the interstate. I'm looking now for an '04-or-so VDC wagon with that H6 since my first Legacy wagon has 250,000 miles on it and it's going to need more work than it's worth in the next 50,000.

Subarus develop squeaks and rattles, their interiors are a weird mix of good thinking and uneven execution, the automatic transmissions are nothing to get worked up about and they are about as sexy as a washing machine - until it snows and nothing else is moving (the Audis having succumbed to weird electrical glitches :D)

You might want to have a look at LegacyGT if you are thinking about the four-cylinder models. The board's kind of GT-heavy but the technical discussion is worthy.
posted by jet_silver at 11:21 AM on April 29, 2008

I love Subarus, but the AWD Ford Freestyle is also an option. Carries 6 to 7 adults, roomy inside, and gets decent MPG's (18 City, 25 Hwy in my experience).
posted by internal at 11:28 AM on April 29, 2008

Volvo XC70 2001-2007 model years are great. This is the AWD version of Volvo's larger wagon (the V70), not the SUV (which is the XC90). I have one and absolutely love it, but I am partial to Volvo (my prior 850 had 250K on it when we sold it off for the XC70). My 2007 has 35K on it and is great to drive (especially here in Iowa in the winter). I recently saw a Consumer's Reports and the XC70 had "above-average" ratings in every category, if I recall correctly. Great family truckster.

We looked at the Subaru Outback before settling on the Volvo. The Volvo seemed a little bigger, but not obnoxiously-SUV big, and we liked the longer cargo area in the back. My wife uses a wheelchair and it fits easily in the back without disassembling - a big plus for us. But that's a specific need that we were looking for. I thought that the Volvo was quieter on the highway than the Subaru. Around here, we're spoiled with true interstate speeds for most of our highway driving (70-80 mph), so this is a big thing. My SoCal trips tell me that's probably not such a big deal - unless you're a motorcyclist blasting down in between the lanes. :)

One of my partners has the Outback and he loves. I don't think you can wrong with any of the suggestions here.
posted by webhund at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2008

PONTIAC VIBE - Toyota engine, AWD, SUV suspension, 28/36mpg...
Need I say more?

I was in love with the Outback Sport until a mechanic friend said their very expensive to fix because the engine is backwards or something. He suggested the VIBE and I fell in love. I know it's a Pontiac and some people may write it off, but honestly, it's a Toyota Matrix with a different suspension and has the same engine design as a Toyota Corolla. It looks cool too, plus if you're willing to buy used they're easy to find.
posted by thewalrusispaul at 12:46 PM on April 29, 2008

The Subaru Outback (or Forrester or Impreza) is a good choice. Engine choice in the Subaru makes a big difference as far as fuel economy. The V6/automatic transmission Outback is not particularly efficient and requires premium fuel. The H4 engine not only is more economical with fuel, but can save money by using regular, as opposed to premium, gas. Any car with AWD is going to be heavier and less fuel-efficient than a 2WD counterpart.
posted by andrewraff at 12:53 PM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: Also note the difference between 4WD, which you asked after, and AWD, which is what Subaru has. I suspect 4WD that you can uncouple is going to give you slightly better mileage than AWD, which you can't. Neither of my standard-engine, auto-trans Foresters could get over 25mpg overall. The newer one actually does worse (I suspect because of daytime running lights). 4WD is supposed to be more capable off-road.

According to Consumer Reports, Subaru is one of the most reliable manufacturers, while Audi is closer to the other end. Subaru is #4; Audi is #22 out of 36. Audi's "worst model" is the Q7 with V8. Subaru's "worst" (which is about as reliable as Audi's "best") is the Legacy Turbo, while the 'best' is the Forester. Ford is #13 overall. Honda is #1, and Toyota is #5.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:30 PM on April 29, 2008

Mrs. Plinth drives a three year old Outback Impreza wagon. It's a little noisy, but is fairly peppy and has been plenty reliable. The mileage is not super - my Toyota Tacoma 2WD manual gets equivalent mileage.
posted by plinth at 1:39 PM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: I have an 08 Forester (no turbo), and while the gas mileage isn't spectacular, it's not horrid. I have a short commute, though. And, aside from some interior rattles, it hasn't given me any problems.

Note that the ground clearance is surprisingly good for what is, essentially, a small station wagon. I haven't done any serious off-roading (not my interest), but I have plowed through some hefty snow drifts with little trouble. The AWD is great, too... it's gotten me out of a couple of sticky situations. Initially, I was planning on buying an Outback, but fell in love with the Forester after a test drive; the Outback drove a little more like a family sedan and felt unnecessarily bulky, whereas the Forester felt a little like a cross between an SUV and a sports car. It was weird. On the first test drive, the salesman took me out to a rutted dirt road and told me to take a near-90 degree S-curve at 50 mph ("You won't be responsible if we end up in the ditch," he said), and damn if the thing never lost traction. I was sold right then and there.

Every time I see an Audi on the road, I think, "That's a nice car... maybe I should've bought one," but my reasons for not buying one still stand: low reliability and extra cost. My Forester only cost me about $22,000, and that was with the Premium package. A low end Audi with AWD would've pushed me near or just past $30,000.
posted by jal0021 at 2:26 PM on April 29, 2008

I might just be laughed out of the internet for even suggesting this, but how about a look-see at the Suzuki SX4? AWD instead of 4, but it gets kick ass mileage and will go pretty much anywhere. I love mine. I would rather have it than an Impreza Wagon.
posted by gravity at 3:11 PM on April 29, 2008

Toyota Rav4's have an optional locking center differential, you should factor that in when you thinking about going off road.
posted by robofunk at 3:22 PM on April 29, 2008

Subaru Outback: Made of Win.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:32 PM on April 29, 2008

We have a Subaru Liberty (poor man's outback), I cannot recommend them highly enough.

True 'driver's car, great features, rated 5 star for safety.
posted by mattoxic at 3:36 PM on April 29, 2008

I have an '07 Subaru Forester, and it's been both practical and capable. I get 24-26 mpg on average. I've driven it on moderately rough, dirt roads often and it's performed very well. I've also taken it to the grocery store, Lowe's, and "the mall" and it has been easy to park and has lots of space in the trunk. The Outback and Impreza don't have the same ground clearance - something to look at. I also remember that the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape were in the same group on some comparison sites (, but I have not heard anything at all about those being good vehicles on rough roads. Overall, the Forester has been a great value for me.

Small note: if you're going to get the rubber floor mats, don't buy the ones from the dealer... the WeatherTech mats that LL Bean sells are great. It's a really small detail, but I love the cargo liner, too, which I did get from the dealer and like. It's given me some freedom/peace of mind with the kind of dusty, gravel-y, and muddy stuff we toss in the car.

As someone who does take a vehicle on lots of rough, forest service roads in the desert I'd recommend you really look at ground clearance. Many of the wagons/suvs mentioned would be scraping the rocks. If you ever really want to go "off road" you probably would want to spend the money on a 4-runner or similar.
posted by belau at 5:00 PM on April 29, 2008

Best answer: I would think that having a selectable 2WD vs 4WD would improve fuel economy, yes?

You've already received about 25 suggestions of "Subaru," which is the right answer, so I'll address this side point.

Yes, selectable 4wd would improve fuel economy... except that it is offered exclusively (with some very rare exceptions) in heavy, truck-like vehicles which get poor fuel economy anyway. Very, very few cars have been sold with real selectable 4wd systems in the last 20 years -- I can think of early Subarus and that boxy Toyota SR5 wagon; there must be a few more. But nowadays, you will only find selectable 4wd systems on some SUVs and pickup trucks. AWD systems (which you find on a lot of cars) are sometimes all the time, and are sometimes "on demand" or responsive systems; they can be high tech or quite basic. But the manually-controlled transfer case is a thing of the past for the vast majority of automobiles (and was a rarity back in the day, too).

So what you get is a choice of systems like on manual transmission Subarus (which powers all 4 wheels all the time), or the as-needed systems like on the Element which sends power to the rear wheels only when wheel slippage is detected.

Anyway, that automotive trivia aside, what stands out to me in your question is that you want to both go into the mountains and into the desert. It is on snowy roads that a sophisticated AWD system (like on the Subarus) really shines, compared to a crude system like in a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Tacoma, etc. Until there is so much loose snow that you run out of ground clearance and float the car (like what happened to that poor family who got stuck in the coastal range in Oregon the other year), the Subaru will out-handle and out-perform just about every SUV on the road in snowy and icy conditions. The low center of gravity means that you won't flip it if you screw up and slide into a ditch; add in stellar crash ratings and you have a pretty compelling case. The Subaru (and similar cars, like the Element) is a lot less ideal for desert driving, where you want more ground clearance, heavy duty tires, and low-range. But if that is only a rare use, and not all that extreme really, the Subaru/Element/etc will do just fine.
posted by Forktine at 6:16 PM on April 29, 2008

You know who else made a rear-engine flat-four go-anwhere car?

Yep. That's right. Him. The "people's car" guy.

My Dad used to get to some fairly extreme places in his '56 VW Beetle. His secret weapon: snow chains. The old Beetles are small, lightweight, economical, has a short wheelbase, flat underfloor and quite surprising ground clearance.

Not convinced? OK, then. What was the shame-job backup car that nobody wanted to end up in, in this Top Gear special? The one that they were sure would make it when all the others had fallen to bits?

I don't imagine those fancy new Beetles are as good for this, though. You'd need one of the old ones.
posted by flabdablet at 8:46 PM on April 29, 2008

I drive my mom's Outback wagon when I'm home and I like it. Drove it from SF to Tahoe and back (4-6 hours depending on traffic) and it was a nice ride.
posted by radioamy at 9:26 PM on April 29, 2008

I realize this is an older thread, but a google search brought me here & I did find it useful. I would, however, like to put in my 2ยข. First, the Honda Pilot I own now is the 1st AWD vehicle I have owned. My previous 3 vehicles were pre-2000 Mazda MPV's which all had selectible 4wd (& a locking center differential, a plus in my opinion). After driving the Pilot for 2 winters in VT (& I live 2 mi out on dirt rds, which are hellish in spring), I've decided my 1st instincts were correct & I DO NOT like AWD. I like to be able to have the vehicle in 4wd BEFORE it decides for me that it's necessary, b/c I find that, by then, if I'm in a skid, it's too late. That said, the one drawback of my MPV's was that when they weren't in 4wd, they were rwd. So, now that I'm in the market to replace my Pilot, I started looking to find a fwd w/ selectible 4wd. The only vehicle of that configuration I found was the Mitsubishi Outlander '07 or later, which, coincidentally, is one of consumer reports recommended used vehicles @ $14-16000. Another feature that might or might not be a plus, is the addition of paddle-shifters, which I'm looking forward to trying out, formerly being a confirmed manual transmission fan.
After all that, I will say that for a brief period before my daughter totalled it (definitely driver error), I did have an '01 Subaru Forrester. The ground clearance was far better than my neighbors' Outback, which also had a longer front end beyond the front wheel, which can be problematic with ruts across the road such as are prevalent here in VT in the spring. Gas mileage was better (24 mpg almost all the time) than either the MPV or the Pilot (which, BTW, was touted as getting 22-24 mpg but gets 17-20). CR recommends the Forrester '03-08, ranging from $8-18000. Another thought, they also recommend the '06 Subaru B9 Tribeca @ $16-18000. See link, if ur a CR online member:
posted by spankyd at 7:19 PM on April 26, 2009

not sure where the link went, trying again:
posted by spankyd at 7:24 PM on April 26, 2009

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