Winter Classics: The 10 Best Cars for the Year’s Worst Driving Season

From safety-first grocery getters to 4WD monsters, these rides will get you there confidently

January 21, 2021 8:23 am
best winter cars 2021
From left: The Subaru Outback, Jaguar F-Type R and the RAM 1500

Winter driving can present a real challenge. Whether you’re an experienced snow pro or a freshly licensed driver dealing with freezing conditions for the first time, if you live in an area where the weather turns treacherous four months out of the year, you’ve no doubt experienced more than a little frustration with winter out on the roads.

We’d be amiss if we didn’t mention the fact that genuine winter tires (with rubber compounds designed to stay grippy as temperatures plunge) are the single best investment you can make to any vehicle destined to do battle with both white-covered asphalt and sub-zero bare pavement alike. Past that, however, you can also get a leg up on winter by choosing the right vehicle.

What makes for the ultimate winter ride? For most drivers, it’s some combination of available all-wheel drive (for traction) and safety gear (for, uh, when traction fails) that typically stand out at the top of the “must-have” list. Then there’s the X-factor: a winter vehicle has to match the driving needs of each individual buyer in order to truly qualify as a contender. 

That last item is a tricky one, as there’s really no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to girding against the icy season’s ills. Some simply aren’t interested in a vehicle if you can’t lash skis to it, while others turn up their nose at the very idea of leaving behind driving thrills in favor of snow security. 

With that in mind, we took a look at the current automotive landscape and identified a set of cars, trucks and SUVs that together cover as much winter ground as possible. Whether you’re seeking a safe family taxi, an adrenaline-boosting performance machine or simply something that will get you from A to B in a raging snowstorm without pegging your terror-meter, the following 10 vehicles represent the ultimate winter survival machines.

Toyota/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Get There at All Costs With the Entire Family in Tow: Toyota Land Cruiser

For the past two decades Toyota has stealthily disguised one of the most competent full-size SUVs on the market as a standard mall crawler. The Land Cruiser can trace its lineage directly back to the task-focused, never-say-die rigs that have been crawling their way across the roadless African savannah and over Greenland’s frozen hellscape since time immemorial. 

Today’s model incorporates the same hardcore four-wheel drive system (with a locking center differential), and stuffs its cabin with a full range of luxo gear to keep you and your seven passengers coddled while fording through knee-deep snow drifts. Just make sure that whoever’s stuck in the third row jumpseats is below the age of 12 — or a contortionist — and you snag one before it’s retired from the U.S. market at the end of the year.

Subaru/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Chance for Graduating at the Top of Your Winter Driving School Class: Subaru WRX

You don’t need the range-topping WRX STI model to have a blast dodging cones in a parking lot or polishing an ice course on a frozen lake. The standard Subaru WRX’s turbocharged, all-wheel drive combo gives you more than enough power and control to explore the limits of the friction circle in the safe environment of a winter driving school before you export them, rally-stage style, to your local back roads. Make sure you opt for the six-speed manual transmission over the continuously variable automatic for maximum control over torque delivery.

Jeep/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Blizzard Beater When You’re Not Sure There’s Even a Road: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Wrangler Rubicon is the most hardcore Jeep in the off-road icon’s portfolio, and in two-door form it’s the perfect size for slipping down tight trails that larger SUVs simply can’t manage. Its exceptional four-wheel drive system (including a low-range crawl intended for rocks but also ideal for ice) becomes a boon as soon as the white stuff starts to fall from the sky, especially if you feel like leaving civilization behind.

Make no mistake: you’ll want to swap in winter-ready rubber for the Rubicon’s standard all-terrain tires. Once that’s done, however, you’ll have no trouble tackling terrain that you might seem impassable due to snow-pack, especially if you’ve got a winch and the kind of patience required to deal with inch-by-inch progress over slippery ground.

Kia/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Winter Warrior You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of: Kia Stinger GT

A couple of years back Kia made its first play for the hearts and minds of grand touring fans with the Stinger GT. Despite providing 365 horsepower from a twin-turbocharged V6, featuring available all-wheel drive, and offering a startlingly practical yet still sleek hatch body, very few buyers bit on the lure of the Stinger’s reasonable asking price.

Their loss is your gain, as the comfortable and stylish four-door is a formidable winter companion. Despite its size, the Stinger is willing to change directions with gusto, especially if you don’t mind kicking the tail out from time-to-time and then reeling in your enthusiasm via its AWD lifeline. Not many family cars can make the same claim.

Volvo/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Ski Sherpa: Volvo XC40

Volvo’s reputation was built as much on the backs of its wagons as it was on its advanced safety tech, but over the past several years it has quietly fielded an exceptional set of crossovers that stand equally tall alongside their long-roof siblings. Of these, the entry-level Volvo XC40 is perhaps the most intriguing for ski bums. 

Big enough to lug four up to the mountain and nimble enough to not feel out of place once you’ve left the highway for the ribbon of two-lane that takes you there, the XC40 does it all, with plenty of roof and cargo space to haul everything you need along the way.

Dodge/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Mid-Winter Muscle Car for Prolonging Your Endless Summer: Dodge Challenger GT

Move over Mustang and Camaro: the Dodge Challenger GT is the only modern muscle machine to deliver all-wheel drive. Sure, you’ll have to stick to the base V6 to get it, but it wasn’t so long ago that just over 300 horsepower (as offered by the 3.6-liter unit) was more than enough for gearheads to get excited about in terms of straight-line fun.

In any case, turning one’s nose up at the six-cylinder Challenger misses the point of this ’70s-style coupe. Larger and more comfortable than any of its competitors, the Dodge is the only car in its class to provide a usable back seat to go with its retro good looks. Combine that with four-wheel grip and you’ve got a respectable formula for daily fun that doesn’t have to be tucked away in the garage once the first flakes hit the asphalt.

Subaru/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Winter Cliché: Subaru Outback

You’ve seen the ads. You know the history. The fact that the Subaru Outback — once a wagon, but now firmly ensconced in SUV territory — has become a default choice for all-around winter competence is more than just hype.

Subaru’s all-wheel drive prowess is only part of the reason why the Outback has become the brand’s flagship. Combine its sure-footed winter capability with a yawning cargo hold and some of the best safety ratings in the industry, and it’s clear as to why this sport-utility is the snow-churning cliché many family shoppers see when they close their eyes and think of winter.

Jaguar/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Hot-Rod Sleigh for Doing Donuts in a Late-Night Mall Parking Lot: Jaguar F-Type R

Any rear-wheel drive sports car will let you fishtail to your heart’s content with the electronic nannies switched off, but to achieve the same level of hooliganism in an all-wheel drive model you need serious power under the hood. 

Enter the Jaguar F-Type R and its supercharged V8, which easily spins its winter wheels thanks to 575 horses. Flip the traction control back on again and you’re able to take advantage of AWD’s bite on the way to and from the wide-open playground of choice. The only real downside? You’ll probably only get a few drifts in before the Jag’s deep-throated exhaust rasp has the neighbors calling the cops.

Dodge/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Sub-Arctic Mobile Command Center: RAM 1500

Year in, year out, the RAM 1500 offers pickup buyers with one of the most appealing overall packages at almost every step of the pricing ladder. If your job frequently calls for extended site visits during the depths of winter, hauling snow-covered supplies from one end of the city to the other, or otherwise dealing with harsh conditions, then this full-size truck is a top choice.

Not only does it feature four-wheel drive, but the RAM can be outfitted with an air suspension (to raise and lower for easier loading and dealing with snow drifts) as well as the kind of plush interior you won’t mind being stuck in surrounded by reports, blueprints and receipts while you clatter away on a laptop perched on the truck’s massive center console. It’s a mobile workstation that won’t be tapped out by the elements, whether you’re snug inside catching up on email or braving the blizzard from behind the wheel.

Audi/Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo

Best Ride for People Terrified of Their First Winter Behind the Wheel: Audi A4 Allroad

Winter driving can be harrowing for first-timers unused to the slick roads, low visibility and chattering cold. Helping to make things that much easier is the Audi A4 Allroad. This quattro-equipped AWD wagon features a bit of a ground clearance boost to help step over snowdrifts, comes with a strong but not overwhelming turbocharged drivetrain, and delivers a well-appointed interior and safety systems designed to help keep you on track when the weather takes a turn.

What’s best about the Allroad for newbies is its modest ride height compared to other crossovers, which helps keep its center of gravity low and its handling more stable than what you’d find in a more ponderous option. Think of it as the premium version of what the Outback used to be before it beefed up for the SUV market.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!