I Need A Cheap Winter Beater That Won't Leave Me Stranded! What Car Should I Buy?

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Rebecca lives in the Pacific Northwest and her current ride is not the best for navigating ice and snow. She wants something inexpensive and reliable to get her through the colder months. What car should she buy?


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Here is the scenario -

My normal everyday car is horrible in the winter, any amount of snow or ice makes my car undrivable! I’ve been looking into AWD cars, SUVs and crossovers but it seems any/all of these vehicles are $10,000 and above. There doesn’t seem to be a market for 115,000 miles or less vehicles priced below $9,999. It’s like trying to find a unicorn riding a Pegasus!

The cars that are priced accurately seem to all be rebuilds or falling apart. I more than likely am only going to drive the vehicle during the winter months for that extra added safety. So buying a brand new STI for 4 months out of the year is way out of my price range!

Going the other direction and it being too cheap also defeats the point of driving a dependable safe car in the winter. No one loves being stranded in the cold with a dead car!! Any suggestions or help would be most appreciated.

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $10,000

Daily Driver: During the winter months

Location: Portland, Oregon

Wants: AWD, safe, reliable, affordable

Doesn’t want: A beater that is about to fall apart

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Get A Value By Being Different

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Rebecca, when it comes to finding the best value on a pre-owned car, the key is not to look for the things that everyone else goes for like Subarus or Hondas because the popularity of these vehicles means that they will carry a premium in the market or be older with higher miles for your budget. What you want is an oddball that was a good car, but one that most people forgot about.

You need a Suzuki SX4. Suzuki wasn’t super successful as an automaker in the U.S. toward the end of its run, but that doesn’t mean they made bad cars. The SX4 was a spunky hatchback/crossover available with all-wheel-drive and a pretty durable little package. They are reliable, fuel efficient, and pretty darn fun to drive.


Due to Suzuki’s limited sales numbers, these are not easy to find, but I did locate what looks like a super clean example with 132,000 for only $5400. Don’t get too caught up in the mileage number, maintenance and condition are far more important than what is on the odometer.

Go find yourself a Suzuki winter hoonmobile.

Expert 2: Michael Ballaban – The Old Staple

Photo credit: Subaru
Photo credit: Subaru

You said you can’t find a Subaru for under $10,000 with less than 100,000 miles? Feh! Pish posh! And many other profanities besides! The first and second generation Subaru Foresters were great, with a surprising amount of feedback from the controls. They were just honest workhorses that happened to have huge side-view mirrors. Okay, so they weren’t quite an SUV, and were more station-wagon-like, but that’s mostly because Subaru was just ahead of this whole crossover curve thing.

Subaru even made a Forester STI, but because we’re not in Japan and we don’t have unlimited funds, we can get one of those. But we can always wish.


Here’s a suspiciously cheap 2002 Subaru Forester with a price of $5,900 and only 92,000 miles. Go nuts.

Expert 3: Patrick George – iX Marks The Spot

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Honestly, Rebecca, my man Mike Ballaban has the right answer here, which is a sentence I’ve never used before and will probably never use again. You need to get an older Subaru that hasn’t been beaten to hell, put some winter tires on it, and rule your town like a ruthless snow queen.

But! If you wanna get something different and fun, might I suggest the E30 BMW 325iX? These days AWD variants of luxury sedans are as common as pee smells in New York City, but back in the ‘80s, the iX was a pretty interesting offering in its field. It had legit AWD too, with a locking center and rear differential that could send up to 90 percent of torque to the front or rear axle as needed.


These aren’t super common, and like all E30s, they’re creeping up in price. But a winter-grade beater shouldn’t be too hard of a lift, and you’d get a superb driver’s car that’s relatively easy to work on (I can personally attest to this) and has parts widely available. It also has a huge knowledge base, so you’ll have plenty to draw on if something goes wrong, but these things tend to be pretty robust. Here’s a clean one in Colorado (road trip!) for just $5,500. It’s an automatic but it looks great. Buy that before I’m tempted to.

Expert 4: Jason Torchinsky – Fly Like An Eagle

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Look, all of these other suggestions are, you know, fine, but Patrick’s suggestion that you become a ruthless Snow Queen is the only real piece of solid advice I think you should take. You’re not a bear, hibernating in the winter—it’s like half the year where you are, so you need something with some real character, too. Like this amazing 1980 AMC Eagle.

Okay, now don’t freak out on me—this thing isn’t some barely-alive rust bucket. It’s been completely restored, rust-free, and uses a rebuilt, bulletproof AMC straight-six. This thing should give you less problems than any of those other, over-complicated options, and it’ll be a snowload cheaper to fix than that BMW if anything is needed.


It’s only $6900 and it’s full of new and/or rebuilt parts, including the whole drivetrain, wiring, front end, rear springs, windshield, tires, vinyl top, and more.

The AMC Eagle was the 4x4 crossover before anyone thought to call these types of cars such a stupid name. It’s got plenty of ground clearance and a 4x4 system from the same company that made Jeeps. These things were used in the first ice-driving schools in America!


Plus, look at it! It’s great! All that late ‘70s/early ‘80s retro charm, with plaid seats and chili-colored carpeting! A big-wheeled, smallish four-door sedan with a vinyl roof just isn’t something you see regularily anymore, and I think you’ll love it.

I bet this Eagle could soar in the summertime for you, too, Rebecca, once you try it. You’ll see.


David Tracy

The answer is XJ. It is the quintessential “Beater With A Heater.”

Also, my landlord sold that damn Honda. Thank god.