Winter might be the worst season of them all when it comes to enjoyable driving. Pair reams of snow, ice, sleet, and rain with a population of people that either didn’t adequately prepare or that simultaneously seem to have forgotten how to drive, and you end up with months of miserable roads. Thankfully, there are some halfway decent vehicles out there that will make the whole experience just a little easier. Today, we’re talking about those vehicles.
Owen Bellwood: Land Rover Defender
I feel like there’s one perfect car that will last you through all of winter, and then into spring, summer, autumn and at least one more winter after that. But, you might need to give it a bit of TLC and replace a gearbox or something to keep it running. So, while it might be a bit cold and drafty at times, the best vehicle for winter is, of course, the original Land Rover Defender.
Preferably, you’ll have one from the 1990s that can handle everything that you throw at it, and anything it can’t will be easily fixed with a hammer and some determination. Go for a 110 and you’ll have space to help a few stranded neighbors, take your mountain bike out to the trails or pack it full of your buddies to hit the slopes.
It’s got rugged dependability that will keep you out on the road throughout the winter months. And, it also looks slick and timeless. Perfect winter car, no notes.
Adam Ismail: Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution
The Pajero Evolution is the perfect vehicle for the cruelest conditions, because it combines the unwavering impenetrability of any SUV you’d care to name with the sporting pedigree and good looks that made Mitsubishi a star on the stage rally and rally raid circuits.
It has two doors, which is the correct amount for an SUV. Yes, it’s also very short, which means you can’t really sleep in it without your feet sticking out the back and inevitably catching frostbite, but that’s a price worth paying for timeless proportions. A homologation special in the truest sense, the Pajero Evo had its own engine — an improved version of Mitsubishi’s 3.5-liter V6 with MIVEC and a dual-plenum variable intake, good for 275 horsepower. At least. Japanese automakers didn’t tend to publish factual numbers back then, as you likely know.
I don’t have to list more reasons because you’ve already seen the picture, but I will anyway. The rear suspension was bespoke to the Evolution — a multi-link, long-travel setup all its own — while the all-wheel-drive system featured Torsen limited-slip diffs on both axles, and everything you couldn’t see was stiffened, bolstered. Somehow even more careless to the elements, because it had to be to win Dakar. This thing is God with flared arches, and it’d warm my soul even in the most brutal cold.
José Rodríguez Jr.: Honda XR650L
As someone from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, I have to ask: what even is a winter vehicle? I have little idea what that is other than some vague notion of what it could be, which I’ve pieced together from arguments among Jalopnik staff about summer v. winter tires and FWD v. RWD when it comes to traction in cold weather conditions.
I suspect many folks like me in South Texas — and even some in colder areas like DFW and beyond — share my inexperience with winter driving, and with vehicles that are properly outfitted for the cold.
My car wears summer tires all year long because aside from an everlasting summer (with triple-digit heat indexes), our winter in the RGV is just the one cold week — or thanks to extreme climate swings, two to three weeks tops.
At that point I avoid roads altogether lest my Michelin Pilot Sports lose grip. The closest thing I can imagine to a “winter vehicle” is what appears to be an old Honda XR650L ridden by the folks at Aerostich up in Duluth, Minnesota.
If I ever have to brave those couple of weeks of the cold down here, I’ll probably spring for a Roadcrafter Light, then scour local ads for a Honda dual-sport bike on knobbies.
Andy Kalmowitz: Ram 1500 TRX
My love of the Ram TRX has been well documented on this website. To me, it’s the perfect vehicle for all situations as long as you ignore any semblance of caring about practicality. Some vehicles are meant to be fun. They’re meant to put a smile on your face, and none do that better than a Ram TRX.
Just imagine 702 horsepower, a screaming supercharged V8 and gigantic tires with a lot of snow on the ground. You’d be unstoppable — and you would have more fun than anyone else. Think about sliding around snowbanks with your foot to the floor and rooster tails behind you. That, my friends, would be a magical feeling.
Would it drink gasoline like nothing else? Absolutely. Would it probably be too big to fit anywhere other than a wide country road? Probably, but that doesn’t matter. If fun is what you want, the Ram TRX is the perfect winter vehicle. Oh, and just as an added bonus, the heated seats and steering wheel are standard.
Collin Woodard - Mercedes-Benz G 550
No one who’s ever met me would ever expect me to love the G-Wagen. Honestly, I didn’t even expect me to love the G-Wagen. It just happened, and I kind of hate myself for it. But I’ve been up and down the Schöckl in it. I’m likely the first person to ever take a nap in the new one. I’ve gone overlanding in it. For some awful reason, I absolutely love it. I’ll never buy one or be able to afford to own one, but if we’re talking “ideal” and not “reasonable” winter vehicles, then it’s probably the G-Wagen for me.
Specifically, it’s the G 550, not the G 63. I’ve loved every AMG I’ve ever driven, but I don’t want the added flashiness. The G 550 is perfect the way it is. It can handle snow and anything else that winter throws at it all while keeping me warm and comfortable inside. Having lived through my fair share of both Boston and Detroit winters, I place a lot of value on being warm and comfortable in the cold. A Range Rover would also provide those for me, but I don’t trust that infotainment system not to freeze or crash on me. Also, it’s just not the same. My heart wants the G-Wagen.
Steve DaSilva: Toyota GR86/Subaru BRZ
This slideshow’s subheading poses a question: Front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive? Well, reader, I’m here to tell you that both are wrong. Rear-wheel-drive is the superior layout for winter driving, and I can prove it with experience.
The silver FR-S you see here was my own car, the one that carried me through the lake-effect snow of multiple Western New York winters. It was my grocery getter, my furniture hauler — hell, I moved in it. With a good set of snow tires on the factory wheels, I never found myself wanting more — or different — driven wheels. So why not?
Well, for starters, the Toyobaru twins have as many driven wheels as your average AWD vehicle. This sounds absurd, I know, but it’s true. Take, for instance, the BRZ’s bigger Subaru siblings. Despite the full-time-AWD layout, those vehicles use open differentials in the front and the rear. In a low-traction scenario — say, an icy road — all your power will go to the front and rear wheels with the least grip. The Toyobarus use a limited-slip rear differential, meaning they send power to both rear wheels all the time. That’s two driven wheels against two.
Now, before you say it, I’ll admit that plenty of front-wheel-drive cars have limited-slip differentials. The Civic Si, Type R, and Acura Integra all drive two wheels at all times. But asking your wheels to use their limited traction for both acceleration and steering — not to mention the majority of your braking — is a recipe for slippage. Send your power to the rear, and let your front wheels handle the steering.
But I’ve only sold you on rear-wheel-drive so far. Why these two cars specifically? Well, for starters, they’re relatively cheap. RWD has become something of a luxury exclusivity recently, from brands like Mercedes and Lexus, but you can still get your hands on a cheap Toyobaru. Beyond that, they’re easy to fix — letting your inner Takumi Fujiwara out carries lower risks when you can cheaply replace a broken wheel. Most of all, though, these cars are balanced, predictable, and communicative.
If you slide out on a snowy road in a Toyobaru, you’ll know exactly what’s happening. The steering wheel lets you know exactly how little effect your actions are having on the direction of the car, and the responsive engine tells you when your rear wheels aren’t putting the power down. Start to slip, and the car is incredibly easy to control while sideways. It’s like training wheels for drifting, teaching you the intricacies of weight balance and steering from the rear at low, safer speeds.
So, next winter, buy yourself a Toyobaru. You’ll have a blast, learn more than you ever dreamed about vehicle dynamics, and you’ll look great doing it. What more could you want?
Elizabeth Blackstock: I Literally Don’t Care, Just Invest in Snow Tires
Back when I lived just outside of Pennsylvania, I experienced a unique horror of horrors: The very first unexpected snow of the year. Temperatures plunged suddenly, and the folks who had left home in the morning prepared for rain suddenly found themselves battling a stunning snowfall. It was November, and snow was sure to come — but the world just wasn’t prepared. And boy, did it show.
My husband, then my fiancé, had driven down from Canada to spend a few days with me, so his Cadillac was already equipped with a set of snow tires. As we watched the snow fall from my apartment window, he determined it wasn’t all that bad; we booked tickets to see Halloween in theaters and set off for the evening.
The roads, though, had descended into chaos. Schools were releasing kids early, and work had been cancelled for many people — which meant the roads were jam packed like it was a Wednesday at rush hour. The roads hadn’t been prepped, and there was no way for a plow to get through. I watched cars with summer tires slide down hills. I watched 4WD trucks with bald tires slip and slide in place. My husband’s sedan wasn’t designed to ford a few centimeters of snow, but his snow tires meant we ultimately, finally, made it to the movie theater — but the 90-minute-long three-mile journey provided ample opportunity to gape at the folks who weren’t ready.
All that is to say: if you live where there’s snow, get some goddamn snow tires, and make sure you actually use them.
Bob Sorokanich: Anything Your Grandma Would Drive
Let me tell you about the greatest winter car I ever owned: A 1998 Ford Contour. It was beige on beige, with the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a four-speed automatic. I inherited it from my grandma, threw on a cheap set of no-name snow tires, and was unstoppable through three northeast Pennsylvania winters.
Because let’s face it: If you’re just trying to get to work on time in unpredictable winter weather, what you need is a boring, dependable domestic car. Front-wheel drive. Strong heater. Runs good on 87. Room in the trunk for a bag of sand and a shovel. Practical, no-fuss motoring.
I know most of my colleagues are going to advocate for go-anywhere off-roaders or cars built to pirouette maniacally on anything less grippy than dry, warm pavement. They speak with the blind enthusiasm of youth. You and I, we know the toils of adulthood. Sure, you might get a chance here and there to rip donuts in a snow-covered parking lot, but 90 percent of the time, when it’s snowing, you just have to get somewhere.
There’s no better car for just-getting-there than a domestic beater. Put your fun car in the garage for the winter. Embrace grandma style.
Erik Shilling: An AWD Mazda3, Or Any Other Modern AWD Car
Many years ago (four), I was in Squaw Valley, California, to drive the all-new and very exciting fourth-generation Mazda3. As part of the test, Mazda had a snow and ice course and Mazda3s of varying configurations. Some of the cars had all-season tires, and some had snow tires. Some of the cars were front-wheel drive, and some of them were all-wheel drive.
It was choose-your-own-adventure, and I chose every adventure. The results were unmistakable: the AWD Mazda3 with or without snow tires had such vastly improved capabilities on snow and ice compared to the front-wheel drive version that it left me with an unescapable conviction that AWD is superior in the cold across the board, so much so that the tires were almost immaterial.
Modern AWD systems are also getting better and better every year, and maintaining traction better and better. For those of us who grew up with shitty rear-wheel drive jalopies in the frozen Midwest, modern AWD cars in the snow are an almost unimaginable difference.
Erin Marquis: The Car You Have
Here I sit, trying to write about winter vehicles on a 50-degree day in early February. In Michigan. It’s hard to make general statements about a country as big and varied as the U.S., but the winter season has been remarkably unpredictable over the last few years. Last year was one of the warmest on record, and this year likely won’t shape up much better. Some cities saw record-breaking storms and cold early in the winter while others (like New York and the rest of the usually snowy East Coast) are experiencing a dirth of the white stuff.
I used to be a winter tire evangelist just like every other red-blooded Jalopnik writer. But here in Southeast Michigan, we’ve had such a small amount of snow in the last few years that my expensive winter tires just sit neglected in the corner of my basement. It’s definitely not like this all over the country of course, but warming is a trend we’re stuck with for the long haul, save a complete reimagining of how we live and commute.
This is all to say that the car you have—it could be pretty much anything—is probably fine for the winter months. A beefy set of winter tires would be grand for those of you living in the path of lake-effect snow, at snowy elevations or above the 45th parallel or anywhere where snow is a reliable factor, but as long as you maintain your car properly and know how it reacts in different conditions, you’re fine.
Maybe you don’t drive if you don’t have to on a bad stormy day. Maybe you keep a rescue kit with a blanket, water bottles, simple emergency phone and hand warmers in case you slide off the road. But I’ve driven all sorts of terrible cars (‘95 Dodge Avenger, ‘07 Saturn Ion) in all sorts of bad weather in all sorts of cars and rarely have I lost control of the vehicle. Go slow, be smart, turn into the skid and wait for the snow to thaw. The rain is coming sooner than you’d like.
Lalita Chemello: Try a Higher Ride
Having grown up in Southeast Michigan, and now relocated to the infamously snowy, lake effect retreat that is Southwest Michigan, I have driven through it all. The western part of the state has been particularly brutal, as the snow blowing over the surrounding country roads from the empty farm fields turns most of them to ice (if they’re not already buried in a few feet of snow.) I’ve driven through blizzards in FWD sedans, carefully navigated miles upon miles of ice-covered freeways and roads in the cheapest of GM vehicles, and pushed a 2015 Fiat Sport through a foot-and-a-half of snow in all-season tires, on my 25-mile drive home from work. Michigan is called a “Winter Wonderland” for a reason.
My colleague Erin nailed it on the head, thought, that your own car is the best car to drive — but because we have to have our own opinions in this post, I’ll go with my next suggestion: A ride with a little height.
I recently traded in my 2017 VW GLI for a 2022 Wrangler Unlimited. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get through winter storms with the GLI, I’ve managed perfectly fine (it was more I was sick of replacing the tires and rims thanks to our more well-known shitty roads). But having a Jeep or something that rides tall provides me with a couple of things: I can see over the dashboard to better assess the road conditions while on the move, and I also have a little more clearance underneath if the snow gets deep, which, gets deep out here.
Again, any car is actually capable of navigating through snow and ice, but you have to know how to drive through it, something driver’s education is poor at teaching. I’d recommend (especially if you have teens at home about to take on the driving gauntlet) signing them up for a defensive or winter driving course. My father put me and both my brothers through it when we got our licenses, and it has paid for itself ten-fold by “saving my ass” on many questionable road surfaces.
That and remember to keep your tires and maintenance up-to-date. Tread alone can seriously make a difference.
Ryan Erik King: Subaru WRX
I’m going to echo the sentiments of a few of my fellow writers. Living in New York City, the roads are usually well prepared for snow and sometimes plowed. Most people around here don’t need a vehicle to traverse the Antarctic. Ideally, they just need a car to get through a few inches of snow and slush. It also needs to be a daily driver that they can use all-year round. I would get a Subaru WRX.
The Subaru WRX might be a bit over the top, but it checks all of the boxes. The sedan is all-wheel drive, so traction over loose surfaces shouldn’t be a problem. The 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer engine provides enough power to easily get down any snow-covered road. Personally, I loved the competition heritage of the WRX. Subaru’s late 1990s and early 2000s successes in the FIA World Rally Championship certainly left an impression with me that the WRX can handle any road surface.