One bout of sleet or snow is often all it takes: You resolve to buy a more rugged car that won't leave you feeling captive to the elements. But what kind? SUVs ride higher—but does that make them safer? Is all-wheel drive good enough, or are there other features you should look for as well? And when the snow melts, you'll still be driving the same car—so how can you tell if a car that seems great in winter will pull its weight in summer, too?
We've scoured the U.S. News Best Car rankings to come up with some answers. Everybody wants a ride that's reliable and economical, so we've included only cars that score in the top half of our quality rankings and get better-than-average gas mileage. That ensures that these picks are well-rounded, all-season vehicles that will hold their value. We narrowed the list further by choosing cars on which the following safety and performance features are either standard or available as a reasonably priced option:
All-wheel drive. This is an increasingly popular feature, available on most SUVs and many sedans. But there are a few trade-offs: It can add $2,000 or more to the cost of the vehicle, and it usually lowers gas mileage by 10 percent or so. And all-wheel drive isn't always available on the base model; sometimes you have to upgrade to a more costly trim line first. That's one reason we paid close attention to price and gas mileage. And while all-wheel drive can help free you from snowbanks or mud bogs, it's important to note that it's not a safety feature: The fact that all four wheels drive the car does nothing to reduce braking distance or regain control in a skid. Some safety experts think all-wheel drive might even create a false sense of confidence, leading some people to drive in conditions they otherwise wouldn't. So respect Mother Nature, no matter how many wheels are moving your car.
Stability control. This is one of the most important—and least understood—safety features car buyers can spring for. Part of the confusion is that manufacturers refer to this technology by a variety of different names, such as Stabilitrak (General Motors), Vehicle Stability Control or VSC (Toyota), Vehicle Stability Assist or VSA (Honda), and AdvanceTrac (Ford). But the systems all work the same way, employing sensors and computers to help control the vehicle in a skid; if the sensors detect a loss of control, computers manipulate braking and acceleration, wheel by wheel, to help regain traction. On SUVs in particular—which have a higher center of gravity than sedans—stability control can help prevent rollovers and other dangerous accidents. While it's becoming standard on more vehicles, consumers still can't take this key feature for granted, since sometimes it's available only with other options or on higher trim lines. Get a clear answer from the dealer.
Antilock brakes. Cars that come with stability control automatically have antilock brakes, which allow the driver to steer during a skid. But if you don't opt for stability control—or it's not available—antilock brakes are still a smart option. They're standard on many cars, and if not, the extra cost is usually a reasonable $500 or so. Keep in mind that antilock brakes help only if you use them properly: Instead of pumping the brake pedal, you need to apply constant pressure. The car's owner's manual should explain the details.
Side-curtain air bags. Frontal air bags are required on all cars, on both the driver and passenger sides. Side-impact and side-curtain air bags are still optional—but buyers should insist on them. Curtain air bags, which deploy from the headliner overhead, are especially vital, since they help protect occupants' heads in a side-impact crash or a rollover. Research confirms their real-world safety value, and cars frequently score better in crash tests when equipped with curtain air bags.
When we crunched all of those requirements, these are the cars that came out on top:
Top Cars for Lousy Weather
|Model||MSRP w/all-wheel drive and stability control||Mileage (city/highway)||Strong Points||Weak Points|
|Lexus RX-350 (SUV)||$38,800||17/22||Plush and powerful, great quality, sleek styling||No off-road capability, pricey|
|Infiniti FX (SUV)||$39,505||15/20||Brash design, sporty performance, great acceleration||No off-road capability, tight interior, limited cargo space|
|Acura MDX (SUV)||$40,195||15/20||Muscular design, refined interior, great driving dynamics, third row||Sculpted styling off-putting to some|
|Cadillac SRX (SUV)||$46,760||14/22||Luxurious, bold, spacious||Imprecise handling, poor mileage|
|Mazda CX-7 (SUV)||$26,085||16/22||Brisk and carlike handling, perky turbocharged engine, sharp styling||Cramped rear seat, sleek design limits cargo space|
|Honda CR-V (SUV)||$21,900||20/26||Great set of basic features, lots of storage, crisp ride||No third row available, so-so pickup, no V-6 option|
|Volkswagen Passat (sedan/wagon)||$35,990||17/26||Fun ride, comfortable, great ergonomics||More expensive than competition, AWD available only on top trim line|
|Ford Fusion (sedan)||$24,020||17/25||Pleasant ride, spacious and comfortable cabin, large trunk||Hard-to-read gauges, stability control and curtain air bags optional|
|Subaru Outback (wagon/crossover)||$27,240||19/26||Good engine choices, AWD standard, strong safety ratings||Tight rear seat, less ground clearance than some SUVs|
|Subaru Impreza (sedan/hatchback)||$19,140||20/27||Spacious cabin, AWD standard, versatile hatchback available||Cheap-feeling controls, squishy handling, stability control optional|