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Winter wonder cars

As charming as picturesque winter wonderlands may be, they can often translate into uncertain, unsafe slipping and sliding on the road. Luckily for consumers confronting snow and ice, auto manufacturers offer a wide range of vehicles with systems designed to maximize grip.
The Toyota RAV4 comes with heated seats and gets 27 highway miles per gallon.
The Toyota RAV4 comes with heated seats and gets 27 highway miles per gallon.Toyota
/ Source: Business Week

December brings with it eagerly anticipated holidays and, for much of the country, gleaming snowscapes. But as charming as picturesque winter wonderlands may be, they can often translate into uncertain, unsafe slipping and sliding when it's time to get behind the wheel.

Luckily for consumers confronting snow and ice, auto manufacturers offer a wide range of vehicles with systems designed to maximize grip in slip-prone driving conditions. Indeed, four-wheel drive is now available in an array of vehicles. And not just hulking SUVs or dowdy wagons, but sports coupes, sedans large and small, and even environmentally friendly hybrids.

Most vehicles on the road are only powered by two wheels, either the front or rear pair. Today, the majority of cars employ front-wheel drive, which is less costly than four- and rear-wheel drive, though the latter has experienced a resurgence in popularity as U.S. manufacturers have stoked a revival of the classic muscle cars where the increased performance of that setup is a key sales factor.

Neither rain, nor sleet
Popular two-wheel drive cars have advantages over their rear-wheel drive alternatives because the increased weight bearing down on the driven wheels increases traction. This enables these cars to perform well enough in rain and light snow. But in the worst driving conditions—both off-road and for trail and severe winter driving, vehicles equipped to move all of vehicle's wheels are the most valuable.

There are a number of systems that can send power to all of a car's four wheels to help mitigate snow, ice, or nasty combinations thereof such as freezing rain. Some new vehicles use systems that must be enabled by drivers, while others are permanently engaged.

These systems each have advantages and disadvantages, depending on their intended use. The common all-wheel drive setup has no driver controls but functions on any surface, directs power to the wheels with traction, and doesn't require that drivers engage anything or change their driving style. However, such setups—commonly found in family cars and some light SUVs—have no selectable low gear, which is useful and sometimes even required to go off road or deal with the harshest conditions.

The worst conditions
Less common are full-time four wheel drive systems like the ones offered in SUVs such as the Ford Explorer or most Jeeps. These are typically driver selectable, and prove popular in the most serious conditions, whether off road or on-road, especially if equipped with a locking center differential. The downside of this scheme, of course, is increased cost and reduced gas mileage.

A ranking for harsh diving conditions might read: rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and finally, four-wheel drive. The key difference between the last two, and most likely the factor consumers should focus on when choosing a new vehicle, is that four-wheel drive vehicles have an edge in uncommonly difficult conditions such as deep water, steep gravel and dirt hills, and snow-covered rocks.

Consumers have been traditionally attracted to SUVs for their four-wheel abilities and perceived increased safety. But for many, full-bore four-wheel drive may not be necessary. Unless conditions approach the severity of serious off-roading, a robust all-wheel drive vehicle, even in a smaller sedan, may be sufficient.

What's certain is that any of the myriad technologies designed to power all four wheels will result in superior winter performance to cars with two-wheel drive systems.

Luxury vehicle manufacturers, in particular, have embraced four-wheel drive as a desirable, premium differentiator. In fact, many brands both foreign and domestic offer grip-equipped models in a wide range of segments, from small cars to the biggest trucks and SUVs. That means there are a lot of snow-worthy options on dealer lots to choose from these days.

Grip is no longer the privilege of massive vehicles either. Urbanites and fuel-efficiency junkies can rejoice. Audi's diminutive A3 hatchback, which starts at $33,980 with the company's excellent quattro all-wheel drive system, packs a lot of luxury punch in a small package, and, according to the EPA, gets a respectable 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.

More with four
BMW's newest 3 Series coupe, meanwhile, manages to maintain the model line's heritage of no-compromise performance. But one version — the $37,100 328xi— offers the added traction of the company's xDrive all-wheel drive technology, which e ven in a lighter vehicle can improve winter performance.

Traditional wagons and sedans haven't been left out either. Toyota's Lexus division and BMW offer both types of vehicles with robust all-wheel drive systems. And since the former company introduced the $41,180 RX 400h model, hot new gas-electric hybrids have also been available with four firmly on the floor.

Manufacturers have put a lot of stock in their all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive technologies, often branding their systems and distributing marketing across multiple models. Audi, for instance, cross-promotes its quattro setup between the company's racing division and the cars and SUVs it sells to consumers.

Here come the plows
Honda's Acura division, meanwhile, has developed a system which has helped its RL sedan differentiate itself. The car, which features the company's hyperbolically-named "super handling all-wheel drive" technology, can distribute power to each wheel based on the need for traction—a simple-sounding ability that masks significant technical achievement translating to unbeatable road grip.

Some brands have even pinned their identity largely to drivability in challenging conditions. Ford owned Land Rover's marketing is awash in images of luxurious SUVs traversing slip-prone conditions, from streams to the deepest snow fields. And at the lower end of the cost spectrum, all of Subaru's vehicles are equipped with the company's well-reputed all-wheel drive.

To compile our list of the best winter cars, took a look at the vehicles on sale now that are the best equipped to deal with serious winter driving, not just light snow or occasional ice. We chose models that feature a mix of the best ground clearance, road-gripping torque, gas mileage, winter-handy convenience options such as heated seats, and good crash safety results from the two top agencies, the National Highway Transportation Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.