By all accounts, this winter could be a humdinger, with the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicting extreme cold and/or snowy conditions prevailing through spring for much of the U.S.
Though those living in northern regions are likely the most prepared to face the worst Mother Nature has to offer, all 50 states are subjected to snow at least once per year. Even the most benign winter storms can wreak havoc in areas that are unaccustomed to snowfall of any sort.
If you’re looking to drive a vehicle that’s adept at maintaining traction through snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain, and even errant rocks and mud, but don’t want to drive a big and burly 4×4 pickup or a truck-based SUV, you’ll likely want to look for a car-based crossover SUV that comes equipped with all-wheel drive (AWD).
Under normal circumstances some AWD systems will ordinarily send 100 percent of the engine’s power to the front wheels, sending additional power to the front or rear wheels as necessary to maintain grip over while others will split the difference between front and rear on a 50/50 basis or remain a bit rear-biased for a sportier feel over dry pavement.
You’ll also want to consider an SUV’s ground clearance, which represents the distance between the pavement and a car or crossover’s axles. Having a taller ground clearance enables a vehicle to better plow through deeper snow accumulations without unduly scraping the undercarriage or otherwise becoming stuck.
We’ve compiled the following list of 10 models that not only offer sophisticated AWD systems, but can be fitted with other enhancements that help make them true winter warriors. Depending on the model, the maximum clearance may only be obtainable with AWD and perhaps other optional equipment. All are affordable to purchase and get decent fuel economy to help ease the current pain at the pump.
However, take note that if you own an AWD car or crossover, or a big four-wheel drive truck or SUV, it still won’t enable you to violate the laws of physics. Driving all four wheels might help dislodge a car or crossover from a snowed-under parking space, make it go faster on wet or snowy pavement and may afford extra grip in other low-traction situations, but neither system does much to improve a car or truck’s braking and handling under inclement conditions.
That said, here are our picks for the 10 best winter warrior SUVs for the money, listed in descending order according to their base sticker prices:
Jeep Grand Cherokee ($37,385)
Already sitting tall in the proverbial saddle for off-road-adventures, the midsize Grand Cherokee SUV’s AWD Trailhawk version is jacked up with 13.3 inches of ground clearance for clearing deep snow piles and traversing rocky terrain. The Grand Cherokee offers two or three rows of seats, with a choice of V6 and V8 engines, with a plug-in hybrid version coming soon. Three separate AWD systems are offered with varying degrees of tenacity on and off-road, as well as an available Selec-Terrain traction management system that lets the driver tune the vehicle’s abilities according to various conditions, including Snow, Rocks, Mud, and Sand.
Honda Pilot ($36,830)
Able to carry as many as eight riders across three rows of seats, the Honda Pilot is an admirable choice for safe-and-sound family transport. It features a smooth and powerful 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 that’s paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The Pilot’s all-wheel drive system includes Honda’s Variable Torque Management with torque vectoring that can not only split engine torque between the front and rear axles, but also between the left and right rear wheels for improved handling over a wide range of road conditions. Its ground clearance is 7.3 inches on most trims, and it’s lifted to 7.9 inches in the TrailSport trim.
Mazda CX-9 ($34,160)
The three-row Mazda CX-9 is livelier to drive than most midsize crossover SUV, with engaging handling and a peppy 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that generates 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque when running on regular-grade fuel, and 250 horses with 320 pound-feet on premium. Mazda’s available ”i-Activ” all-wheel drive system normally sends most of the of the engine’s power to the front wheels, with a small amount of torque being channeled to the rear to speed the transition to all-wheel drive when needed. It can automatically send as much as 50 percent of it to the rear wheels for extra grip on slick roads. It sits atop 8.8 inches of ground clearance.
Hyundai Palisade ($33,150)
The Hyundai Palisade is a handsomely cast midsize three-row SUV that packs a 3.8-liter V6 engine with an energetic 291 horsepower. Hyundai’s optional HTRAC all-wheel drive system provides active torque division between the front and rear axles, and includes selectable performance modes that include a Snow setting for optimal traction over winter-impacted roads. The system can also be locked with a 50:50 torque split for especially challenging conditions. The Palisade sits 9.7 inches above the pavement for added abilities over built-up snow ruts.
Subaru Ascent ($32,295)
The three-row Subaru Ascent can seat up to eight passengers comfortably. It comes standard with a superior all-wheel drive system, hill descent control, and Subaru’s X-Mode traction management system that makes it a true winter-weather warrior. It’s powered by a quick and reasonably fuel efficient 260-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that’s mated to a gearless CVT transmission. The Ascent’s suspension delivers a comfortable ride, and affords a generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance for traversing deep snow or moderate off-road trails.
Subaru Outback ($26,945)
The Subaru Outback was one of the first car-based crossovers, essentially a midsize Legacy wagon with a taller ground clearance and burly styling cues and cladding to give it more of an SUV look and feel. The Outback shares its standard 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission with the Forester, but adds the option of a quicker 260-horsepower turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine in its top trims. The Outback’s ground clearance is 8.7 inches, while the new Wilderness trim with its all-terrain tires and a taller 9.5 inches of ground clearance adds a bit more off-road prowess to the mix. All-wheel drive and features like hill-descent control and X-Mode traction enhancement add to its foul-weather prowess.
Toyota RAV4 ($26,350)
Also available in hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, the Toyota RAV4 compact crossover delivers a refined ride with a spacious cabin and many advanced safety features standard. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine outputs a peppy 203 horsepower, with all-wheel drive optional and a Hybrid-powered model available. The RAV4’s basic AWD system can automatically disengage and re-engage AWD as needed to optimize fuel economy. An available Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel Drive with Rear Driveline Disconnect can direct torque to individual rear wheels as needed to maintain traction. The Adventure and TRD Off-Road trims feature an 8.6-inch ground clearance, with the latter including a specific suspension and 18-inch matte-black alloy wheels with all-terrain tires.
Honda CR-V ($25,750)
The compact Honda CR-V crossover SUV does just about everything right, including treating occupants to a spacious and upscale interior with plenty of cargo room. A turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 190-horsepower, and it’s mated to a gearless continuously variable transmission. A Hybrid version is also available with more-frugal fuel economy. Honda’s available Real-Time All-Wheel Drive system is front-biased, with the ability to shift nearly all of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels as needed to maintain traction. It includes selectable modes for driving in snow, mud, and sand. The CR-V’s ground clearance is at a generous 8.2 inches with AWD.
Subaru Forester ($25,195)
The compact Subaru Forester comes standard with the automaker’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, system that not only sends power to all wheels simultaneously, it’s actively distributed to the wheels having the most traction over slippery surfaces. The Forester also has a tall 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which grows to 9.2 inches in the new Wilderness trim, which also comes with all-terrain tires. All versions but the base Forester also come with hill descent control and X-Mode traction enhancement to give it added prowess over slick surfaces. It comes powered by a 2.5-liter 182-horsepower four-cylinder “boxer” engine.
Hyundai Tucson ($24,950)
Fully redesigned for 2022, the compact Hyundai Tucson crossover SUV comes wrapped in dynamic new exterior styling, with a sophisticated looking and rich feeling interior. The Tucson rides and handles nicely, and packs a 187-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that’s mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s also offered in fuel-sipping hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions. The Tucson’s available HTRAC all-wheel drive system splits engine power between the front and rear axles on a variable basis; it comes with a selectable Sport mode that channels additional power to the rear wheels for a more agile feel. It has a ground clearance of 8.3 inches with AWD.