Favorite snow machines for 2014

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Honda HS520
Honda HS520 liberates high-performance SUV.

What with the holidays, 40-some inches of white stuff dumped by three snowfalls and one full-bore nor’easter blizzard, plus a couple of days of freezing rain followed by below-zero temperatures, we’ve been driving the Infiniti QX70 for going on three weeks now.

Fresh cars just haven’t been able to get up to the western shore of Maine’s Penobscot Bay.

To be sure, there are worse vehicles to be wintered-in with than this one—even though, as mentioned two weeks back, the QX70 is so rear-wheel-happy that sometimes it doesn’t feel very AWD at all.

It’s the only SUV where we’ve ever seriously relied on the “Snow” drive setting. (Everyone in the Frozen North who learned to drive before about 1990 has a “snow mode” already programmed into his or her right foot, and tends to disdain such babysitting.)

It sedates the QX70 enough so that the front wheels can get a decent bite before the rears begin to spin. True snow tires would help too, but in any case the anti-spin gremlins step in to chop the throttle and brake one or another wheel(s) before the QX gets too far out of line.

Just don’t switch them completely off, as I did one day on an empty, snow-covered back road—purely for research. After power-sliding rally-style through a corner, I couldn’t regain grip and straighten out again. The side-to-side pirouettes got wider and wider (and the shoulder belt, sensing doom, automatically tightened its grip on me) till we’d spun completely around, and then the QX and I slid gently backwards into a fresh and forgiving snowbank. I loosened the seatbelt, re-engaged Vehicle Dynamic Control and Snow mode, and drove away before anybody could see me.

But, as good as many modern AWDs are, when the white stuff simply gets too deep, I park whatever it is we’re road-testing, shovel my way into the garage and fire up my personal Honda.

Honda HS520 is 20 inches wide and 12 inches high
The snow intake of the Honda HS520 is 20 inches wide and 12 inches high; it made (relatively) short work of this berm at the end of the drive. Yes, that’s a street out there.

It’s got just a 160cc, one-cylinder motor and it weighs about 80 pounds, topped up with oil and gas. It has handlebars instead of a steering wheel, and no lights, no brakes, no passenger compartment and not even a seat. It does have an ignition key, but it doesn’t need a registration plate or insurance, nor a driver’s license to operate. This Honda has only two wheels and neither one of them is driven, but it can chew through a lot of snow—55 tons per hour, claims Honda—and throw it up to 26 feet.

By north-country standards, the little Honda HS520 with its rubber auger barely qualifies as a snowblower. My neighbor up the street with the two-stage, 36-inch macho machine on caterpillar tracks (with power steering and electric chute adjustment, heated handles, a headlight and a protective cab) laughed—until he saw the Honda bull through a huge berm at the end of my drive. Sure, it had to take the wall in several bites, and I had to muscle it along, but this is still a heck of a lot easier than shoveling.

Nor do I have to re-landscape my side yard each spring, after the plow jockeys have scraped up 50 or 60 feet of lawn and relocated a few ornamental shrubs.

Every December, the Honda starts again (on last year’s gas; oil mix not needed) with a few easy, low-compression pulls. There aren’t many controls, and they’re all sized and shaped for thick gloves. Even the gas cap is glove-friendly. Redirecting the snow blast takes just a flick of the chute lever. It’s quieter than my other-brand lawn mower and needs less maintenance—no maintenance, actually, at least in its third winter.

If the HS520 was a car, it would have to be the five-door Fit, another deceptively small Honda that punches way above its weight class. But it’s not a car, and without it a lot of cars would stay immobilized in my driveway for a lot longer.

—Silvio Calabi