BUYER’S GUIDE: Features To Look For In A Great Winter Vehicle

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Vehicles that perform well in snow are not accidents. Here’s what to look for.

A commonly posed question to automotive sites and forums often begins with “I’m looking for a vehicle that is good in snow…” From there, the person seeking advice qualifies the question with prices or style choices. The truth is, there are vehicles that perform well in snow and in winter conditions at all price levels.

For many, all-wheel drive is the starting point. Here are some additional features that those looking for winter comfort and safety should add to their list of must-haves.

Winter Driving Modes

For decades, luxury automakers have been adding snow modes to their vehicles. Snow modes change the throttle inputs to be more gradual, change the transmission settings to reduce torque, and change the differential settings to lock up in advance of a loss of traction. The Land Rover Range Rover Velar, shown above in its dashboard driving mode display, is a perfect example. Select “Grass Gravel Snow” and the vehicle feels and acts differently. In snow it makes a big difference in many scenarios, almost all having to do with moving forward. However, the vehicle also locks up the differentials or partly locks them when the driver slows down. Yes, there are subtle ways to help a vehicle slow down in the snow other than just snow tires. Check out the left side of the display and one can see the ride height adjustments. Is the white stuff getting deep? No problem. Just raise the body up a bit and drive on.

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At $90K, the Velar should have some superhero snow mode tricks! But even down in the more mainstream and affordable price ranges, or even the used market, shoppers can find vehicles with a snow mode. Case in point, the 2007 Toyota Highlander shown above. Tap the ECT (as in electronically controlled transmission) Snow button and the Highlander locks out first gear. Starting in second reduces torque and thus wheelspin when starting off. That helps the all-wheel-drive system make the most of its abilities.

Vehicles with all-wheel drive have an advantage, of course, but front- and rear-drive vehicles also have snow modes. The new Honda Accord and Honda Odyssey are just two examples of a sedan and minivan that come with the technology.

All-Wheel-Drive:  Lock

A helpful feature found on vehicles equipped with all-wheel-drive is the ability to lock the all-wheel-drive system with the touch of a button. Almost every AWD system is set up to start out in two-wheel drive and then send the power to wheels that are slipping. However, in a blizzard, there is no point in starting off without the full whammy. Vehicles like the Nissan Rogue crossover with AWD Lock buttons allow the driver to pre-set the AWD system to put equal power to all the wheels before the vehicle even moves. We like this system because it is equally helpful in muddy or sandy conditions and mimics what the pricey luxury systems are going to end up doing anyway.

Heated Windshield

The view ahead is critical for safety, and in icy conditions windshields are hard to keep clear. Another problem is keeping windshield wipers from getting crusted with slushy ice that then prevents proper clearing. There are remedies for this and we strongly suggest that any shopper serious about winter driving find a vehicle with one of them. Luxury cars like Jaguars, Volvo, and Land Rovers now come with a fully heated windshield option. Small wires (which are barely visible) heat the whole glass surface clearing not just ice, but also working as a great defogger without blowing hot air in your face. This system also helps clear a frost-covered windshield on snowy mornings as the video illustrates.

Other automakers like Toyota and Subaru have long offered affordable partial windshield heating along the base of the windshield and sometimes up the side of the driver’s A-pillar. This is effective too. The heat rises up on its own and the right side of the windshield is where frozen slush collects. Heated washer fluid nozzles are also helpful. These keep the nozzles from being frozen shut and add some heat to the fluid as it exits. We won’t say which of these is the best plan. We just like that there is a plan. Look for these clever systems in optional “Winter Packages” when shopping for your next vehicle.


Heated Steering Wheel

One of the best inventions since round wheels is the heated steering wheel. If you have not tried one, you are in for a very big surprise. It may sound hokey, but a heated steering wheel is a big help on cold days and allows you to drive without gloves. Put this option on the top of your wish list.

For a comprehensive list of top-performing models selected by the New England Motor Press, please see our story, Exceptional 2018 Vehicles For Winter Driving.