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6 Surprisingly Capable Cars for Winter Driving

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I’d like to introduce you to a long-time friend and enemy of mine. It’s called the Snow Belt.

The term “Snow Belt” describes a number of regions downwind of big lakes, where heavy, lake-effect snow is particularly common. And that’s exactly what I have to drive through nearly twice a week.

In good weather, the Snow Belt is a calming drive — minimal traffic, an easygoing highway, and some great scenery. Here, the Snow Belt is my friend and one that I love to visit. In rough, wintery weather, the Snow Belt is a real doozy. Conditions in the Snow Belt can change violently by the hour. Surprise blizzards appear out of nowhere. Bumper-high snowdrifts are commonplace. Here, the Snow Belt is my enemy. Or at least a friend that seems to want to stress me out.

Here are some notes from my most memorable recent rides through the Snow Belt in all of its full-blown wintertime fury. It proved to me that, contrary to popular belief, massive AWD SUVs aren’t necessarily the most capable vehicles in the winter. Note that all of the vehicles mentioned were wearing a quality set of winter tires.


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Vehicle: Cadillac CT6

What’s Memorable: Me and my best pal drove head-on into the sort of winter storm that triggers road closures across the map. Snow fell relentlessly in fist-sized clumps, plows could barely keep up, and we hadn’t seen pavement in ages.

Even in all the winter-driving, CT6’s comfort and confidence were unfazed. The all-wheel drive (AWD) system was one reason why — it operates seamlessly, knows where traction is (and isn’t) beneath, and had no issue keeping us moving safely. 

The stability control system was also great: the CT6 neutralizes even small slips before they’re detectable. OnStar was on standby for emergency help, and Android Auto kept us updated on nearby weather and traffic alerts.

The fun part? Driving through one of the nastiest storms I’d ever seen, my passenger was comfortably receiving a massage from her heated seat, and watching a movie via the streaming Wi-Fi on her tablet. Even exceptionally horrible conditions do little to reduce the big-time comfort built into Cadillac’s flagship.


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Vehicle: Honda CR-V

What’s Memorable: The CR-V impresses during use in severe weather for a number of simple but effective important reasons relating to the setup of its powertrain, assist, and chassis systems.

Driven carefully and gently, the AWD system provides quick and predictable responses in low-traction situations. It’s big on confidence and has little trouble finding and using any available grip.

A relatively communicative steering and light-on-its-feet feel mean drivers detect a loss of traction instantly: there’s no false sense of SUV confidence when the roads are greasy, and you feel what’s happening between the tires and the road right away.

ALSO SEE: Why You Need Winter Tires, Even If You Have All-Wheel Drive

Brakes bite positively from an initial press, and the ABS engages with minimal noise or vibration while turning in straight, fuss-free stops, even on challenging surfaces. Stability control sensitivity increases dramatically at higher speeds, too.

All said, driven in nasty weather, CR-V drivers should expect to feel very connected with the road conditions and the CR-V’s limits.


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Vehicle: Mazda MX-5 Miata

What’s Memorable: Truck-guy at the gas station was looking at me funny. I was refueling a Mazda MX-5 mid-blizzard.

“Isn’t that scary to drive?” truck guy asked.

“Nope.”

Unlike truck guy’s F-150, the MX-5’s perfect weight balance means it’s equally heavy in both front and rear, which makes it stable-for-its-size in the snow. The limited-slip rear differential means that both rear tires participate in propulsion, at all times. These two attributes alone make for a competent winter driver.

The light, taut and communicative chassis, and fantastic steering provide drivers a constant torrent of feedback about the goings on between MX-5’s tires and the surface beneath: an ideal setup for the seasoned sports car driver who doesn’t store their toy in winter. Precise brakes with highly effective ABS calibration ensure the MX-5 stops as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.

Best of all, you’ll have a total blast steering the car down snow-covered backroads using the throttle and brakes. It’s more stable and offers more traction than you think — just get a good set of winter tires, and enjoy this one all year. All said, the MX-5’s track-ready engineering help make this one a real treat in winter conditions, too.


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Vehicle: Subaru Impreza

What’s Memorable: After a half-day jaunt through deeply snow-covered country roads, the new Impreza’s stand-out attribute was just how flexible a winter performer it is.

Drive gently, and you get foolproof traction with no fuss, as all four wheels are powered all of the time. The ABS system is smooth and effective, and the quick steering makes issuing small corrections a cinch.

Drive it sportingly, and the Impreza really comes to life: steer via the throttle, brakes or steering wheel, and it’s responsive, eager, playful, predictable all the while. The boxer engine sounds great when worked and provides enough snap to fling excess snow from the tires as it claws away at deep powder and ice. This one backs drivers up with as much confidence (or feistiness) as their right foot desires.


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Vehicle: Hyundai Santa Fe

What’s Memorable: The Santa Fe 2.0T and I partook in a three-hour drive, passing through virtually every winter driving condition imaginable from deep snow to ice to freezing rain to eight-inch slush-piles coating the highway.

What was so notable? Expert calibration of several key systems that kick into play during severe winter use. The stability control allows a just-right amount of wheelspin in response to your speed and conditions. Throttle intervention is typically mild, highly scaled against the vehicle’s current speed, and leaves drivers, not microchips, calling most of the shots.

The AWD system isn’t shy about instantly sending loads of power to the rear wheels when required and finds traction in the worst conditions quickly. Even when the going gets frightful, Santa Fe’s leaves drivers feeling like they’re in total, confident control of the situation.


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Vehicle: Volvo V60 Polestar

What’s Memorable: Volvo’s rocket-wagon and I spent many hours driving through the aftermath of a serious storm, during which an overwhelming sensation was apparent: the V60 Polestar absolutely chomps into all road surfaces for bolted-down traction, almost no matter what.

Steering is heavy, thick and deliberate, requiring drivers to use a bit of muscle, but also keeping the car remarkably stable and straight, even when a single front tire encounters a foot-tall slush-stripe at speed. At your fingertips, reactions to steering inputs are predictable, confidence-inspiring, and instant.

All said, V60 Polestar’s composure and absolute obedience to driver commands is maintained at all times, even if you’re driving it like a complete hooligan in a foot of snow, where it never seems to lack for power or grip. Here’s a performance wagon engineered in a country where people go downhill skiing on their lunch break, and it shows.