When asked about their winter driving skills in a 2013 survey, 43% of respondents admitted to playing hooky from work or school to avoid driving in a snowstorm. A better alternative to hibernating until spring is buying an all-wheel-drive vehicle – and it doesn’t have to be a hulking sport-utility. AWD comes in all shapes and sizes. In the spirit of the season, we present 10 all-wheel-drive winter beaters you can find today for under $15,000 – plus the cost of four winter tires. Our used-car picks, selected for their reliability first, may surprise you.
2007-13 Suzuki SX4
Small and all-wheel-drive don’t have to be mutually exclusive terms. Canadians embraced the front-drive SX4 hatchback, but Suzuki also dispatched an all-wheel-drive model, which employed an electric solenoid-operated clutch pack to activate the rear wheels. Drivers use a console switch to select between locked four-wheel drive, computer-engaged AWD or front-wheel drive (for fuel efficiency). Like almost all crossovers, the SX4’s system lacks low-range gearing.
The SX4’s sole engine is an all-aluminum, 143-hp DOHC 2.0-litre four cylinder. Buyers could choose between a standard five-speed manual transmission and four-speed automatic (replaced by a CVT in 2010). Assembled in Japan, the SX4 has garnered little criticism regarding build quality. Online complaints point to the Check Engine and Airbag warning lamps (often false), some interior rattles and the odd bad alternator or fuel pump. Owners dislike its tiny fuel tank, which requires frequent filling. Beyond that, the SX4 is a reliable, sure-footed little car – with a rapidly disappearing dealer network.
2007-10 Honda CR-V
The third-generation Honda CR-V was redesigned for 2007, making the hot-selling cute-ute an even more compelling buy. It was made 8 cm shorter overall simply by tucking the outboard spare tire under the floor – which conveniently lowered the centre of gravity – and the track grew wider for added stability. Interior dimensions didn’t change much, which is to say the well-finished cabin remained as airy and inviting as ever with its tall seating and great sightlines. It continued to offer ample seating for five.
Power was supplied by the Accord’s DOHC 2.4-litre four-cylinder, good for 166 hp. The lone transmission was a five-speed automatic. The AWD system employed twin hydraulic pumps to engage the rear axle through a wet clutch pack, made to engage faster using new ball cams. The CR-V earned a refresh for 2010 with some styling tweaks and added horsepower (up to 180 hp). Reported mechanical snafus included broken a/c compressors, malfunctioning door locks and power window switches, leaky power-steering racks, bad wiper motors and tire-wear issues.
2006-10 Mitsubishi Endeavor
The Mitsubishi Endeavor was easily the most obscure offering by Canada’s most obscure mainstream automobile brand. This midsize crossover arrived as a five-passenger wagon based on the automaker’s new enlarged Galant sedan platform (yet another secretive model). No matter; the buyers who embraced it have raved about the Endeavor. It offered a 225-hp 3.8-litre DOHC V-6 engine with 250 lb-ft of torque at the ready. A four-speed automatic with manual shift gate was the sole transmission.
The Endeavor was not intended for severe off-roading, yet Mitsubishi’s AWD system drove all the wheels all the time with a 50-50 split between the two axles. The roomy crossover featured a liftgate with separate opening glass and came with four-wheel disc brakes and 17-inch alloy wheels standard. Reliability-wise, the Illinois-assembled Endeavor is very good, though there have been a few air-conditioning failures and a known transaxle-gear whine issue. Overall, the Endeavor impresses – if you can find one.
2009-10 Pontiac Vibe
Pontiacs don’t often make anyone’s “Best” list anymore, but the diminutive Vibe is a noteworthy exception. Despite losing its dealer network after General Motors’ post-bankruptcy purge, the Vibe still resonates with used-car buyers, thanks to its frugal ways and bulletproof reliability. The Vibe’s tall profile and flat floor yield good room inside for five in a pinch. The rear bench split 60/40 to extend what was a meager cargo hold. Assembled in California by UAW members, the Vibe used Toyota Corolla underpinnings to great effect. The base engine was a 1.8-litre four cylinder making 132 hp, while the Camry’s torque-rich 158-hp 2.4-litre four powered GT models. The larger four cylinder could be bundled with the available five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive hardware (the one to get). Rare mechanical letdowns included a few leaky sunroofs, bad radios, loose weatherstripping and rattling heat shields. The paint chips and scratches easily. The closely related Toyota Matrix AWD is an equally good buy, too.
2009-11 Suzuki Grand Vitara
What the Suzuki Grand Vitara isn’t – besides a familiar household name – is another cute-ute. Engineers built the third-generation Grand Vitara like a Land Rover: a boxed ladder-type frame underpinned its unibody structure to doubly insure its rock-hopping integrity. The rear suspension was fully independent, a concession to modern times, but unlike popular car-based crossovers such as the Honda CR-V, the little Suzuki spun its rear tires just like a real truck.
For its 2009 refresh, the Grand Vitara was given a facelift and two new engines. A 166-hp DOHC 2.4-L four cylinder was the base motor, while the optional 3.2-L V-6 made 230 welcome horses (it was later dropped in 2011). Somewhat uniquely, the GV offered a serious full-time four-wheel-drive system with a locking centre differential for low-speed trail climbing. The Japanese-built Grand Vitara has garnered few complaints beyond fast-wearing tires and a small number of failed head gaskets in the four-cylinder engine.
2006-09 Subaru Legacy
Subie’s SOHC 2.5-litre flat-four engine was carried over from the Impreza, putting out 170 hp and 169 lb-ft of torque; AWD with a viscous limited-slip centre differential is standard. A 243-hp turbocharged 2.5-litre four was optional, while the 3.0 R Limited used a 3.0-litre flat-six that produced 245 hp. Head gasket failures used to be a Scooby scourge, but by 2004 the automaker had devised a more durable gasket. Other malfunctions include short-lived wheel bearings, piston slap, oil consumption (in turbo engines), underperforming air conditioners and interior rattles.
2003-08 Honda Pilot
As part of its indoctrination as a major automaker in North America, Honda learned some families come king-sized, so it made its Pilot crossover to seat eight handily. Think of it as the minivan of crossovers – not hard, since it borrowed its platform from the popular Odyssey van. Significantly, its unibody construction was fortified with integrated perimeter frame rails, which helped the Pilot tolerate some towing duties and light off-road use.
The Pilot used Honda’s familiar 244-hp 3.5-litre V-6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission, with added cylinder-deactivation technology to save fuel. Its Variable Torque Management 4WD system lacked low-range gearing, but a locking rear differential provided additional traction when wheel slippage was detected. Quality has been very good, although early models were plagued by the same troublesome automatic transmissions that haunted Odyssey and Acura MDX owners. And don’t expect stellar fuel economy from this Honda.
2004-08 Toyota 4Runner
The Toyota 4Runner is no sissy crossover. Instead of adopting a car-based platform, the 4Runner retained its pickup body-on-frame construction, complete with fully boxed rails and nine crossmembers. All models were equipped with protective skidplates for the engine, transfer case and gas tank to prevent off-road damage. A 4.0-litre V-6 motivated base models, churning up 245 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque, thanks to variable-valve timing and variable intake geometry. Surprisingly, the optional 4.7-litre V-8 made fewer horses (235), but lots more torque at 320 lb-ft.
The V-6’s 4WD system could be left engaged on dry pavement, while the V-8 got sophisticated all-wheel drive. Both systems included low-range gearing – the mark of a true off-roader. The 4Runner enjoys a near-legendary reputation for durability and all-terrain capability. However, the sunroof can rattle, the blower motor may occasionally die, and there are problems with the stability control cycling on and off. Still, the 4Runner is a no-nonsense mudder coveted by those in the know.
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