Hurricane aftermath: Can you recommend vehicles that drive well in water?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I'm rethinking my requirements for a new car. I live in the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia. Several times a year, when the tide rises exceptionally high, I can't get home (or leave) at high tide. We always evacuate in case of hurricanes, but when we evacuate, we can't always anticipate what we will encounter on the way. Is there anywhere I can find information about which cars are the safest and most reliable to transport me through water? Thanks. -- Celia

TOM: Well, water is very difficult for cars. Even a modest amount of water -- anything over the axles -- can cause big troubles. So, I would say the key things you should look for are high ground clearance, a high-mounted air intake and an engine-management computer that's not mounted low (like under the seat).

RAY: Right. The air intake is probably the most important. If water gets in through the engine's air intake and fills up one or more of the cylinders, the car will hydro-lock, and will immediately become as useful as a large fishing weight.

TOM: There are some vehicles that are designed to be able to forge moderate amounts of water -- Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and Jeep Wranglers, for instance. But the problem is, if you buy one of those vehicles to get you through 2 feet of water once a year, you're stuck with it for the other 364 days, too.

RAY: The big SUVs, like the Land Cruiser, are expensive to buy, expensive to maintain and drink copious amounts of gasoline -- which is of increasing concern to those of us not named Getty.

TOM: The Jeep Wrangler, on the other hand, is less expensive to buy and maintain. But it drives like a basketball. And the dental bills from having your teeth smash together at every pothole are going to add up, too.

RAY: So I'd say there are a couple of options you can pursue, Celia. One is to buy an old beater SUV or pickup truck that you use only for evacuation. Then you don't really have to care about the gas mileage or the ride comfort.

TOM: Any truck with good ground clearance and a high-mounted engine-management computer will work. Because if you need to, you can have your mechanic install an air snorkel, which is just like the thing you use with flippers and a snorkeling mask. It attaches to the air intake, and extends it up above the hood.

RAY: But there are three downsides to that plan. One is that you have to have room to store an extra vehicle. Two, you have to keep it maintained to make sure it'll start when you really need it to. And three, what if you're not home when the flood comes? If the vehicle is stored in your garage or your yard, it's not going to help you GET home.

TOM: So in your case, I'd recommend a compromise vehicle, like the Jeep Liberty with the diesel engine. The Liberty has many of the off-road qualities of the Wrangler, including an air intake placed up near the hood. But its ride and handling aren't nearly as barbaric as the Wrangler's, and it gets gas mileage in the mid-20s. It's a car you could drive every day and not curse us for recommending.

RAY: The diesel engine is another plus if you're concerned about getting through water. Diesels don't need "spark" for combustion. So, you don't have to worry about washing out your ignition system and stalling mid-puddle.

TOM: But do be careful, and get some instruction before you actually have to drive through any serious amount of water. If the water is moving, your vehicle can literally be washed away. And remember, the only vehicle that's really designed to handle high water is the one we call "a boat."

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