Winter Wonders: Three Cars That Got Me Through Snow and Ice

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 06, 2019

I know it’s colder elsewhere, but I’ve seen 4 degrees Fahrenheit on the local thermometers. I live in New England, and we’re not used to winters as bad as Chicago’s. But in Chicago it’s colder than Antarctica.

We put the poor little Golf through hell, also known as winter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We learn from our experiences, so the frigid temps were a golden opportunity to see how my recent test cars fared when the mercury went down to near-zero. The good news is that they all started, and their seat heaters worked. The only modern accessory I value more than seat heaters is the backup camera.

Don't they call this a "wintry mix"? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volkswagen

Let’s start with the 2019 Volkswagen Golf 1.4T SE I recently tested—with a very welcome six-speed manual transmission. The Car Connection gets it right, “The 2019 Volkswagen Golf is what we would all drive if we were all rational people. We’re not, so we buy three-row SUVs to take to Kroger and convertibles for family cars.”

Manual transmissions are good in snow, honest! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Hold on, I own three convertibles! But CC is right about the Golf, it’s a darned nice car for $25,040 (with destination) as tested in the upper SE trim. The six-speed is standard, and our car didn’t have—or need—any options.

The engine is the same small (1.4-liter) turbocharged and direct-injected four that produces 147 horsepower and is also in the new Jetta. It’s a humdinger, smooth, torque-y, and extremely frugal at 32 mpg combined in this form (37 highway/29 city). The SE package adds the driver assistance package, which is very useful this time of year. It includes lane assist, light assist, and auto-dimming rearview mirror and 17-inch aluminum alloys. Tire pressure monitoring is another feature I really like in the colder months.

This is me, but thankfully not this year. We haven't had big snow in Connecticut this year--yet. (Mary Ann Masarech photo)

We took this little Volkswagen cruiser on a 400-mile trip to upstate New York as the cold was just settling in. Greene, New York is cold in the best of times (like, July) but fortunately we missed the big snowstorm the day before. Towns like this have excellent snowplowing (of necessity) so the Golf didn’t have to contend with huge snow drifts. Still, it snowed on and off while we were up there, but the front-wheel drive and all-season tires could cope.

My preference for manuals is well known, and I like them for winter driving, because you get so much control—and the option of stopping in a hurry by downshifting.

The 2019 Golf, assembled in Mexico, is available in two trims—S and SE. The 1.8T engine has been replaced by the same 147hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged and direct-injection TSI® engine found in the all-new 2019 Jetta. This is paired with either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission for both S and SE trims. The S trim adds standard Front Assist, Blind Spot Monitor, and Rear Traffic Alert for model year 2019. SE models offer an available Driver Assistance package, which includes ACC, lane assist, light assist, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.

The number of Americans willing to buy a six-speed hatchback has, unfortunately, dwindled to an audience that would fit inside a high school auditorium. What a shame! Access to the luggage—critical when it’s colder than a witch’s appendage—is brilliantly easy, and the six-speed is really slick. The greenhouse is huge—like my old BMW 2002s—so you can’t miss that snowplow sneaking up on you.

Audi

The tester had a long name. It was a 2018 Audi SQ5 3.0T Quattro Tiptronic. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it? But it was also a good winter car. A peeve in the VW was that the heated seats turned off every time the car was turned off. But in the Audi they stayed on!

The Audi SQ5: If you can afford it, a great winter car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

You may want to revoke my car reviewer’s license at this point for caring about stuff like this instead of zero to 60 times and top speeds, but all that is irrelevant in the winter. You want a car that stays on the road, that heats up quickly, that has a powerful defroster, and starts in really cold weather.

The Audi is also a product of the VW Group, but way upscale from the Golf. With $14,000 worth of options, it came in at a bracing $68,750. If you have the money, it’s a great winter car. Audi virtually invented the modern all-wheel-drive system, and the SQ5 is nicely sized.

Fuel economy from the powerful 354-horsepower V-6 is a so-so 21 combined (19 city/24 highway). This isn’t a Toyota RAV4. It achieved a 4.4-second zero to 60 time when Motor Trend tested a 2015 model. I get all that, but is it sacrilege to say that the VW was more fun to drive? The Audi just didn’t feel all that fast.

Did I mention I LOVE heated seats? (Jim Motavalli photo)

One thing your money gets you is a Nappa leather interior, excellent brakes with red calipers (part of the $3,000 S sport package), adaptive air suspension and a whole raft of safety features that matter in winter driving. The tester had preventative occupant protection, low-speed collision assist and dynamic steering.

I had minor quibbles with the car. European cars make buyers pay through the nose for features that are standard on other cars. The Bang & Olufsen stereo (part of the $4,200 prestige package) certainly sounded nice, but it repeatedly disconnected from my portable hard drive at random moments. When the rear-view camera activated, it turned the music down, and then took a fair amount of time to turn the camera off.

Thermometers don't lie. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Automakers have deep-sixed the compact disc player (though the VW had one, oddly enough, in the glove compartment), but they haven’t perfected its replacement, the infotainment system. Playing music off the phone or an iPod would seem to be pretty basic, but I continue to have many, many glitches.

Subaru

The 2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid is the company’s very first plug-in hybrid, and I was able to run it almost entirely on electric power during its tenure with me. The range on electric—only 17 miles—isn’t great, but the upside of that is a small 8.8-kilowatt-hour battery that can be fully recharged on house current in five hours.

You don’t really need a dedicated 240-volt charger, but of course you have to wield the half-frozen power cord in sub-zero temperatures. But stopping for gas in upstate New York when the weather isn’t fit for man nor beast isn’t fun, either. And using both the 137-horsepower gas engine (a two-liter, four-cylinder horizontally opposed unit) and the electric motor gives the Crosstrek 480-mile range.

The Crosstrek plug-in hybrid is a technological tour de force that is ideal for winter driving. (Subaru photo)

The Crosstrek uses two motor-generators, one which works as a generator and starter motor, and the other that sends power to all four wheels (in hybrid or electric mode) and takes in energy through regenerative braking. Total system horsepower is 148, and it shifts through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

So here’s a car in the middle of our price range. The model sells for $34,995, but options (including a heated steering wheel!) and destination brought it up to $38,470. OK, I love heated steering wheels.

All Subarus offer all-wheel drive, so the Crosstrek was sure-footed on winter roads. Other useful features on the test car for seasonal use included active torque vectoring, adaptive cruise control and automatic pre-collision braking, lane departure, blind spot detection, pedestrian alert (for those short winter days), and high-beam assist.

Also included was our friend the tire pressure monitoring system. Winter driving tends to soften tires, and I’ve seen the display several times this year. Some of these units are idiotic, only telling you that a tire is low, without letting on which one. C’mon, the system knows which one it is, and even knows the actual pressure in each tire—why not give that information? The Subaru comes through with individual tire pressure display.

The buyer gets a lot with this car. It’s loaded to the gills for the price, and aside from navigation, a power moonroof and the aforementioned heated wheel it’s all standard. And with the on-board battery you get 35 mpg combined (with just the gas engine) and 90 MPGe with the plug-in hybrid operation.

It qualifies for high-occupancy lanes on snowy New York roads, another winter plus. The Subaru does a lot of things right for a price that, while not cheap, is affordable for many middle-class families. It’s a winter winner, and maybe a starter electric for some Americans.

Here are some useful winter driving tips from Consumer Reports:

 


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