Which is better for the frozen north: an SUV or a lower-riding car?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2010

Dear Tom and Ray:

I am a doctor living in an area that typically can get 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground at some point in the winter. Snow plows are not always out on the roads when I drive. For this reason, I need a four-wheel-drive vehicle; however, I don't know if SUVs, like the Honda CR-V or BMW X3 or X5, are superior in snow to lower-riding all-wheel-drive cars, like Audis or Subarus. Do I really need to be higher up in an SUV, or could I get through snowdrifts in a sedan? I get concerned about it because I have to be at the hospital no matter what the conditions are outside. This dictates what I drive, even if gas mileage is poor.

-- Claire

TOM: Well, there are two issues that determine how well you get around in the snow.

RAY: One is traction. And for traction, any all-wheel-drive vehicle -- car or SUV -- will keep you moving on snowy roads. If one wheel is slipping on snow or slush at any given moment, one or more of the other wheels always will have enough grip to pull you through.

TOM: The other issue is ground clearance. If you have, say, 2 feet of unplowed, drifting snow on the roads, and you're driving a Mazda Miata (or any car whose floor is close to the ground), the car can get "hung up" on a hardened mound of snow -- with its drive wheels unable to reach the ground. Granted, you'd have to be pretty unlucky to get hung up so that all four of your wheels were not touching the ground. But if you did, it wouldn't matter how many wheel drive you had -- you wouldn't go anywhere.

RAY: But that's not an issue for you. Six to 8 inches of snow is what those of us in the great frozen north call "a light dusting." So you should have no trouble at all getting by with an all-wheel-drive car -- some of which (like the Subaru Outback) have heightened ground clearance, too.

TOM: Cars generally are safer and more comfortable. They handle better, ride better and get better mileage. So, why suffer in an SUV all year if you really don't need one?

RAY: And besides, cars are easier to get in and out of. So you'll never have to suffer the embarrassment of stopping by the emergency room and asking a colleague to have a look at your SUV-induced groin pull.

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