Before we go any further I want to clarify the difference between a winter car and a winter beater, and I think I can sum it up like this: you buy deluxe rubber floormats to protect the factory floormats for your winter car. You buy deluxe rubber floormats to cover the holes in the floor of your winter beater. Are you following me?
And yes, plenty of CTzens live in places where winter is still warm enough for shorts, and snow is usually a term reserved for illegal substances. Go ahead and make your witty comments about being warm; it’s just too bad none of you will ever know the silly fun of slow-motion drifting through a gigantic snow-covered parking lot, or keeping a handbrake turn going for an entire city block. Not that I’ve done such things. That would be wrong.
For the rest of you, the winter beater hunt is in full swing. You’re probably thinking about scoring a first-generation all-wheel drive Subaru Legacy, or perhaps an Audi. Let me stop you right there by saying that such vehicles, while great winter cars, are absolutely not my first choice for winter beaters. Why? As a general rule, anything falling into the beater category (and price range) that has all-wheel drive will either leave you stranded, or more broke than you were before buying the car due to constant repair bills. Yes, that’s personal experience talking—see the pic below.
Your winter driving needs will of course depend on just how nasty your winters get. Having honed my driving skills in the Michigan snowbelts, I’m used to pounding down un-ploughed roads covered with a foot or more of snow. That might sound like a job for something large and off-road-ish, and you’re not entirely wrong. However, those who’ve never experienced what a good, proper set of dedicated snow tyres can do would be very, very surprised just how far ‘ordinary’ cars can go. Again, personal experience.
So rather than list of a bunch of specific cars I’d choose for winter beaters, let me present three general classifications. None of them are of the car-based, full-time all-wheel drive category, for the reasons mentioned above. But all of them - provided you have some driving skill and stick with proper tyres—can be outstanding winter beaters.
Most of these cars aren’t glamorous by any means, but throw a set of snow tyres on the average mid-size front-wheel drive car and they will go side-by-side with all-wheel drive cars just about anywhere. They are generally comfortable, reliable, cheap to fix, and most offer a good combination of vehicle mass and ground clearance to chug through the really deep stuff.
They’re as boring as watching a ping pong ball get flushed down a toilet, but that’s what handbrakes are for. If your mission is to simply conquer everything winter can throw while having a car that should be an easy sale come spring, you can’t go wrong with a mainstream front-wheel drive car.
Older pickup trucks with mechanically-operated part-time four-wheel drive systems are very different from the car-based, electronic all-wheel drive systems most people know. That’s why these trucks are on the list, because their four-wheel drive systems are generally built stronger, aren’t as complex, and if something goes wrong, well you can still drive the damn thing in two-wheel drive.
If you often find yourself well off the beaten path, this is definitely the winter beater of choice. You get ground clearance, plenty of mass, and four-wheel drive when you need it. Plus, there always seems to be buyers for old beat up trucks. As long as it survives the winter, odds are someone will be looking to buy a work truck in the spring.
Here’s the beater of choice for those who need to attack winter’s worst, hate pickup trucks and believe steering is best controlled with your right foot. If it’s got two tonnes of heft, a proper set of tyres, and no front spoilers to catch the deep snow, big rear-wheel drive sedans can be the most fun you’ve ever had in the snow.
Whereas the mid-size front drivers are the safe and sensible choice, full-size rear drivers will take you just as far, only with a lot more opposite lock. Here in the States we have all kinds of options, from ex-cop cars like old Crown Victorias and Caprice sedans, to Buick Roadmasters, (my personal all-time favourite winter beater) old Cadillacs, Lincoln Town Cars, and they can all be bought dirt cheap.
Across the pond, go for old S-class Mercs and big BMWs. In skilled hands, it’s ridiculous just how capable these cars are in snow. In unskilled hands, well, size does help absorb impacts. And that’s all part of the winter beater experience.