By on September 28, 2010

Ryan writes:

This is Ryan in Chicago again . I am still driving an Acura 2004 TL with about 80k miles, but with winter on the way, I get the itch to switch to a more winter/city car. I used to park in a heated garage at home and work. Now I am relegated to the street parking all the time. Here are my thoughts: – the tl is going to really suffer with all the time in the cold and snow – I am planning on adding a nice sporty car ($40k) to the mix next spring – I always thought a solid cheap AWD vehicle for driving around (and parking) in the city like bronco, wrangler, outback would be great I look forward to your ideas.

Sajeev Answers:

First off, you don’t need AWD in any major city. Okay, a disclaimer:  when I lived in Detroit, there was a flash snowstorm that caught the city with their pants down, so to speak.  But if that happens to you, do yourself a solid and take a snow day: don’t bother going to work. Or anywhere else!  Be drivetrain blind: all you want is a truck-ish beater that’s inherently fun because it’s different than your other ride.  I get it, that’s one reason why Texans use trucks as regular transportation, even the filthy rich roll pickups/SUVs to not look terribly ostentatious on a daily basis.

So make a budget and find the most interesting SUV that’ll fit the bill.  It’s okay to have fun, but be realistic: the best cheap beaters are 15-ish year old Explorers, Blazers, Pathfinders and other mainstream SUVs (i.e. no Isuzus, KIAs, Subies, etc) that don’t command the insane asking prices of the Toyota 4Runner. I’d go for screwball obscurity, with mainstream value: an Oldsmobile Bravada or Mercury Mountaineer.

Steve Answers:

Where do we get these questions?  (From my Inbox – SM) Ryan, this is no longer the 1970’s.

The rusted out car has gone the way of vinyl roofs and ‘cassette’ premium sound systems. Today’s cars can easily withstand the worst of what the cold and salt can whip up. As for Chicago destroying your beloved TL… even my brother’s 1984 rust-prone Supra lasted for 13 years out there. Your vehicle will easily last well past the point of your interest in the vehicle.

The issue you have isn’t rust. It’s trust. As in, how can any sane soul make it through all those crappy winters? What you need to do is get out of Chicago. It sucks out there in the dead of winter. Even worse than New Jersey on a good day. Go find a cheap flight to somewhere that offers good beer and great waves. Learn how to surf. Find a babe that digs your overspending prowess, and spring for a set of good winter tires.

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52 Comments on “New or Used: The Last Temptation of Four-Wheel Drive...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan
    There’s your car.  I was going to make a smart remark about that was one way to get rid of the HT4100 but given that it’s a 1980 model they actually got rid of the V8-6-4 big block.  (Which given the choice I’d rather have the V8-6-4 over the HT4100.)

  • avatar

    Real winters definitely will still cause rust issues over the long term, but rustproofing annually is well worth the $60-$100 it costs. Also: correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always been under the impression that leaving the car parked outside if it’s regularly driven in the winter is actually better for it, at least in the body rust department. Frozen water and snow don’t chemically react nearly as much as room-temperature salt water does.

  • avatar

    If the TL is going to rust, then so is the $40k sporty car you’re looking to buy.  As someone who used to park on Boston city streets, if you consume two spots, you become fair target for local assignation.  You also don’t want to park some big truck on the street.  Snow piles will consume more spots and make those available smaller.  While a TL will be just fine with FWD and all seasons in a plowed, urban environment, you seem to want to ditch it.  Just buy a BMW 328xi or Audi A4 now and be done with it.  Small, quick, sporty cars with AWD that you can easily park on the street in smaller spots.  If you’re worried about ground clearance, make it an Acura RDX or X3 instead.

  • avatar

    A bronco (what good is 4×4 when it won’t start), a wrangler (yeah you’ll move but you’ll be frozen solid by the time you arrive), or an outback (given it’s had it’s head gasket replaced you’ll have paid too much for a popular AWD car just before winter) are not what I suggest.

    I’m thinking: cheap, small, AWD, for a 2nd car and that sounds like an Suzuki SX4 to me.
    Remember, smaller car = smaller amount of snow to shovel to get your car out.  Granted in a city they may plow well but there isn’t anywhere for the snow to go but up onto your car.  Plus you can pick one of this up new or a year old and still under warranty.  As a 2nd car and to me the choice is a no brainer.

  • avatar

    This ties in nicely to the winter tire article.  It is cheaper, in the long run, to buy a two wheel drive car and fit it with winter tires, then it is to drag around a gas robbing 4WD.
    For example, a car like the TL will average about 27mpg…using 450 gallons of gas in a typical 12K driving year.  A 4WD SUV or CUV will do closer to 20mpg…less if you go for a “real” truck.  At 20mpg it will use 150 gallons more gas in the 12K driving year, or about $400 dollars.  That is the price of a set of snow tires…add another $400 and get dedicated rims.  In two seasons you will have paid for the tires…the next two seasons you can pocket the $800, then buy another set of snows for the 5th season and so forth.

    • 0 avatar

      Not to mention that AWD doesn’t get you what snow tires do. Snow tires aren’t just for moving forward – and AWD won’t do a damn for you when you’re trying to stop the car. Snow tires are about grip. AWD might help marginally in cornering and braking with better diffs and electronic control, but not anywhere near as much as snow tires.

    • 0 avatar

      A buddy I used to work with loved to say, “4 wheel drive, twice the giddy-up, no more woe.”

  • avatar

    Find a GEO tracker or Suzuki Samurai throw some big aggressive tires on it and drive it like a hockey puck.  Nice and short for your parking needs

    • 0 avatar

      That was going to be my suggestion. They’re dirt cheap too!

    • 0 avatar

      Suzuki X-90.  It is the only way.

    • 0 avatar

      Good luck even finding an X-90.  Better find it before I do!  Quirky, fun little car that is!

      By the way, we are definitely not beyond the age of rusting vehicles up here in the salt belt.  Just this year GM initiated a recall for early ’00’s C/K pickup brake line rust and Toyota initiated a recall for same-years rear frame cross members falling apart and dropping the spare tire onto the road.  There is still much rust to go around.  It’s just more craftily attacking under-carriages instead of body panels so you don’t THINK it’s actually there! 

  • avatar

    Has anyone bought a car recommended in one of these articles?

  • avatar

    I know Sajeev said no Isuzus and we are interested in guarding from rust. So, let’s break two rules at once. I recommend an Isuzu Trooper gen 1. This way you can flip the bird to the rust gods and drive an uber cool proto SUV at the same time. That is, if you can find one that hasn’t rusted to the ground yet.

  • avatar

    I grew up and learned to drive in New England winters. I’ve driven a ’62 LeSabre, a ’62 Mercedes 220, a ’63 Rambler Classic, a ’65 Impala, a ’68 Mercury Montego, and a 71 Chrysler Newport.  They’re all RWD and I’ve never gotten stuck in snow. Listen to Sajeev – the only time you could get stuck is when you should stay home. If the buses aren’t on the road, you shouldn’t be either.

  • avatar

    40K? Buy 30K worth of precious metals and install in a safe place. Buy 10K worth of Exploder and install yourself in the driver’s seat the two days a year you have a snow storm that causes you to really need four wheel drive. Drive your TL otherwise.

  • avatar

    Having 4WD is like having a gun. You don’t need it often, but when you do, there is no substitute. It makes getting out of icy intersections, or poorly plowed parking spaces so much easier. My BMW with summer rubber is like a turtle on it’s back in the winter. I have literally gotten stuck on just a few flakes of snow.  I just put it in the garage for the winter and use the 4WD. Winter tires on a rear wheel drive vehicle will get you around, but it’s not the same as AWD. I worked at a few of the steel mills on the south side of Chicago in the 70’s, and I have to say I have never experienced cold and wind like that in my life since. Makes the east coast winters seem like a joke. 

    • 0 avatar

      BMWfan said, “Winter tires on a rear wheel drive vehicle will get you around, but it’s not the same as AWD.”
      You are right, winter tires, on a rear wheel drive is not the same as all seasons on an SUV.  It is better.  I see dozens of SUV’s off the road everytime it’s slippery.  I drive right by them with my RWD Genesis on Michelin XIce snows.

    • 0 avatar

      My 325iT  with DSC, traction control and Blizzaks is a tank in the snow and amazingly sure-footed at speed on slick surfaces. I would say better than my ’91 325iX was and they were legendary. AWD is nice for a bit of start line traction or nasty hill starts but not much else when you have the above systems.  the real key is proper snow tires for RWD to be acceptable.

  • avatar

    I agree with Sajeev – you do not need AWD.  I’d take winter tires on a two wheel drive car over all seasons on an AWD car any day.  I do have some experience with sporty cars in winter driving (northern Minnesota) with and without winter tires, so I’ll share some of my experience.  Keep in mind, though, that I have a preference for small, sporty cars (I abhor SUVs, to tell you the truth) and I’m single so luggage and passenger space aren’t as important to me.  And perhaps your definition of “sporty” is different than mine – to me it always refers to handling and driving dynamics.
    First off, I’ve had better luck with front wheel drive than rear.  Though, the difference isn’t as extreme as you might think.  It’s amazing how much snow my Boxster can get through (and it’s fantastic on the ice), though it helps that while it’s rear wheel drive, its engine is in the correct place (i.e. mid rear).
    My best winter vehicle so far has been my Honda Fit, though I think that can be attributed to the Blizzaks fitted to it.  Blizzaks are awesome snow tires and allow you to go through pretty much any snow/ice combination, but they are a bit “squishy” when going around corners for sporty driving (on dry pavement – which you probably still see a lot of in winter).  I prefer Dunlop’s performance winter tires for more lateral stability and would put them on the Fit if it really was sporty (it’s not bad, but definitely not a sports car).  I also drove a MINI Cooper S for one winter.  It was great fun, but I never did get around to putting winter tires on it, so I couldn’t experience it’s full potential that winter.  It did the best I’ve ever seen for a car on all season tires.  Still ran rings around the lumbering SUVs around here.
    If I were to get a sporty car for winter (that was still fun in the summer) and didn’t need too much cargo space, I’d go with another MINI Cooper S (maybe a Clubman if you needed a bit more space).  Than I’d get a set of steel wheels and performance winter tires for winter from TireRack.  In fact, I would have gone down this route instead of the Fit if I wasn’t building a house and cash strapped at the time (and still).

  • avatar

    You really don’t need AWD in Chicago.  You need snow tires to get out of parking spots and a shovel in the trunk in case a plow boxes you in.  Trust me, I’ve lived here my entire life & been driving for almost 20 years.
    @Steve>  I wouldn’t give up a real winter for the world.  I love driving in snow….

    • 0 avatar

      Truly, Ryan. Chicago is the city that fired Mayor Bilandic and hired Jane Byrne because Bilandic didn’t get the streets plowed, and every mayor since then in the entire Chicago Metro area learned that before you worry about anything else, you get the streets plowed! You really don’t need anything more than FWD to get around on for all but the 2-3 days a year that the snow is falling faster than the plows can move it, and you shouldn’t be out there driving in that anyway. It’s time to admit to yourself that you just want a manly truck to play with. Either that or pay a few bucks a month over the winter to park off-street, but avoid heated parking; streets get clear thru the liberal application of salt that will speed up corrosion in warm spaces. You can probably even offset some of the parking fee by telling your insurance that the car is garage kept.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick T.

      As Robstar says, you really don’t need AWD once you get OUT of the parking space. Sure, the streets get plowed but the problem is the foot or more build up that (re)freezes solid after the plows come through. Getting over the build up with only a foot of space at either end of the car takes some practice.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I’m with you, Robstar…I love winter as much as summer.  I do miss the scantily clad women, though…

  • avatar

    “The tl is going to really suffer with all the time in the cold and snow”
    I don’t see anything wrong with the TL. If the TL gets stuck in the road due to snow or low temperature, there would have already been thousands of cars stranded before you leave your own garage.
    If you have trouble moving around in a far better than average car, then the problem is with you. Call a taxi during the cold day. That’s a cheaper and safer option for you.

  • avatar
    GS 455

    I used to do the winter beater thing in the past but never again. Why have a nice car and not drive it for 3-4 months of the year? Why keep it nice for the next owner? Trade in the Acura on a BMW 335Xi, get a set of winter tires, and drive it into the ground.

  • avatar


    “I see dozens of SUV’s off the road everytime it’s slippery”

    That’s because they don’t know how to drive, and overestimate the abilities of 4WD. People seem to forget that 4WD does not stop any better than any other car, and cannot overcome the stupidity of the driver.

    • 0 avatar
      GS 455

      You are so right! SUVs ending up in the ditch has nothing to do with AWD. It is because of a lack of winter driving skills period!

    • 0 avatar

      So you’re saying that those in SUVs driving 75 mph during an ice/snow storm and harassing all of the people in small cars aren’t being smart?

      I see this way too often in MN. Our roads are pretty good for the most part, but, when they get bad, they get bad fast. Last January I was driving and was attempting to change lanes. I was trying to stay far back from the guy in front of me, but he hit his brakes and then I hit mine. At the same time I hit black ice and plowed into a cable guard. It sucked. I told my friend about this accident and he said I’m not “one with my car,” whatever that means. Meanwhile he did the same thing on black ice. I was attempting to drive sensibly in my Accord. Back to the point, I saw a couple SUVs in the same month the flipped themselves over relying too much on AWD to compensate for ice (on which you wouldn’t have much traction to begin with) and harassing other people. It’s as if many who drive SUVs check their brains at the door.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    If you really think you need an AWD vehicle for occasional snow storms, forgo the 4×4/SUV and get yourself a Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe AWD.  You should be able to find a private-party sale of a mid-00’s for around $8500;  totally reliable (Corolla underpinnings) and easy to maintain (couple of oil changes a year, a new air filter every other, perhaps a transmission drain & fill every other oil change…that’s really about it).  The 1.8l engine will give you 24/30 and the timing chain eliminates one expensive maintenance point.  The wagon-esque body style gives you a fair amount of storage (especially w/the rear seats down) and, in the case of the Vibe, you get factory roof racks.  If full winter weather paranoia sets in, get on TireRack and pick up some steelies & dedicated snow tires for another $600.

    Now sure, an A/T AWD w/108hp isn’t anything near “sporty,” but then you’ve got that $40K to piss away on something else.  Just make sure you budget in some $$$ for garage parking, as you don’t want influential people to see you driving a sub-$10K car.

  • avatar

    I live up in the mountains near Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire and used to plow for a local large business with multiple properties. To get to the plow truck, I didn’t use four wheel drive. I used a Mazda3 with four snow tires. I’d regularly leave before the state trucks were on the road. That little front drive fourbanger can go through at least six inches of snow no problem. I even passed Subarus with it. Before that I had a Corsica with all seasons. Light flexy body with a heavy 3.1 under the hood. Great traction. It could plow snow with its air dam. The only time I ever got stuck was on someones unplowed steep curvy eighth mile driveway which had a coating of ice under the snow. I see no need for you to have an all wheel drive vehicle. If you must, buy a midsize GM from the 90’s (Corsica, Grand Am, Skylark) put some snows on it, and keep a scoop shovel in the back just in case.

  • avatar

    1. Special Edition versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee “ZJ” (Orvis, Grand Wagoneer, TSi, 5.9L Limited)
    2. Isuzu Vehicross (seems like I’m always recommending this one)
    3. Suzuki Sx4 AWD
    4. Subaru Forester XT
    5. Dodge Durango R/T

  • avatar
    M 1

    I’m kind of surprised the article didn’t bother to explain to that guy how and why 4WD in something like a Bronco or Wrangler is absolutely nothing like AWD in something like an Outback.
    Leave a real 4WD engaged and you’d better have your transmission shop on speed-dial. And have the junkyard set aside promising-looking diffs as a good measure. Even the supposed “automatic” part-time 4WD modes on a lot of newer SUVs are just asking for trouble.

  • avatar

    I’m familiar with the capabilities of a TL with top-shelf snows. Conditions that require more traction than these provide, with rare and extremely fleeting exceptions, don’t exist in Chicago.

    Snow tires are essentially free, as besides the obvious traction and confidence benefits they extend the life of your summer set of tires. You’re in for the cost of a set of steel takeoff wheels.  If you really want a truck, that’s another thing. But you really can’t justify it on a cost or traction basis.

    I wonder how many people who advocate AWD have actually driven on Blizzaks in the conditions for which they were designed. For most, experiencing traction on ice is fairly revelatory.

  • avatar

    In the Great Seattle Snow F*CK UP of the early 90’s (91? or 92?) I drove my girlfriend (at the time), all over hell and gone in my 89 Subaru 4WD XT. Drove into Larry’s Market, got out and looked at my tread mark and I couldn’t see any marks at all, like slicks. I then looked at the tires and thought, oh shit, that’s right, they’ve 55K on them. That Subie was a snow driving SOB, best snow car I’ve ever ever ever had. Lasted to 250K, then sold. To bad you can’t find them anymore. With studed traction tires, might as well been a tractor. Hilarious good fun.

  • avatar

    Find an old XJ Cherokee with a 4.0L I-6 and an AW4 automatic. Indestructable drivetrain easily good for 200-300K. Older (1987-1995) Cherokees can be had fairly cheap.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 On that.  An ’89 Cherokee was my winter vehicle for a while when I had my Camaro and that thing was a tank!  Did a whole lot of stream crossing and mudding as well and never left me anywhere! 

      I believe 1988 saw the addition of the 20 gallon fuel tank and this is a very nice option because at best these things only returned about 15 or 16 mpg around town, especially after a few hundred thousand miles. 

      1989 had a MISERABLE ABS system that I was lucky enough to have on my vehicle.  For the love of god avoid this option at all costs!  IIRC, 1992, 1993 were the more saught-after years but I’d shop all the way up to 1999.  That was the last year for distributor.

  • avatar

    Give an Acura RL a look.  They cost the $40k new (with heavy markdowns, but they aren’t uncommon), but you can get deals on used ones from 2005-2008.  The SH-AWD is awesome (really as good as anything out there), and it’s surprisingly fun to drive.  It’s not the sexiest car, but it’s not a dog, and if you go the used route, you won’t cry too much if it gets dinged a bit in the winter.  Two winters down with summer tires (bad idea btw), and I’ve never ran off the road, got stuck, or otherwise couldn’t get where I needed to go.

  • avatar

    If any topic was made for me to handle, its this one.  I live in the snow belt here of New York over by Syracuse, so, yea, I know winter driving.  FWD and I do fine with all seasons.  In my old job, driving those econolines with just winters in the back was a bear, but I did it for three years, even up through Tug hill where seven feet in a lake effect storm is not all that uncommon.  All you need a tires with good tread, FWD and lots of common sense.  FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE, UNLESS YOU HAVE STUDDED SNOW TIRES YOU ARE GOING NOWHERE ON ICE EXPECT ANYWHERE YOU DON”T WANT TO.  EVEN THEN, DRIVE SLOW, there is this magical thing called inertia; its a real bitch when you are trying to slow down in snow and ice.  Listen to Sajeev, its the golden rule for driving these parts, if it sucks that bad, don’t go out in the first place.  Its not you who is the problem, ITS ALWAYS THEM IN THEIR, “DRIVING TOO FAST FOR CONDITIONS,” SUV, CUV, truck, car, go cart, unicyle, etc.

  • avatar

    The Montero Sport is a good durable truck from what I’ve seen/driven. My parents and in laws own one.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    You’ll love this video then…

    One of my favorites.

  • avatar

    Later Isuzu Rodeos rodeo sport with the 3.2  – The 3.2 motor was prone to drink oil and plenty died early because owners neglected to pop the hood every once and awhile but the they are pretty decent for chump change. Not sure about the later models with the 3.5. Brakes sucked out of the factory but a little touch up on the rotors fixed it.
    Suzuki VitaraXL7’s – Competent at cheap prices.
    Subbies anything – Make sure its a base model. Stay away from used Subbie Turbos and sixes.
    First generation Honda CRV or Rav4 – Get it with a 5spd
    Jeep anything – Spend no more than 2K and make sure it has the old inline 6. Set asided money for repairs.
    Ford – Unless its a full size Bronco or Ranger 3.0 vulcan…skip em.
    Mitsubishi – Something about the word “used” before Mitsubishi opens up a can of trouble.

    • 0 avatar

      I would disagree with your recommendation about disregarding Subaru’s sixes. By far and wide the best engines they ever made. Slightly worse in Gen 2 (00-04), and just plain magnifico in Gen 3 (04-09). Totally problem-free from the start, no timing belt or head gasket worries,..
      The only weak point (for some, myself included) is that they have never been available with 5MT on this side of the pond. But a manumatic mode of its 5EAT makes it tolerable.
      I would normally have a car for 6-8 months before I either get bored with it or decide to move on something new. This 3.0R Outwagon has been in my household for 1.5 years now and I quite honestly do not see any worthy substitute to it. A new Grand Cherokee in a year or two… May be…
      Turbos are actually not too bad – provided they are not modded into oblivion, and reasonable care have been taken (synt oil only, warm up and cool down idle) of them.

  • avatar

    I’d suggest:
    Spend bare minimum, but not too little: all you save initially, you’ll add later in repairs – possibly more. Go for the most basic spec. Make sure 4WD works as design intended.
    4.0 Cherokee XJ or Grand Cherokee ZJ Laredo with a full-time NV242 (Select-Trac) transfer case. Avoid Limiteds, cloth seats are way nicer – when the bum heater goes south.
    WJ with a 4.7V8 are not bad too – and withstand lots of abuse. Being as economical as the old 4 liter mill.
    For sheer stupid fun, a 2 door Tahoe of the late 90’s – short enough not to be too cumbersome in the city, indestructable – if chosen carefully. Watch for underbody, fuel lines and wiring rust.  V8 rumble, you will not care if some idiot in a civic behind you miscalculates the braking distance. Or if you do the same – to a poor soul in a civic.
    Ford Escape with a 3 liter. Cheaper than CR-Vs and RAV4s, same or better performance. Comparable reliability.
    Any Subaru 00-09 – but make sure there are no external leaks on the H-4 engine (Head Gasket) and timing chain does not rattle on 00-04 H-6.
    SAAB 9-2X – same Impreza but with a cute snout.
    And the cheapest option – install a set of good proper winter tires on a current TL.

  • avatar

    So you can afford a 40k car, but you have no interest in finding your own garage to park it in? Seriously?  My 93 integra gets garage parking.

  • avatar

    I recommend the Mitsubishi Montero, far better than a Ford Explorer. Why spend 40K for a sports car when you can get a used Miata for less than 15K?

    I lived in Chicago in the 80’s. My 84 Honda CRX would go anywhere in the snow.

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