Not all vehicles are created equal when it comes to winter driving. A car has to start, accelerate, handle and stop in a confidence-inspiring manner when faced with slick or slushy roadways. Vehicles equipped with all-wheel drive have a distinct advantage in this regard.


Click to enlarge pictureSubaru Outback in snow (© Subaru of America)

Subaru is probably the brand most associated with AWD in the U.S. In fact, it has been a standard feature on the brand's entire U.S. model line since 1996.

Basically, AWD is a full-time 4-wheel-drive system (all four wheels receive torque from the engine simultaneously) that employs a center differential that allows each tire to rotate at different speeds. This independent rotation eliminates problems associated with basic 4WD systems when driven on pavement, such as driveline binding and wheel hop. Note that AWD is not only useful in the rain and snow — it is also great on dry pavement as well, improving handling and stability.

Unfortunately, not all AWD systems are the same; some are more efficient and balanced. In truth, though, a good winter machine is designed to tackle inclement conditions from the onset, down to small details that make a big difference when snow, ice and bitter cold reign supreme.

Winter Driving in Their DNA
Some carmakers have, by necessity, developed great expertise in adapting their products for winter driving. It had to come naturally to Swedish brands Saab and Volvo, for instance, whose engineers developed cars in a climate where temperatures dip below freezing for much of the year, and where snow and ice are the rule, not the exception. It was by no means a simple matter of traction, since both automakers, now American-owned (Saab by GM and Volvo by Ford), came to all-wheel-drive quite recently.

Saab and Volvo took great care in equipping their cars with fast and powerful heating and defrosting systems, wipers that could take the abuse of minus-30-degree temperatures and even carpets that could contain and endure salty slush and all the filth that winter in the real world brings. Thankfully, the Swedes are by no means alone in making their vehicles truly winter-ready nowadays. Yet, some are better than their rivals in this respect.

The Cars
Here is an eclectic collection of automobiles, broken down by vehicle segment, that are particularly adept at handling winter.

Small Car: Subaru Impreza 2.5i 5-door

Click to enlarge picture2009 Subaru Impreza 2.5i (© Perry Stern)

2009 Subaru Impreza 2.5i

Nothing in this class can touch the Impreza in terms of roominess, stability, safety, practicality and sheer value. The standard engine is a rock-solid reliable and increasingly pleasant 2.5-liter 170-horsepower "boxer" four banger with a 5-speed manual gearbox. Subaru's signature Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system will get you through even the worst winter. The 5-door hatchback is our pick, but you can also get an Impreza sedan. And if you want more power, Subaru will gladly sell you a 2.5 GT or WRX with turbocharged versions of the same engines with respective outputs of 224 and 265 horsepower.

Honorable mentions: The Suzuki SX4 and the Pontiac Vibe AWD/Toyota Matrix S AWD duo also offer 4-wheel drive at a good price.

Midsize Sedan: Ford Fusion V6 SE AWD

Click to enlarge picture2009 Ford Fusion (© Ford Motor Company)

2009 Ford Fusion

The Fusion is one of the best-kept secrets among the throngs of midsize sedans on the road. Built on a solid platform shared with the previous-generation Mazda6, it has the distinct advantage of all-wheel drive over its distant cousin. Sharp, linear steering feel and a good driving position, combined with stable and balanced handling in all conditions, are dominant traits. The Fusion even has quadruple windshield washer nozzles for the nastiest bits. Power is delivered by an unremarkable 3.0-liter 221-horsepower V6 engine, thankfully redeemed by a good 6-speed automatic gearbox. Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings are 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

Honorable mentions: The Mercury Milan AWD is the Fusion's virtual twin, and the Subaru Legacy is a no-fuss midsize sedan with true all-wheel drive.

View Pictures:  Top 10 AWD Vehicles

Luxury Sedan: Acura RL

Acura's flagship luxury sedan has been anything but a hit in terms of sales, but it's quite the ticket for winter driving. Its trump card is an exceptional all-wheel-drive system that continuously shifts driving torque to the wheels, front to rear and side to side. The result is stability in even the nastiest cold-weather conditions. The RL is powered by a lively 3.7-liter 300-horsepower V6 engine coupled to a smooth-shifting 5-speed automatic gearbox. Performance is never a problem either, with a zero-to-60 mph time just under seven seconds.

Honorable mentions: Lexus GS 350 AWD and Volvo S80 T6 AWD

People Carrier: Toyota Sienna LE AWD

Click to enlarge pictureToyota Sienna (© Toyota Motor Company)

2009 Toyota Sienna

No vehicle can carry people as efficiently as a minivan, but in the snow they typically aren't so good. Thanks to an all-wheel-drive option, which is unique in this segment, the Sienna is an exception to the rule. The cabin can seat seven people comfortably with ample cargo space, and you can have lots more by flipping the third-row seats flush into the cargo-bay floor. The 3.5-liter 266-horsepower V6 engine and 5-speed automatic gearbox provide strong acceleration with a zero-to-60 mph clocking of less than eight seconds.

Honorable mentions: The Honda Pilot can carry up to eight passengers, and the new Ford Flex SEL AWD can move seven in true comfort and inimitable style.

In the market for a new car? Would the inclusion of AWD affect your purchase decision?

Modern Wagon: Subaru Outback

Click to enlarge picture2009 Subaru Outback (© Subaru of America)

2009 Subaru Outback

Raising the body of an already good wagon by a few inches for added ground clearance and adding some cladding and meatier tires for a rugged look was a stroke of genius, and Subaru's best move ever. More than a dozen years on, the Outback stands alone as the elegant, practical, comfortable, solidly built and reliable forebear of crossovers. The base model is powered by Subaru's ubiquitous 2.5-liter 170-horsepower boxer 4-cylinder engine with the added attraction of a PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) rating, second only to ZEV (pure electrics) as the most environmentally friendly. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard, and a 4-speed auto box is optional. And if you need or want more oomph or muscle, check out the 2.5 XT Limited's 243-horsepower turbocharged engine.

Honorable mentions: A couple of slick Swedes: Saab 9-3 SportCombi XWD and Volvo XC70