Best Cars and SUVs for Snow: Features You Need

By Russ Heaps 10/20/2023 3:00pm

Best cars in snow

What makes the best cars for snow really the best? It’s more than one thing. Consider these key features when driving in snow and other wintery conditions.

To qualify for our picks, vehicles need to boast an effective drivetrain — the array of components from the transmission to the tires. Look for safety and driver-assist technologies, such as rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot monitoring, and so forth. Then, consider comfort or convenience features, such as heated seats and headlight washers, that can make driving a lot easier in snowy weather. Use our jump-ahead links below to get to the section you need.

Getting To Know the Best Vehicles in Snow

If a vehicle boasts the appropriate combination of our preferred elements, even an inexperienced driver can get by when driving in snow. However, at the same time, the right combination of features can make even an experienced Snowbelt driver safer and more competent. This is true whether it’s a sedan, an SUV, or a pickup truck.

RELATED ARTICLE: 20 Tips for Safe Winter Driving

The driver is the key factor when driving on snow or ice. The less experience a driver has with snow- or ice-covered roads, the more important the components, technologies, and systems designed to aid the driver in foul weather.

We weighed these factors when making our picks for the best cars and SUVs in the snow. And this year, our top overall pick is the Subaru Outback. Read on to see why this SUV is the best overall pick.

AWD and 4WD for snow driving

Which Is Better: AWD or 4WD?

Any discussion of the best cars for snow must begin with the drivetrain. There are pros and cons for front-wheel-drive (FWD) and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) systems when driving in snowy or icy conditions. However, we are going to pass over 2-wheel-drive (2WD) drivetrains because an inexperienced snow driver will be as likely to get into trouble with either 2WD system. Consequently, we turn the discussion to all-wheel drive (AWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD).

What Is AWD?

Many people use the terms AWD and 4WD interchangeably. However, these are different systems. All-wheel drive functions with little or no driver input. Most AWD vehicles typically operate as FWD (Honda CR-V) or RWD (Dodge Charger) until conditions demand action from the passive axle.

On dry pavement, the engine sends all its torque to one axle. For front-wheel-drive cars, power (or torque) goes to the front wheels. With rear-wheel-drive cars, power goes to the rear wheels.

Part-Time AWD

The most common type of AWD system, the moment part-time AWD senses one or both primary drive wheels slipping, it automatically transfers a percentage of the engine torque to the other axle and its two wheels. You might see a phrase like “on-demand” or “part-time” all-wheel drive referring to this system.

If it’s an on-demand system, it’s set up to work most of the time in 2WD to increase fuel efficiency. This type of system is the most fuel-efficient choice. The fuel-economy penalty with on-demand AWD can be as little as 1-2 mpg.

Full-Time AWD

Some systems referred to as full-time AWD always send a percentage of torque to all four wheels. These systems also automatically adjust torque as needed but are often less fuel-efficient than on-demand systems. Subaru uses full-time AWD for most of its vehicles. Fortunately, the fuel-economy penalty is minimal with Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD system.

With on-demand or full-time AWD, when wheel slippage occurs and causes a need for additional traction, the system sends more power to the wheels with more grip. So, if you’re driving on an icy patch and one tire can’t get traction, the AWD system will respond, quickly sending power to the other wheels with more grip.

Most AWD systems are electronically controlled and can respond to changing road conditions before a wheel begins to spin. This happens in less than a blink of an eye, usually without the driver’s awareness. Although much more happens here to maximize traction and maintain control, that’s the gist of it.

What Is 4WD?

In the majority of inclement weather situations, including ice and snow, most people find AWD adequately robust. However, if you often drive on extremely slippery roads or require a vehicle with better off-road capability than AWD offers, you can look into vehicles with 4WD.

Four-wheel drive still sends power to all four wheels, but it creates a lock between the front and rear axles, keeping the axle speeds the same. This reduces wheel spin when traction is low — such as gravel and deep snow — but prevents your vehicle from being able to corner as well as when it’s in 2WD. All-wheel drive does not have that issue.

Although there are some other 4WD systems out there, the one you will find most often is part-time 4WD. Moreover, you will typically find part-time 4WD on vehicles that default to RWD.

4WD High Range

When conditions dictate you — the driver — need extra traction, a lever, dial, or button easily engages 4-Hi, also known as high range. This is the best setting for snowy conditions and when negotiating trails considered easy or moderate. Using high range gives you more traction off-road than AWD. In most modern 4WD vehicles, you can switch from 2-Hi to 4-Hi without stopping. There are even 4WD vehicles that will automatically go from 2-Hi to 4-Hi for you.

However, there are a few drawbacks. Experts do not recommend high range for normal on-road use. If you forget to switch the system back to 2WD (or 2-Hi) when road conditions improve, you risk damaging your vehicle after long stretches. Furthermore, this system’s added weight reduces fuel economy.

4WD Low Range

When trail conditions become even more challenging, or you encounter extremely deep snow, you can choose 4-Lo or low range. This feature is strictly for low speeds. In addition to putting power to all four wheels, this setting also uses a low-gear ratio. Low range arms your truck or SUV with the maximum torque at every wheel; consequently, it can crawl over an obstacle.

Engaging low range requires stopping the vehicle and manually shifting into or selecting it. And once you’ve conquered the rough stuff, you’ll need to stop and manually shift out of 4-Lo. Low range isn’t necessary for most ice and snow situations; however, there may be extreme weather conditions when it would be helpful.

Which Should You Choose: AWD or 4WD?

You can choose AWD or 4WD, depending on your needs. However, we recommend AWD as the better answer for most people faced with ice and snow situations because it automatically and seamlessly adjusts to changing road conditions. It’s specifically engineered to function in normal snowy and icy situations. Furthermore, its effect on fuel economy is less than 4WD.

What Are the Top Safety Features for Driving in Snow?

Blind-Spot Monitoring

You can say goodbye to the days when the top safety feature for the best car in the snow was a trunk large enough to hold a bag of salt and a shovel. Today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs offer a wide array of safety and driver-assist features. Many of these aid snow driving while lowering stress.

Since 2013, government mandates required features like traction control, stability control, and anti-lock brakes to be standard on every passenger vehicle. The lion’s share of newer technologies is available on a wide range of new cars and SUVs. Some may even save you a few bucks on your car insurance.

We compiled a list of features contributing to better control and safety in snowy or icy conditions. Additionally, we threw in a few winter comfort/convenience features as well. Our picks for best snow sedans and snow SUVs offer some or most of them.

The List of Top Safety Features for Cars in Snow

  • Adaptive headlights: Headlights that adapt can come in a couple of forms. One actually rotates the headlights to light the area in the direction in which the steering wheel gets turned. The other uses cornering lights mounted more to the side of the headlights. They illuminate the appropriate direction when you turn the steering wheel to the left or right — a great feature for any car driving in snow.
  • Anti-lock brakes and stability control: These work hand in hand to help a vehicle maintain the intended course. It detects when a vehicle veers from the line, applying the brake to whichever wheel or wheels will help bring the vehicle under control, returning it to its intended course.
  • Automatic high beams: By default, auto high beams switch on whenever the headlights come on. A sensor detects the lights of nearby vehicles, switching off the high beams when it detects headlights or taillights.
  • Automatic temperature control: We included this on the snow-features list purely for its convenience. A set-it-and-forget-it bit of technology that means one less thing to fret over as you concentrate on your snow driving.
  • Blind-spot monitoring: Driving in snow is tricky business. Blind-spot sensors detect vehicles on your flanks you may not be able to see in your mirrors. This can keep you from swerving into an already occupied lane, including when driving in snow. One of the surest ways to lose control on a slippery road is to make a sudden steering adjustment to avoid a vehicle in the next lane. Another way to create havoc on a slippery road is stomping on the brakes, which that neighboring vehicle will surely do if you attempt to share its lane.
  • Forward collision warning and emergency braking: This technology uses a combination of cameras, sensors, and lasers to detect hazards, including stopped vehicles on the road. It employs the anti-lock braking system to stop the car. More advanced systems can also detect pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Ground clearance: This is the distance between the pavement and your vehicle’s undercarriage. More ground clearance is an advantage because you are less likely to plow the snow. More clearance also helps avoid hitting unseen hazards on a snow-covered road.
  • Headlight washers and wipers: These wipers and washers clear car headlights of snow and road salt, delivering better illumination.
  • Head-up display: A head-up display projects speed and other assorted images on the vehicle windshield or a panel just beneath the driver’s line of sight. Although it’s an information tool, it’s equally a safety feature, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road in wintery weather.
  • Heated mirrors: A feature that melts fog, ice, and snow for a clearer image before driving a car in the snow.
  • Heated seats and a heated steering wheel: They won’t save your life but will make life in freezing weather much more comfortable. Many vehicles even offer heated rear seats.
  • Heated windshield and wipers: Neither of these is common, but both will save you time and energy when snow falls or ice forms.
  • LED headlights and taillights: These provide brighter illumination than standard halogen ones. You can see farther ahead, and traffic behind you can see your taillights sooner.
  • Rain-sensing wipers: The wipers automatically engage when the system detects moisture, including snow, on the windshield.
  • Rear cross-traffic alert: This feature warns of approaching traffic from either side when you back up. Most parking lot fender benders occur when one car backs into an approaching vehicle or into its path. On slippery pavement, coming to a stop gets even more difficult, and this feature provides an advanced warning.
  • Remote start: Starting your vehicle remotely won’t help in your efforts to drive in snowy or icy conditions. But getting the engine running, the heater working, and the windshield defroster going before entering your car makes for a more comfortable snow-driving experience.
  • Snow tires: Car tires geared for driving in snow can save your life, including when driving on ice. If you are buying a new vehicle for winter driving, typically, the bottom line may not include them. The materials composing the tire and the tread pattern can tremendously affect a tire’s resistance to sliding. Tires generally are the most important component on your vehicle, whether on dry or slippery pavement.

RELATED: Car Tires Guide: Everything You Need to Know

How To Interpret Crash Test Scores

Although we didn’t base our picks for the best snow cars on crash test results, we did include the test results from the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Traffic Safety (IIHS). Here’s what you need to know.


NHTSA reports on three tests, scoring each using a system of stars. The best score is 5 stars, and the worst is 1 star. NHTSA scores each test individually and then also issues an overall score. The NHTSA tests:

  • Frontal crash
  • Side crash
  • Rollover crash


The IIHS currently reports on four main crash tests on cars, light trucks, minivans, and SUVs.

  • Small overlap front: driver-side
  • Small overlap front: passenger-side
  • Moderate overlap front: updated test
  • Side: updated test

The side-test protocol includes both the right and left sides; consequently, the side protocol could technically be called two tests for a total of five. However, the IIHS lumps the side tests into a single result for scoring purposes.

The IIHS scoring on each crash test is Good, Acceptable, Marginal, and Poor in descending order.

TIP: IIHS changed its side crash-test protocol in 2021, specifying a heavier ram. Although the results of this new version of the test were shown in some vehicles’ results in the past couple of years, 2023 is the first year the IIHS figured those results into a vehicle’s scoring. Moreover, the “Moderate overlap front: updated test” also just became part of the scoring protocol in 2023. Before this year, the IIHS performed six or more tests, the scores of which may still appear on a specific vehicle’s test results page. Going forward, the IIHS will only score the four tests listed above. 

Beyond the crash tests, the IIHS evaluates headlights and vehicle-to-pedestrian front crash protection. Here, the scoring is Superior, Advanced, and Basic. Moreover, the LATCH child-seat anchors are also assessed.

Rather than reproducing all of the crash test data here, we’re condensing it to a simple ratio of Good/All Tests. So, if a car got five Good results and one Acceptable, it would receive a 5/6 result — 5 Good/6 Total Tests.

Models getting the highest marks in both the crash tests and the other evaluations earn the IIHS highest safety awards of Top Safety Pick (TSP) and Top Safety Pick+ (TSP+). We won’t include the numerical ratios on these top finishers.

All IIHS testing reflects 2023 models unless otherwise specified.