As I pulled out of the rental-car parking lot at Denver International Airport, the employee checking my paperwork bid me farewell with a "Good luck." Maybe it was an offhand comment. Or, maybe she knew what lay ahead.
In retrospect, the 2011 rear-wheel drive Dodge Charger was probably not the best choice to drive through the mountains of Colorado in the middle of winter. But the sky was clear. The roads were dry. Transitioning from the airplane to the ski trip, I just didn't give the car much thought.
That was a mistake. The trip up Interstate 70 west through the foothills, through the Eisenhower Tunnel and toward the fabled ski resorts in the center of the state was uneventful. Three days later, the return trip started that way too. But as I climbed toward Vail Pass, the snow started falling. Cars started spinning.
What followed was a textbook case of what not to do. Instead of pulling off at the nearest exit, I steadied my nerves and completed an exercise in abject stupidity. I settled in for a white-knuckle ride across a highway blanketed with snow.
Making the smallest of adjustments in speed and direction, I somehow made it back to the airport, passing what seemed like one accident for every mile of icy highway en route. Remarkably, the Charger delivered me safely. I survived, though a decade older.
If I had a chance to do it over again, I'd just take the shuttle. But forced to drive a non-SUV into a wintry mix of road and mountain, here's a look at cars that I'd seek out in the rental-car lot.
Toyota Matrix AWD
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg City, 26 mpg Highway
The death of the Pontiac brand three years ago meant the death of a beloved grocery-getter, the Pontiac Vibe. Although unheralded, the all-wheel drive version of the Vibe made for a viable slush warrior. Never fear, the durable hatchback lives on in its mechanical twin, the Toyota Matrix.
The all-wheel drive version of the '13 Matrix isn't as fuel-efficient as its base iteration, but that's to be expected. And it's a worthwhile tradeoff, if global warming hasn't yet turned your icy winters into inoffensive puddles.
Standard safety features on the Matrix include vehicle stability control with integrated traction control and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
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2005 Chevrolet Colorado 4wd
MSRP (2005): $18,595
Private Party Listing: $4,800 - $6,000
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 23 mpg Highway
Another mechanical twin for our list: The Chevrolet Colorado is, for all intents and purposes, the same car as the GMC Canyon.
In the snow, two-wheel-drive pickups leave much to be desired. So I recommend the 4x4 trim on the Colorado, which provides more cab space than Chevy's old S10 pickups and the mettle you'll need to drive it over wintry terrain.
The Colorado is rated to tow 4,000 pounds, which should give owners enough muscle to tow ATVs, dirt bikes or snowmobiles.
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Fuel Economy: 22 mpg City, 32 mpg Highway
So you're looking for style along with substance for your winter ride? There's probably no car that fuses the two together better in hostile driving conditions than the A4 all-wheel-drive Quattro.
The turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 211 horsepower, and standard safety features include electronic stability and traction control systems. The A4 also comes with options for a six-speed manual transition, an eight-speed automatic and a multi-tronic continuous variable transmission. Audi's Quattro system could be the best all-wheel-drive system in the world.
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MSRP: $23,495 - $32,095
Invoice: $22,123 - $30,034
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway
When it comes to winter driving, there's no car-maker that has a more devoted following than Subaru. Its Outback SUV is a staple in mountainous communities from Colorado to Alaska. If it's a four-door sedan you're looking for that handles winter conditions well, Subaru's Legacy is an able vehicle that's more affordable than the aforementioned Audi.
Its 2013 iteration comes with more legroom for rear passengers. Remember that earlier this year, Subaru placed all six of its tested models on the Consumer Reports recommended list – including the Legacy – and it ranked first among 13 automakers tested in the magazine's annual Automaker Report Card.
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Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
MSRP: $34,695 - $37,895
Invoice: $33,230 - $36,296
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 23 mpg Highway
All-wheel-drive sports sedans can be more fun to drive on un-plowed roads than they are when the weather is nice. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution even has a special setting for driving in snow that adjusts its all-wheel-drive differential for maximum traction, a product of its rally heritage. Its giant Brembo brakes will help in the stopping department, which is often the biggest problem when dealing with icy roads. The Evo may seem look lame in the snow, but it could actually save your life.
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MSRP: $82,100 - $172,100
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 27 mpg Highway
While Porsche offers several all-wheel-drive versions of its 911, even the most basic rear-wheel-drive Carrera model can be a great winter driver when shod with snow tires. The 911 has always had its engine in the back, which has made Porsche's venerable sports car good in the snow. Today’s 911's are no different, as their rear weight bias gives them extraordinary traction during acceleration. With stability control to help novice drivers compensate for this difference in driving dynamics, the modern 911 is as ready for winter as any car Porsche has built.
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MSRP: $26,585 - $41,475
Invoice: $24,592 - $38,159
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway
Toyota offers the only all-wheel-drive minivan left on the market. While minivans are big and truckish like SUV's, they roll with far less regularity. That's probably because minivans tend to be driven more carefully, what with all the kids they carry. But minivans also have a lower center of gravity than SUV's.
Even without the Sienna's optional all-wheel-drive, front-wheel-drive minivans can be great winter drivers. Most are fitted with relatively narrow tires, which work better in the snow and slush than the wider tires you’d want for dry pavement performance.
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MSRP: $38,650 - $41,650
Invoice: $35,945 - $38,735
Fuel Economy: 22 mpg City, 31 mpg Highway
While you probably won't want to put the top down when it's below freezing, the Quattro all-wheel-drive system makes this a four-season sports car. With dedicated snow tires, a TT is virtually unstoppable in the snow – at least until the drifts get deep enough that its relatively low ground clearance becomes a problem. Its modern convertible top is insulated enough – and the cabin small enough – that you'll stay toasty as well.
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2003 Ford Focus ZX3
MSRP (2003): $12,820
Private Party Listing: $2,500 - $3,500
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg City, 32 mpg Highway
If you are buying a used car, you might consider the Ford Focus ZX3. In a snowy environment, there's a lot to appreciate in this little compact, whether it's the coupe or hatchback. Its performance stands out in terms of acceleration and agile handling.
Hatchback models come with flip-down seats that make it ideal for transporting ski gear, and it's both comfortable and stable on long hauls. Now that the model is ten years old, it doesn't cost much. You won't care if it gets rusty. And most importantly, front-wheel drive makes it OK in the snow. Snow tires in Rockies, Great Lakes and New England, though, are a great idea.
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What Not To Drive in Snow: Ford Mustang
MSRP: $22,200 to $42,200
Invoice: $20,924 to $38,930
Fuel economy: 19 city/29 highway
The ultimate summer car is ultimately a terrible choice for winter driving. No doubt, it’s one of the most iconic cars on the road. But it’s a car that likes to be driven fast. Check that – a rear-wheel-drive car that likes to be driven fast.
Simmer down, and keep those 444 horses available in some V8 models in the garage for the winter. Even with snow tires on, the Mustang is a dodgy proposition on an icy road.
What Not To Drive: Chevy Colorado LT 4x2
Private party: 20,248
Fuel economy: 18 city/25 highway
Wait, didn’t we have the Colorado on our approved winter-warrior list just a few photos ago? We did indeed. But the key difference here is the trim level. The 4X4 version is just fine, but the 4X2 is an entirely different story.
In bad weather, there may be no worse combination than a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive pickup. It’s a dubious and dangerous triple-crown for winter drivers.
What Not To Drive In The Snow: BMW 3-Series
MSRP: $36,500 to $47,600
Invoice: $33,580 to $43,790
Fuel economy: 23 city/33 highway
There’s no car that fits the definition of “sports sedan” better than the venerable 3-series, which sits atop its class. It simply delivers a combination of European luxury and performance that is hard to match.
But even the best sports sedan in the world turns into a sloppy mess without BMW’s all-wheel drive system. With rear-wheel drive and no sand bags in the trunk, a driver is looking for trouble and body damage once road conditions deteriorate.
What Not To Drive in Snow: Chevy Camaro
MSRP: $23,345 to $59,545
Invoice: $22,411 to $57,163
Fuel economy: 17 city/28 highway
The ragged resurgence of the Camaro in recent years has been one of the most enjoyable automotive comebacks of all time. That doesn’t mean we want to drive it in icy conditions.
For the same reasons we don’t want to take its arch-rival Mustang out in the winter, we recommend keeping this rear-wheel drive beast parked when weather conditions deteriorate. As an added benefit, think of all the salt-related problems you’ll avoid.
What Not To Drive in Snow: Ford F-150 4X2
Fuel economy: 17 city/23 highway
The best-selling vehicle in America? Let’s not oversimplify it: It depends on the trim level. There’s a ton to like about the F-150, including its groundbreaking V6 EcoBoost engine that has given the F-series a whole new dimension in one short year.
But much like the other pickup on our list of winter weaklings, we’d shy away from driving the rear-wheel 4X2 trim on snowy roads. You might get away without all-wheel drive in the sunny states, like say, Texas, where the F-150 is always a stalwart. But if you live in a state that’s no stranger to winter conditions, it’s best to play it safe and go with an all-wheel-drive version.