Snow Driver: Let's Get Small

The future of ski cars might be the new range of tiny, hyper-stylish luxury crossovers.
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The future of ski cars might be the new range of tiny, hyper-stylish luxury crossovers.
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While there was a point, not so long ago, when it looked like GMC’s Yukon XL would be America’s ski car forever, rising gas prices and—oh, yes—an auto market that includes the rest of the planet have meant some new and very international AWD choices. Meet the small luxury crossover.

The charming Encore is the smallest and perhaps sweetest ride you’ll ever see bearing a Buick emblem. Secretly, it’s a Korean-made micro-ute built on a Chevy Spark platform. But get inside and you are transported into a space that feels larger than it looks and is comfortably appointed. No Buick before has rocked a 1.4-liter turbo, but with that frugal overseas market in mind, the Encore’s 138 horses do a surprisingly effective job of climbing hills, even in its optional AWD version. And with 48.4 cubic feet of storage, it absorbs a lot of boot bags.

As Mini Coopers get further removed from their go-kart roots, their BMW underpinnings shine through in models like the winter-friendly Countryman S All4. Lifted, stretched, and then firmly grounded with that AWD system, it still wears its peculiarity on its sleeve, but you can fit normal-size people in the rear seats. A bit of the weirdness has left the building—window controls are on the elbow rests; no more Austin Powers toggles—and some will argue that the larger package dilutes the Mini’s DNA. But its 181 horses will actually get you through three inches of snow, unlike the winter nightmare that is a FWD Mini Cooper. Skis will, sadly, need to be loaded Jenga-style unless you add a roof rack.

Considerably more luxurious (and much more expensive than either of the above), the elegant Range Rover Evoque is one of the most distinctive automobiles in years and is fast becoming Land Rover’s top seller. With sleek 22nd-century styling and impressive off-road abilities, it’s a beautiful if marginally undersized beast. Best of all, if you associate Rovers with 14-mpg trips to Deer Valley, you’ll like how the 2.0-liter, 240-horse turbo delivers as much as 28 highway mpg. A new nine-speed transmission and a fuel-saving, on-the-fly 4WD disconnect are new for 2014.

»Range Rover Evoque

Base price» $42,040

Highway mpg » 28

Ski-trip nicety » Advanced terrain response system

»Buick Encore

Base price» $24,160

Highway mpg » 30 (AWD)

Ski-trip nicety » Bose sound tuning drowns out any buzz

»Mini Cooper Countryman S All4

Base price» $27,400

Highway mpg » 31

Ski-trip nicety » Heated seats and mirrors

»Earn Your Winter Turns

Unless you grew up driving a rear-wheel-drive car in Saskatchewan or New Hampshire in the winter, chances are that safe snow-season motoring is not necessarily intuitive. A great way to hone your skills—and see that full-blown snow tires alone can do wonders but aren’t the be-all, end-all of winter safety—is the Bridgestone Winter Driving School (winterdrive.com). It’s set up on a dedicated snow track in fields outside of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and it helps both first-timers and the dangerously overconfident understand the dynamics of icy and snow-covered roads and the strategies to survive them. Best of all, classes aren’t necessarily taught in giant SUVs; a simple front-wheel-drive Camry with snow tires can be driven just as well, once you learn the basics of traction and speed control. There’s also performance training available for those who fancy themselves European winter rally drivers.