Masters of the Curve
Inspired by rally cars, some small and sporty rides turn the heat up on winter driving.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you are one of those people who enjoy driving in the snow—like, a whole lot—the automotive industry is sending you a big hug these days. Increasingly there are high-performance options that can make your trip to the lifts seem like a scene out of Fast & Furious, even in a foot of fresh.
A favorite of all-season-performance fans, the rally-bred Subaru WRX, and its steroid-infused STI high-performance model, both received a makeover in 2014. To the horror of some purists, that’s resulted in less-aggressive aesthetics and a boxer engine adapted from the Forester, for goodness’ sakes. Subaru’s even added a continuously variable automatic transmission to the lineup. But if you live to accelerate into snowy curves, you’ll swear by the WRX’s standard symmetrical all-wheel drive, with handling further enhanced by electronic torque vectoring.
Want to bring it up a notch? The 305-horsepower STI version drops in a bigger motor, precise steering, and a standard six-speed manual.
Proof positive of Cadillac’s ongoing revitalization, the compact ATS sedan is real competition to the BMW 3-Series, Audi’s A4, and the Mercedes C-Class. If you check off all-wheel drive on the options list, the feisty Caddy and its 2.0-liter turbo engine will transform your winter slog into a high-horsepower adventure. Opt for the 321-horse 3.6-liter V-6 and you’ll get the full-tilt attitude to match the sharp steering, magnetic suspension, and Brembo brakes, producing a ride as refined and intense as those European competitors’. True to the Cadillac brand, the interior is sumptuously appointed, with a high-gloss black center console, wood highlights, and the CUE touchscreen system. And you’ll find yourself basking in the glow of the illuminating door handles. New this season is the ATS Coupe, with a sleeker outline and two fewer doors but the same aggressive underpinnings.
Not to neglect the pioneer of safe, all-season motoring: Volvo has stepped up its game with an improved version of its sharp-looking S60 sport sedan. A turbocharged 2.0-liter S60 can get up to 37 highway mpg; the mountain-friendly 2.5-liter five-cylinder version and the sporty, 325-horsepower R-Design model add all-wheel drive.
Other carmakers dream of an interior this sexy. Volvo’s safety system will independently steer you out of trouble—a service some drivers might find irritating as they play with the S60’s impressive all-season agility.
Base price » $33,750
Highway mpg » 37
Ski-car nicety » Instant-traction AWD
Base price » $26,295
Highway mpg » 28
Ski-car nicety » Unbeatable all-wheel drive, standard
Base price » $33,065
Highway mpg » 31
Ski-car nicety » Active weather info on nav system
CHARGE! » Contrary to the commuter stereo-type, a growing number of mountain folks use their Priuses (and other hybrids) not only as workaday transportation but as their go-to ski machines. Hybrids can still be fully functional in the deepest, darkest days of winter, though their efficiency drops—battery capacity decreases in cold weather, and low temperatures mean more use of the gasoline engine for starts and for stoking the cabin heater. But as a front-wheel-drive vehicle with decent clearance, the Prius has more than adequate snow-handling ability. You’ll want to consider investing in more-aggressive winter tires to replace your low-resistance summer tread, but you’ll find the hybrids’ traction-control systems surprisingly good at getting you rolling in the snow. Hauling more gear? Thule, Yakima, and Rhino-Rack systems are all compatible with your fuel-saving machine.