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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. ( TheStreet) -- When the snow's piling up and your fellow commuters are skidding over four lanes, what you're driving isn't nearly as important as what you're driving on.
With the Midwest still reeling from feet of snow that collapsed the roof of The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis -- forcing the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants to not only postpone their game but move it to
Ford(F - Get Report) Field in Detroit -- American drivers are dealing with wintry conditions well before the first day of the season. The problem for most sliding, snowbound drivers, however, isn't that they didn't trade in their
Honda(HMC - Get Report) Accord for a used Hummer before the first flakes fell, but that they're riding through blizzards on the same rubber that took them to the beach.
"We who live with 300 inches of snow annually from late November to late March know that the most important feature is traction," says Jay Meldrum, director of the winter driving school at Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, Mich. "Traction does not mean quick takeoffs like in dragsters, but traction for control in turns and braking; I run four winter snow tires on all my personal cars."
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is nice, ground clearance is great and little perks such as heated windshield washer nozzles help, but there's only one thing you can buy that all auto experts agree will make a white Christmas nothing to worry about: snow tires. They don't care what brand you buy, they don't care what kind of car you put them on, but auto experts who know anything at all about winter driving agree that the overwhelming majority of cars on the road today can handle Rocky Mountain snows, Midwest maelstroms and New England nor'easters if they have snow tires on all four wheels.
"The bottom line is that, with the right snow tires, any car is drivable in winter," says Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs. "There used to be the idea that some of the performance cars were not suitable for winter use, but that's just not the case and we see all the time that if you replace those summer racing tires with winter tires, you can drive anything."
Cox proved this recently to a group of law-enforcement professionals who used his course in an attempt to prove pursuit vehicles such as Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros should be shelved during the winter in favor of SUVs. Cox put a police SUV, a Ford Crown Victoria cruiser and a high-performance pursuit vehicle on his snow- and ice-strewn track and not only was the SUV outpaced by its speedy stablemate, but the Crown Victoria couldn't come close to the sportier model's performance.
Joe DeMatio, an editor for
Automobile Magazine who spends winters commuting through southeast Michigan, assiduously preaches the value of snow tires to average Americans who are "completely ignorant" of their benefits. While he's aware many drivers are put off by the extra $1,000 to $2,000 it costs to buy and maintain an extra set of wheels or tires, he also seems miffed that the same consumer base will splurge for an SUV with four-wheel drive. That drive system may dislodge an SUV from a snow pile more easily that a rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive vehicle would. Without snow tires gripping the road, though, there's little that will help that vehicle's hulking mass stop once the driver hits the brakes.
"Especially early in the season when there's a big snow and you're driving up and down the freeway, invariably the vehicles you see on the side of the road or in ditches are SUVs much more than cars," DeMatio says. "SUVs tend to make people feel invincible because they have traction and ground clearance, but they don't stop any better and have a higher center of gravity, so they're easier to roll."
But what happens once you've put the snow tires, winter wipers and new battery to work? Is there any vehicle that can give snowbound drivers in Syracuse, N.Y., blizzard-mired commuters in Minneapolis and slopebound skiers in Aspen an edge on winter roads? Maybe.
TheStreet found seven vehicles that handle snow as well as any old Toyota Tercel with winter tires and help their drivers feel a whole lot more comfortable and confident while doing so. You'll pay a premium for these cars. But there's more to subzero snow driving than better gripping over ice, from the more or less standard heated seats and steering wheels to the little-seen Toyota "crawl control" feature: