It's the messiest part of the year for drivers, but four-wheel drive can smooth out the ride a bit.
U.S. fuel efficiency is creeping toward the fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon that the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated by 2025, but the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute only puts average fuel economy at roughly 25.3 mpg this year. A few four-wheel drive vehicles can leap that hurdle, but they still aren't exactly models of efficiency. In fact, no four-wheel drive vehicle tops 30 miles per gallon combined, while only a couple get that kind of mileage on the highway. Such is the downside to one of the more useful all-weather features available.
According to the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, the worst adverse conditions are caused by wet roads, which accounted for more than 950,000 crashes over the last decade, 74% of all weather-related crashes and 17% of vehicle crashes overall. That number shrinks only somewhat to 595,000 crashes, or 46% of weather-related crashes and 11% of all crashes, when you narrow wet-pavement incidents down to just rain.
Meanwhile, snow of any kind accounted for nearly 300,000 crashes over the last decade, 31% of weather-related crashes and 7% of crashes overall. By using both axles to provide power to all four wheels and distributing power to the axle with the most traction, four-wheel drive can be a helpful means of getting your plowed-in car out of a snowbank or getting your mud-bound vehicle back on the road without pushing.
However, we will note that four-wheel drive alone isn't always the best solution to winter weather woes. The winter driving school at Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, Mich., notes that snow tires provide just as much traction on curves and grades. Meanwhile, the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., performed an experiment a few years back to show a group of law-enforcement professionals that SUVs don't hold much advantage over standard vehicles or even performance cars. The school put a police SUV, a Ford Crown Victoria cruiser and a high-performance pursuit vehicle on a snow- and ice-strewn track in snow tires and watched the SUV trail the pack and the Crown Victoria lag behind the sportier models in their new bad-weather gear.
While 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, it's still less costly than the splurge for 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, but good luck stopping it without snow tires.
All of that said, there are four-wheel drive options out there that not only cut back the costs of upgrading a bit, but also go easy on the gas once you're on the road. We consulted with the Environmental Protection Agency and found ten four-wheel drive vehicles worth considering for their efficiency:
1. 2016 Cadillac Escalade 4WD
Starting price: $76,565
Mileage: 15 city, 21 highway, 18 combined
Nothing about that figure is “efficient,” but then again, the Escalade is one of the few SUVs on the EPA's list that doesn't flat-out lie.
There are a whole lot of all-wheel drive cars masquerading as 4x4s out there, but the Escalade isn't about to play that game. Though demand for this vehicle in the U.S. has dropped from a peak of more than 62,000 in 2006 to little more than 30,000 last year, the refreshed-in-2015 Escalade still provides creature comforts like 94.2 cubic inches of cargo space, a General Motors 6.2-liter EcoTec3 V8 engine with 420 horsepower, the Cadillac CUE infotainment system, lane assistance and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
No, you likely aren't off-roading in an Escalade, but you won't be spinning your wheels, either.
9. Tie: 2016 Jeep Wrangler/Toyota 4Runner 4WD
Starting price: $23,495 for the Jeep, $35,385 for the Toyota
Mileage: 17 city, 21 highway, 19 combined
Get ready to see a whole lot of Jeep on this list, since it's basically the only brand that hasn't abandoned four-wheel drive for all-wheel drive in its SUVs and crossovers. Also, get ready for us to blast a whole lot more automakers for not making their four-wheel-drive standard -- especially in a vehicle that has the “4” implied in its name.
That's right, an absolute base-model 4Runner is actually a 4x2 for reasons we still aren't clear on. Perhaps it's because that's the kind of thing you could get away with at the height of the SUV era, when Toyota was selling 114,000 4Runners in 2004, only to see that number drop to less than 76,900 last year.
Meanwhile, the Wrangler's been incredibly consistent about offering buyers the soft-top offroading experience they seek. You can stretch it out to a four-door unlimited model, but the purists love the original recipe. The 4Runner, meanwhile, needs to throw in perks like power outlets in the cargo space for hooking up a television or other electronic devices, nearly 90 square feet of cargo room and an optional sliding cargo deck which provides counter space strong enough to hold 400 pounds of food and beverages. While we're sure there are still folks who go off-roading in 4Runners, it's now pitching itself as a tailgate vehicle. Still, when a snowstorm hits during a late-season game, it isn't a bad way to escape the stadium.
8. 2016 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra K15000 4WD
Starting price: $33,150
Mileage: 17 city, 22 highway, 19.5 combined
They're basically the same vehicle with a different body type, but each received a facelift in 2014 after not getting one one since 2006. That tells you just how little GM likes to fiddle with the second-best-selling pickups in the country.
Adding updates like Chevy's MyLink audio system with color screen, USB ports and an audio jack on top of features including Bluetooth connectivity, OnStar telematics and SiriusXM satellite radio bring the cab up to date, as does the mobile Wi-Fi hotspot in the GMC. However, the four-wheel drive is typically built into these trucks to help with payload and towing capacities, though it comes in mighty handy if you're navigating a front-heavy pickup through less-than-optimal conditions.
7. 2016 Ford F-150 4WD
Starting price: $31,260
Mileage: 18 city, 23 highway, 20.5 combined
A new aluminum body and 3.6-liter V6 engine account for that fuel efficiency, while new tech features for both entertainment and communication bring it into the 21st century. That said, the F-150 could have remained as basic as ever and still sold more vehicles in a year than certain vehicle categories. It's on four decades of leading the U.S. and the pickup truck category in sales, and it isn't slowing down anytime soon.
What's even more surprising is that this ubiquitous full-size pickup gets better 4x4 mileage than some of the smaller, less-loved pickups on the list.
6. 2016 Toyota Tacoma 4WD
Starting price: $24,010
Mileage: 19 city, 22 highway, 20.5 combined
Speaking of which, this is the smaller of Toyota's pickup offerings (the Tundra is the full-size), yet this still lags behind the mileage of some of Toyota's full-size pickup competitors. How? Isn't fuel efficiency supposed to be Toyota's thing? Isn't that supposed to be the niche that this flexible little truck occupies?
Well, at least it's selling at something of a discount from the full-size pickups. It could likely use a bit of a refresh to get that mileage down a bit, but being an affordable, versatile and functional 4x4 option at this price has made the Tacoma popular in stormy, less truck-obsessed corners of the country.
5. 2016 Ram 1500 4WD
Starting price: $30,515
Mileage: 19 city, 27 highway, 23 combined
Again, that lightweight aluminum body and 3.6-liter V6 make all the difference in driving down a pickup's overall mileage. Meanwhile, Ram hasn't skimped on the fun features including RamBoxes in the sidewalls of the bed that are not only waterproof and drainable, but “fit up to 240 cans of your favorite beverage in a 5'7 bed or 280 cans in a 6'4 bed configuration” apiece. Combine that with 74.7 cubic feet cargo capacity and 1,300 to 1,600 pounds of payload capacity, and you've got a truck that knows how to work and play.
Oh, and the Ram 1500's available Uconnect Wi-Fi — $10 for single-day access — can help keep the passengers quiet during those unexpected snow days.
4. 2016 Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon
Starting price: $28,080
Mileage: 20 city, 29 highway, 24.5 combined
Where did this little truck learn to be so efficient? Well, its original incarnation, was jointly designed by Isuzu and General Motors and is still sold as the Isuzu D-Max abroad.
The shame of it is that these trucks sold in upwards for 160,000 vehicle a year in the U.S. before the recession. After Ford dropped its Ranger line of small pickups a few years ago, General Motors began to rethink their small pickup and gave it a more fuel-efficient engine. Assembled in Wentzville, Mo., it's definitely aimed at the U.S. truck buyer who long ago switched to smaller trucks from Japanese automakers. It's just a year after their rerelease, but the Colorado and Canyon are making a strong case for those buyers' loyalty.
3. 2016 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee
Starting price: $25,395 for the Cherokee, $31,995 for the Grand Cherokee
Mileage: 21 city, 28 highway, 24.5 combined
We told you there'd be more Jeeps on this list, and these helped Fiat and Chrysler undo the grievous wrongs of Jeep's 2000s. With each of these heritage-named crossovers replacing the milquetoast Liberty and Commander SUVs.
Powered by the same 3.6-liter V6, the two are basically separated by the Grand Cherokee's more roomy interior, higher ground clearance, enhanced off-road capability and luxury trim. Granted, there are some tech toys in the more car-like Cherokee (automated parking) that have taken a while to migrate to the bigger model, but either comes with four-wheel drive mileage that comes within a sniff of the national average.
2. 2016 Jeep Compass/Jeep Patriot 4WD
Starting price: $21,495 for the Compass, $19,495 for the Patriot
Mileage: 22 city, 27 highway, 24.5 combined
Well, the good news is that these Jeeps are fairly efficient for four-wheel drive models. The bad news is that they're also terribly redundant, given the presence of the Cherokees. This year is officially the last year for each of them and an overdue farewell to Jeep's ugly pre-Fiat era.
That's just fine. With a scant 62.7 cubic feet of cargo space, sluggish acceleration, a wide turn radius and a whole lot of features listed as options -- a year of satellite radio, a jack for mobile devices, steering wheel mounted audio controls, Bluetooth -- that are standard in just about every other comparable vehicle out there, the Compass was starting to look a bit dated. The Patriot's 53.5 cubic feet of cargo space, meanwhile, was pretty much an exact ringer for the Cherokee's. They're still out there if you want them, but the next vehicle on our list may give you some more food for thought.
1. 2016 Jeep Renegade 4WD
Starting price: $19,995
Mileage: 24 city, 31 highway, 27.5 combined
Seriously, it looks like a leaner, updated version of the Patriot, it has far better mileage than the Patriot and it's built for off-roading far better than the Patriot ever was.
More importantly, it finally puts all of the best Jeep features into a small SUV that can not only hang with the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman on stability, but can give the Subaru Crosstrek and Kia Sportage a run for their money. It isn't the most spacious Jeep out there, but it's fun and uses surprisingly little fuel for a 4x4.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.