A good set of snow tires will handle whatever winter roads throw at you, but it might take four-wheel drive to get you onto those roads in the first place.
U.S. fuel efficiency is getting closer to the 54.5 miles per gallon that the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated for fleets by 2025, but the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said cars on U.S. roads only hit 25.3 mpg last year. With gas prices down and demand for crossovers and SUVs soaring, that number looks like it's in peril. Very few-four-wheel drive vehicles can even reach that modest mark. 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. That's the tradeoff you make to pull out of snowbanks and mud puddles with ease.
According to the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, wet roads alone have accounted for 950,000 crashes over the last decade. They're responsible to 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.
However, snow of any kind accounted for nearly 385,000 crashes over the last decade, 31% of weather-related crashes and 8% 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.
That said, four-wheel drive isn't a cure all. 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 get your out of a a tough spot quicker that 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 go easy on the gas once you're on the road. We consulted with the EPA and found ten four-wheel drive vehicles that are about as efficient as their class allows them to be: