Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 9.
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:
Starting price: $76,990
Mileage: 15 city, 21 highway, 17.5 combined
It isn't efficient, but it also isn't an all-wheel-drive crossover pretending to be a four-wheel-drive SUV.
Demand for the Escalade in the U.S. has dropped from a peak of more than 62,000 in 2006 to little more than 35,921 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, rear-view camera, an illuminated 4WD knob and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. You're more likely to use its four-wheel-drive getting out of a city slush puddled than a country creek, but it'll get the job done.
Starting price: $23,495 for the Jeep, $35,885 for the Toyota
Mileage: 17 city, 21 highway, 19 combined
There will be a whole lot of Jeep on this list, as the brand is basically built around 4x4s.
Meanwhile, the Wrangler's been incredibly consistent about offering buyers the soft-top off-roading experience they seek. You can stretch it out to a four-door unlimited model, but the purists love the original recipe. The 4Runner, meanwhile, is actually a 4x2 in its base model, but the four-wheel-drive versions come with 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.
Starting price: $32,720
Mileage: 17 city, 22 highway, 19.5 combined
They're pretty much the same vehicle, but both got an upgrade in 2014 after not getting one one since 2006.
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.
Starting price: $30,895
Mileage: 16 city, 23 highway, 19.5 combined
A 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.
Starting price: $31,185
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.
Starting price: $24,870
Mileage: 19 city, 23 highway, 21 combined
Once the king of the small pickups after the Ford Ranger abdicated the throne and the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon had an identity criss, the Tacoma's having issues of its own.
You can beat up on this steel beauty and it'll just keep going. Its crawl control, multi-terrain selection and hill start all make it great for off-roading, while the composite bed is easy to clean for minor to mid-range chores. However, the fact that it's still putting up those mileage numbers while larger pickups inch closer to them has to be a concern for fuel-conscious Toyota.
Starting price: $28,635
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. Just two years after their rerelease, but the Colorado and Canyon are making a strong case for those buyers' loyalty.
Starting price: $25,495 for the Cherokee, $32,595 for the Grand Cherokee
Mileage: 21 city, 28 highway, 24.5 combined
These new takes on Jeep legacy vehicles are not only bulking up the brand for its Italian owners at Fiat Chrysler, but it's reclaiming an identity that the bland, discontinued Liberty and Commander SUVs never could.
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's drawing a bit closer to the national average.
Starting price: $21,795 for the Compass, $19,895 for the Patriot
Mileage: 22 city, 27 highway, 24.5 combined
Only one of these vehicles has a future, and even at that we can't figure out why.
The Patriot has been outright discontinued, and the "2017" versions you're seeing are just leftover 2016 stock that Jeep's trying to move. The Compass, meanwhile, already received a makeover to look more "Jeep," but is now going to basically be a mini-Cherokee when the newest model is introduced next spring. That gives buyers small, mid-size and semi-luxury versions of the Cherokee to choose from, but it also makes the entire lineup make just slightly more sense than it did two years ago.
These current models, however, have to go. With just 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 had some miles on it. The Patriot's 53.5 cubic feet of cargo space, meanwhile, was the same as the Cherokee's. They're still really efficient for four-wheel-drive vehicles and can be a great deal for someone seeking a bargain.
Starting price: $19,995
Mileage: 24 city, 31 highway, 27.5 combined
O.K., so it's the Fiat 500X with some Jeepish features. And, yes, it looks a whole lot like the Jeep Patriot that Fiat is getting rid of. However, it has better mileage than that dead car walking and is a far more sturdy off-road vehicle than the Patriot could dream to be.
But it's what Jeep needs: A small SUV that can corner like the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman, but be as useful as the Subaru Crosstrek and Kia Sportage. It's tiny, but it's agile and actually gets more than 30 miles per gallon on the highway as a 4x4 -- which is unheard of in the U.S.