With winter still exerting its chilly wrath across much of the country, many car shoppers want one key feature in a new car: all-wheel drive (AWD). With power delivered to all four wheels, there’s a better chance of getting traction in ice, snow, and slush. While we’d advise that fitting any car with winter tires can improve your cold-weather driving experience, an all-wheel-drive car does improve the chances of avoiding a costly bill from a friendly tow-truck. Fortunately, buying a car with all-wheel drive doesn’t have to break the budget, as we’ve proven here with a list of the ten most affordable cars with AWD. We’ve focused on user-friendly cars and crossovers with full-time AWD, so you won’t find any trucks with off-road-style, part-time four-wheel-drive systems.
1. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Sedan Manual
$18,690 including destination
25/34 mpg city/highway (27/36 mpg CVT)
All-wheel drive comes standard on every Subaru (well, except for the sporty BRZ), and the cheapest of the lot is the Impreza. The downside, of course, is that at this price your Subaru Impreza sedan comes with a five-speed manual transmission. Adding a continuously variable transmission to the Impreza’s 148-hp, 2.0-liter boxer-four engine bumps up the sticker price by $1000. The five-door Subaru Impreza 2.0i is also an affordable way to get four driven wheels, with sticker prices of $19,190 with a manual transmission and $20,190 with the CVT, and it offers improved cargo room. With a total of four Subaru models on our list of the cheapest AWD cars, it’s no wonder that drivers in snowbound states so often see these Japanese cars plying even the iciest of roads.
2. 2014 Jeep Patriot Sport 4×4 Manual
23/28 mpg (21/27 mpg automatic, 20/23 mpg CVT)
The Jeep Patriot also comes with a five-speed manual transmission in its cheapest form, but shoppers can upgrade to a six-speed automatic or a continuously variable transmission for $1200. The Patriot isn’t exactly our favorite all-wheel-drive vehicle, since its aging platform doesn’t deliver a very refined driving experience. Even so, this small, utility-oriented crossover is reasonably capable in rough conditions. With the Freedom Drive II off-road package, the Patriot has 9.1 inches of ground clearance and earns Jeep’s endorsement as “Trail Rated.” The Patriot can also tow up to 2000 pounds if equipped with the appropriate packages.
3. 2014 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Manual
21/29 mpg (24/32 mpg CVT)
The next Subaru on this list is a slightly larger sedan, and again it’s the base model with a manual transmission. We understand that many shoppers would prefer spend an extra $1000 to equip their Subaru Legacy with a continuously variable transmission, but it’s worth nothing that this all-wheel-drive midsize sedan is very affordable nevertheless. This base model comes with a 2.5-liter flat-four engine rated for 173 hp, but spending $29,690 gets buyers into the 3.6R Limited model, which has a 3.6-liter flat-six engine rated at 256 hp. An all-new version of the car, the 2015 Subaru Legacy, debuted at the 2014 Chicago auto show and goes on sale later this year.
4. 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer SE-AWC Sedan
It’s not as exciting as the high-powered all-wheel-drive Evolution, but the standard 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer sedan can also be equipped with all-wheel drive. The cheapest version, the SE-AWC, has a switch that allows drivers to choose between front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and a “Lock” mode that keeps the rear wheels engaged at all times. Power comes from a 2.4-liter inline-four engine (compared to the 2.0-liter in the front-wheel-drive Lancer ES), and a continuously variable transmission is standard. Upgrading to the pricey but powerful Lancer Ralliart model nets buyers a different all-wheel-drive system, as well as a dual-clutch transmission and a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine. Buyers who are interested in the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback hatchback should note that all-wheel-drive is not available for this body style.
5. 2014 Jeep Compass Sport 4×4 Manual
23/28 mpg (21/27 mpg automatic, 20/23 mpg CVT)
Where the Jeep Patriot is a squared-off box, the softly shaped Jeep Compass looks like a scaled-down Grand Cherokee, which suits its people-hauling mission. Under the hood, buyers choose between a 2.0-liter inline-four engine and a 2.4-liter inline-four, and both can be mated to all-wheel drive. As with the Patriot, the Jeep Compass is a dated model that lacks the refinement, equipment, or interior style of more modern crossovers. Nonetheless, it too can be equipped with a Freedom Drive II off-road pack that brings a low-range mode, more ground clearance, skid plates, and other gear that helps it merit Jeep’s “Trail Rated” badge. Upgrading from the standard five-speed manual to a six-speed automatic or a continuously variable transmission (the CVT comes exclusively with Freedom Drive II) costs $1200.
6. 2014 Nissan Juke S AWD
It’s funky inside and out, but the Nissan Juke has proven a runaway hit for the Japanese automaker. In the U.S., the Juke crossover outsells more conventional models like the 370Z sports car, Leaf electric, Quest minivan, and Xterra SUV. Though we enjoyed our year testing a 2011 Nissan Juke with a six-speed manual, opting for all-wheel drive requires buyers have a continuously variable transmission. That’s hardly a buzzkill, as all Jukes reward drivers with nimble handling, a capacious cargo area (35.9 cubic feet with the seats folded), a punchy 1.6-liter turbo-four engine, and up to 32 mpg on the highway.
7. 2014 Nissan Rogue Select S AWD
The 2014 Nissan Rogue Select is actually the old, outgoing Rogue crossover. When the all-new and considerably improved Rogue bowed for 2014, Nissan elected to keep the old version on sale as a sort of budget model. As a result, savvy shoppers can snag an all-wheel-drive Rogue Select for far less than it would cost to buy the new model. The downside, of course, is that the Select lacks the improved ride and handling, refinement, fuel economy, and technology features of the all-new Rogue. Still, it’s far from a bad car, and sales figures attest to its popularity. The 2013 Rogue racked up 62,751 sales in the U.S., making it Nissan’s second-best seller after the Altima. Incidentally, equipping the all-new 2014 Nissan Rogue with AWD costs $24,650, pushing it just beyond the limits of this ten-car list.
8. 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Manual
22/29 mpg (24/32 mpg CVT)
The next Subaru on this list is the Forester, which has been extensively redesigned for the 2014 model year. While the base model is equipped with a manual transmission, most buyers will gravitate toward the model with the continuously variable transmission that’s available from $23,820. We like the 2014 Subaru Forester’s combination of utility, comfort, and fuel economy, even if it’s not the most thrilling car to drive. Performance enthusiasts can spend more on the Forester 2.0XT, which has a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-four engine pumping out 250 hp.
9. 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Premium Manual
23/28 mpg (24/32 mpg CVT)
While the Subaru XV Crosstrek is related to the Impreza hatchback, this isn’t simply a jacked-up small car. The XV Crosstrek is a wholly different package than the Impreza, with a spacious cabin and a small-crossover stance that sets it apart from the Impreza hatchback. Above all, the XV Crosstrek is designed for more extreme use, whether it means all-weather driving or all-terrain adventure. All-terrain tires, lots of ground clearance and protective plastic cladding for the bodywork are part of the plan. The downside to this tough terrain calibration is that fuel economy drops to 25/33 mpg (city/highway) with the optional continuously variable transmission, compared to the 27/36 mpg ratings of an Impreza hatchback. The eco-conscious can upgrade to the much more expensive Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, which is rated at 29/33 mpg.
10. 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport ES AWC
While the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport comes with front-wheel drive as standard, upgrading to the version with Mitsubishi’s “All-Wheel Control” is still affordable. All versions of the Outlander Sport feature a 2.0-liter inline-four engine that makes 148 hp. A five-speed manual transmission is available with front-drive but a CVT comes standard on all-wheel-drive models. With all-wheel-drive and the CVT, fuel economy is 24/29 mpg, which lags behind some of the thriftiest new crossovers. The Outlander does look cool thanks to its short overhang and stylishly sloped rear glass, and the cabin is spacious too. Of course, the Outlander Sport is hardly a sports car in the way it drives, but you have at least some style and decent fuel economy to accompany AWD mobility.
The Alternative: Winter Tires
“No doubt, the more drive wheels you have, the better chance you have of getting moving in tough conditions,” says Woody Rogers, who has spent 15 years as an expert at Tire Rack. “But ultimately it’s the tire’s traction that helps you stop and turn.”
Tire Rack, our official wheel and tire sponsor, is a strong proponent of equipping cars with winter tires rather than shelling out extra for a new car with all-wheel drive. Compared to the all-season tires that are fitted to many new cars as standard, winter tires have a special rubber compound designed for cold weather, and unique grooves and sipes (small cuts in the tread) help find traction on snow and ice. As a result, front- or rear-wheel drive cars can be just a mobile and safe in winter as all-wheel-drive ones, Tire Rack notes.
“The winter tire will generally provide better traction because it’s designed for the season,” Rogers says. “You drive around more like it’s wet than it’s snowing when you have winter tires, on any kind of car.”
The biggest problem with all-wheel drive, Rogers reminds us, is that it helps vehicles accelerate on slick roads, but it doesn’t help these cars stop or turn on ice or snow. And this can lead to a lot more trouble than getting stuck in a snowy driveway. “It’s when I need to stop that the accident happens, and that’s when the tires come into play,” Rogers says. He also notes that the extra cost of winter tires might be a lot cheaper than repairing body damage from an accident, not to mention the ongoing car insurance surcharges afterward.
At Tire Rack, Rogers tells us, all-wheel drive is not considered to be a one-stop solution for driving in winter. “No, your car is not bad in the snow,” he tells people. “Your tires are bad in the snow.”