Top 10 best cars for winter 2021
We select a great group of 4x4 cars to help keep you on the road and moving this winter
There aren’t many certainties in life, but you can be sure of at least one thing; and that’s that every year, as soon as Autumn arrives, British newspapers and websites will begin to publish apocalyptic headlines about blizzards, big freezes and all-round snow chaos. The truth of the matter is that this country doesn’t usually suffer from winters anywhere near as harsh as some of our European neighbours, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for winter conditions.
Though they may not be severe enough to bring the country to a standstill, adverse winter driving conditions in the UK are still very common. Rural areas can easily be cut off when snow, ice and floods occasionally wreak havoc, and some hills and roads can become treacherous in poor conditions. Motorists often depend on four-wheel-drive vehicles when these circumstances arise, particularly in locations where gritting lorries don’t operate.
The key to safe motoring in icy, snowy conditions is traction and grip. Having plenty of grip means the car will obediently stick to the road when you’re moving and, most importantly, help you slow down again. Having good traction allows you to actually get moving in the first place, too, with the engine’s power being applied to the road effectively, rather than just spinning the tyres.
Four-wheel drive is a definite advantage when the roads get slippery, and if you’re buying an SUV for this reason, make sure it actually does have four-wheel drive. Not all do, however – the Peugeot 3008, for example, is front-wheel-drive only, while the Ford Kuga only offers it on more powerful flagship versions.
When four-wheel drive is optional, it tends to add around £1,500 to a car’s purchase price and usually reduces fuel efficiency by 5-10%, thus increasing running costs. You may find that, rather than a big, bulky SUV, you’d rather have a compact hatchback or estate and many of these are now available with four-wheel drive for greater grip.
While investing in a vehicle with four-wheel drive is one option, it’s worth asking yourself whether you actually need it. You’re likely to only require four-wheel drive just one season a year and there could be cheaper ways to prepare for winter. A good set of winter tyres, for example, will give you extra confidence in wintry weather, as they’re designed to stick to the road at temperatures below seven degrees centigrade. It might sound strange, but even a small city car can be a good companion when temperatures plummet. While their skinny tyres may find less traction than the wide rubber on an SUV, light cars don’t need as much traction to get moving in the first place, and their low weight makes them easier to control when cornering and braking. A big 4x4 might get going easily, but bringing them safely to a stop is just as important, and you may find that their additional weight makes them skid in extreme conditions.
Modern electronic systems are also pretty good at dealing with snow, but a set of good winter tyres or the security of all-wheel drive will mean you don’t have to rely on electronic help quite as much.
Our list covers the best cars we’d like to be driving in winter when the roads turn tricky.
If you thought you couldn't afford an SUV, the Dacia Duster could make you think again, because it's closer in price to a supermini than most rivals. That doesn't mean it's flimsy or short on ability, with more than 200mm of ground clearance and the option of four-wheel drive making the Duster an impressive machine off road and in slippery conditions. The second-generation Duster is also slightly bigger and more comfortable inside than before, with neater looks that make it even more desirable.
The entry-level Essential is equipped with features such as air-conditioning and a stereo with DAB and Bluetooth connectivity. You’ll need to avoid the Essential trim line and petrol engines if you want all-wheel drive, though, as it’s offered solely in 4x2 specification, while all petrol models power their front wheels alone. Step up to Comfort or Prestige spec and 4x4 becomes available with a 113bhp diesel unit, with 192lb ft of torque to help pull you out of sticky situations. The good news is even the highest-spec Duster is still cheaper than the average high-end supermini, barely breaking the £20k barrier.
We regard the BMW 3 Series as one of the best cars on sale in the UK in terms of all-round ability, and the Touring estate adds practicality into the mix. In truth, its 500-litre boot isn't the biggest out there, but it's far more versatile than the saloon. Elsewhere, it offers the same extremely strong all-round package, combining a great driving experience, stylish looks and a beautifully finished interior – all backed up by that desirable blue-and-white badge. The 3 Series is more expensive than comparable cars like the Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat, but it’s better to drive than almost all rivals – be it on a motorway cruise or a twisting back road.
The Touring offers a huge range of engine and trim choices and those who regularly encounter wintry conditions will find BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system fits the bill. It’s available on the M340i petrol, 320i, 320d and 330d diesels, as well as the 330e plug-in hybrid. The extra weight and mechanical drag of the system increases fuel consumption, too (though the 320d xDrive Touring’s combined fuel economy of over 50mpg is hardly disastrous), but this may be a sacrifice worth making for extra security on slippery roads, and it helps put the 3-series’ power down a little easier even when it’s dry.
The Land Rover Freelander firmly established the famous British maker of all-conquering off-roaders as a big player in the more road-friendly compact SUV field and the Discovery Sport takes this hugely successful formula and runs with it. Like every other car bearing the Land Rover name, the Discovery Sport is as capable in the rough stuff as you’re ever likely to need, but feels at home on tarmac, too. It's here that many owners will find the Discovery Sport's selectable four-wheel drive comes into its own, particularly when the weather turns.
Traction and grip are assured by big, wide tyres, making winter driving far less of a challenge. But it's the 'terrain response' system that enables the Discovery Sport to tackle roads that many rivals would find unpassable. It has separate modes for mud and snow, and knows exactly how much power to apply to keep you moving in the trickiest conditions. Combine this ability with good looks, a family-friendly interior and frugal engines – a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) model is now available, promising a little over 140mpg, while a pair of 2.0-litre diesels (with 163bhp and 201bhp) offer around 40mpg combined – plus four-wheel drive, and the Discovery Sport is a potent (if slightly costly) SUV package.
Not everyone who regularly encounters poor driving conditions wants an SUV and Subaru has been serving this audience for decades. Since the 1970s – when Subarus were first sold through agricultural equipment suppliers – full-time four-wheel drive has been a brand trademark and it adds to the Outback's unique appeal. Subaru has now made several generations of Outback, each based on the estate version of the Legacy but dressed up with tougher bodywork fixings and riding on raised suspension for extra ground clearance – a recipe that brands like Volvo and Audi have since replicated with their Cross Country and Allroad models. The latest Outback is yet another large, practical estate, with a well built (if rather plain) interior, which can negotiate rough roads and keep going in wintry conditions like few other cars.
You can now only choose a characterful flat-four 2.5-litre petrol engine – the 2.0-litre diesel engine is no longer offered – that returns around 40mpg. While the Outback's slightly high-set posture means it can't match more traditional estate cars for responsive handling and resistance to body lean, it's far less likely to be caught napping when the weather turns nasty. For those who come to depend on the Outback's ability to deal with rough road conditions, a slightly dull design ceases to matter on a car whose reliability has been so well proven.
Sadly, Audi’s TT coupe isn’t long for this world, the German manufacturer confirming this generation will be the last time you’ll see the TT name adorning a fashionable coupe or roadster. It may seem odd to include a sports car on this list, but the TT’s secret is that it can be ordered with Audi’s quattro four-wheel-drive system, which means you’ll find it easier to stay in control in slippery conditions than with rivals like the Porsche Cayman or BMW Z4.
Audi has built up a reputation for making cars with exquisite interiors and the latest TT continues this trend: it simply oozes quality inside. Audi’s latest 12.3-inch ‘Virtual Cockpit’ dashboard display is truly exceptional, and it’s likely to set the trend for carmakers in years to come. The TT is available with a wide range of engines, culminating in the 395bhp TT RS. It’s worth noting that it’s now only offered with petrol engines, but you’ll be able to find used diesel versions that are capable of over 50mpg. The TT is one of the best all-weather sports cars ever – and a lot more stylish than most other cars you’ll see forging through the snow this winter.
The Mazda3 is an eye-catching alternative to the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, while the interior is equally stunning. The build quality and materials used are on a par with the more premium brands, and the design prioritises ease of use over flashy touch-sensitive controls. Equipment levels are good too, and all cars get LED headlights, parking sensors and sat nav. You’ll be looking at the top-spec GT Sport Tech and the SkyActiv-X petrol engine if you want all-wheel drive, as Mazda only offers AWD on this configuration, which does make the Mazda3 a little expensive.
Still, the SkyActiv-X is powerful and economical. The weight of the all-wheel drive setup blunts performance compared to the front-wheel drive model, but the clever engine technology aims to pair the response of a petrol and the efficiency of a diesel.
Choosing the Mazda over its rivals means you’re also slightly sacrificing practicality – it’s a bit cramped in the back and other cars have bigger boots. That swoopy styling also compromises rear visibility and makes it difficult for kids to look out of the rear windows, which may not go down well, but the car’s refinement and pleasant ride should help placate rear passengers.
As the Fiat Panda further down illustrates, you don’t necessarily need to opt for a large SUV to benefit from all-weather traction. Suzuki has long offered all-wheel drive on a wide variety of cars, from the expected (the Jimny and Vitara) to the more conventional (the Swift), and the Ignis is another car in that vein. It’s essentially the spirit of an SUV condensed to the size of a city car, with rugged and slightly retro looks (Suzuki claims influence from several of its past models), but in a platform that’s easy to park and costs buttons to run.
There’s no diesel on offer, but opt for the ALLGRIP 4x4 model and you get Suzuki’s 89bhp 1.2-litre mild hybrid “Dualjet” engine. You take a small hit in terms of economy, with just over 50mpg to the two-wheel drive car’s fuel consumption of over 55mpg, but only lose a tenth of a second on the 0-62mph time, so you’ll probably not notice any difference in the way they drive on the road. Until the road gets slippery, that is, and thanks to the 4x4 system and the Ignis’s slightly raised ground clearance compared to some rivals, it should make light work of wintry conditions.
The C3 Aircross is a bit of an odd one out here in that it doesn’t power all four wheels. But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless in winter, thanks partly to a technology that Citroen calls “Grip Control”. This is very much like the complex drive modes offered on vehicles like the Land Rover Discovery Sport, but operates on the C3 Aircross’s driven front wheels alone. Sand, All-Road, Snow, and ESP-off modes are all available, varying the level to which the traction and stability controls work, according to the properties of the road. It also has hill-descent control, much like those Land Rovers, to keep you in control down steep slopes.
The Aircross naturally features a higher ride height than the standard C3 too, though in many other respects it’s quite similar to the supermini, with a wide range of engines, a comfortable and smartly-styled cabin, and quirky styling that stands out from others in the class. And because Grip Control is an electronic system rather than a full 4x4 drivetrain, there’s no significant cost or economy penalties either. With a set of winter tyres it’ll make light work of snowy roads.
The Fiat Panda is comparable to the Dacia Duster in some ways thanks to its low price and decent off-road credentials, but it’s actually a very different car. The Panda is smaller than the Duster and more obviously sold on image – it’s a more style-led car inside and out. It’s more than just a pretty face, though – despite the limitations of its small size, the Panda is impressively practical thanks to clever design touches and interior storage solutions.
The Panda is available in four trim levels, Cross, City Cross, Sport and Life, but only the Cross and Life models can be specced with Fiat’s 4x4 powertrain setup. It’s efficient on paper, but in the real world it needs to be worked hard and fuel economy suffers as a result. Its safety rating might put you off the Panda, too, but despite its small size and hatchback origins, the Panda is surprisingly capable off-road, too, where its compact nature and decent ground clearance allow it to tread where some larger 4x4s can’t quite reach.
SsangYong has been selling cars in the UK for decades now, but the South Korean carmaker still seems to be less well-known than compatriots Kia or Hyundai. The brand made its name building tough and reliable army trucks, and some of those sensibilities have made it into the SUVs it builds today, which can comfortably deal with the worst a British winter can throw at them. The Korando is the company’s mid-size offering, designed to compete with family SUVs like the Nissan Qashqai and Peugeot 3008. It has smart, modern looks and an impressively well finished interior. Looks-wise, it falls somewhere between SUV and large hatchback, and its bulky shape conceals a spacious interior and a boot bigger than most rivals.
The Korando really shows what it's made of if you choose the four-wheel-drive option – a feature that'll appeal to those who live in isolated rural areas and regularly face challenging roads. This option reduces fuel economy from the 1.6-litre diesel engine to around 43mpg, but it may be a compromise worth making to maximise mobility through snow and ice. It can also haul up to 2,000kg, so it’s ideal for owners who regularly tow caravans or braked trailers.
Want to find out more about driving in winter conditions? Check out our winter driving tips. If you want to read more about the best 4x4s on the market, click here for our guide to the Top 10 best 4x4s and SUVs.