Here’s $4,500. Buy a winter beater

Thanksgiving is approaching, and those of us in the Snowbelt or mountainous regions might be switching our summers or all-seasons for snow tires, putting our weekend cars on a trickle charger and trying to figure out where we stashed our scraper in the spring. Depending on where you live, you might have already gotten some snow flurries, perhaps even while your kids were trick-or-treating. Those with the driveway space may already have a winter beater, while others might be scouring used car listings for something that won’t break your heart to see covered in road salt. That’s what we’re doing with this exercise.

This week, we’ve got a limited budget of $4,500 to buy a winter beater. What that means to you depends on where you live. Around the Great Lakes, the terrain is pretty flat, but we can get serious snowfall, and the road salt will take its toll on some sheetmetal. In the Pacific Northwest, you might be preparing for just the occasional snow and ice, but have steep hills to deal with. Maybe you’ve got the worst of all worlds where you live. Either way, this car is meant to take the punishments winter driving doles out, allowing you to preserve your more beloved vehicle(s) until spring. You might also want to think about reliability, as breaking down in the freezing cold is dangerous.

So here are some rules.

  1. The $4,500 budget is for the car only. If you need winter tires, we’ll pretend you’ve got some extra dough set aside specifically for that purpose.
  2. If you don’t currently live in an area that gets much snow or ice, pretend you do. Or maybe you’re planning some ski weekends, or got a winter job giving tours of Bobby Orr’s birthplace.
  3. The car can be anything, even a rear-wheel-drive convertible, so long as you can be convincing about a viable use case for winter driving.

Pretty simple. Now let’s see which staffers are going to survive to watch the Final Four:


Senior Editor John Beltz Snyder: In the winter of 2010-11, during my tenure at Winding Road, we had a multi-month loan of a 2011 Mazda2. During that time, we had a weather event the media were calling a “Snowpocalypse.” I had the Mazda2, but the Mazda2 had a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks. My wife and I had a hankering for some of Wolverine State Brewing Company’s excellent nachos, so we headed out in “The Deuce,” hoping it could manage the many inches of still-accumulating snow. It not only managed the unplowed roads, but it managed to embarrass large SUV drivers struggling for grip while our knobby, narrow tires allowed us to easily outmaneuver (and outbrake) the few drivers confident enough to brave the storm. Wolverine Brewing was open, we got our nachos, and we had the place to ourselves.

Another great thing about living with the Mazda2 in winter is the time saved brushing snow off the car. Just a few swipes, and it’s clear.

There are a number of Mazda2s currently available under $4,500, most of them of the 2011 model year and couple under 150,000 miles. Sadly, any I can find with a manual transmission are over budget, but I’ll take what I can get. See you at the nacho spot, if you can make it.

2003 Ford Focus SVT

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: I grew up in Michigan and went to college at the second snowiest university in the country, and I did it all in a slammed front-wheel-drive hatchback. Winter tires, folks! It was hilariously good fun, and the constant hand-brake turns taught me a lot about car control from a young age. So, I present to you another front-wheel-drive hatchback in the form of this 2003 Ford Focus SVT. It’s silver over black, so nothing special from an appearance perspective, but it’s going to be covered in road grime and salt all winter anyway.

At a little over 200,000 miles, this Focus might be a little tired, but there’s still plenty of life left in this 2.0-liter four-cylinder to have some fun, and I don’t want to put a pristine example of this sweet Ford Performance car through winter slop anyway. The factory sport suspension should make it a good time no matter if snow is on the ground or not. And just like the old days, I’d slap a set of winter tires on this thing, and slide it around to my heart’s content.

1992 Cadillac Eldorado

Managing Editor Greg Rasa: I once saw a big GM front-wheel-drive car, an Olds Toronado, win a demolition derby. Its rear end was destroyed, but the front wheels relentlessly dragged it around the arena like a crawling Terminator. When I was a kid, most vehicles were Detroit-made with rear-wheel drive, so the advent of FWD was revolutionary for Midwest winters. Everyone today wants AWD, but FWD usually gets the job done.

This ’92 Cadillac Eldorado is for sale near me, and somebody’s grandfather apparently took good care of it. It has just 77,000 miles, the CarFax shows it was regularly maintained at the dealership, and it has depreciated to a mere $3,199 ask (and even that’s over KBB book). That leaves money to spare for snow tires. A mechanic’s inspection is a must, but the Cadillac 4.9-liter V8 is generally regarded as dependable.

It has big ol’ buttons across the dashboard. The steering wheel boasts of its “supplemental inflatable restraint” (that’s 1992-speak for airbag). There’s a cassette player for when cassettes make their comeback. As for snow traction, 63% of the Eldorado’s weight is over the drive wheels.

It’s 1990s teal, the body looks good, and the cushy seats should clean up. I was surprised Riswick hadn’t claimed it, as he likes big touring coupes. Turns out he’d spotted it too.

Winter beater? Unless there’s some fatal mechanical flaw, this isn’t a beater at all.

2004 Nissan Xterra

Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: It’s not every day that your winter beater can also be a future classic. The fact that the Nissan Xterra doesn’t have the peerless reputation of the Toyota 4Runner actually helps us when looking for a decent set of wheels to tackle the winter. The one up above fits the bill with aplomb. It’s powered by a trusty (if not particularly powerful) 3.3-liter V6 engine and sends all 180 horsepower to the rear or all four wheels through a proper transfer case. With the right set of tires, this would be a great car for the winter, and it’d be fun to keep around for off-roading when the weather turns nice, too. It’s priced right at $4,495.

2008 Volvo XC70

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: How about a winter beater from someplace where they know a thing or two about winter? While Riswick started his search in Scandinavia, I landed here by accident. I was actually trying to track down a Magnum R/T with all-wheel drive, but that’s a rather sparse market. This will do. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a high-mileage, “modern” Volvo from the Ford era. But for $4,500, it’ll do so long as the basic stuff functions, and the wagon format makes for a handy trucklet in other seasons too. The 3.2-liter six-cylinder and six-speed are both passable by modern standards, and even a 15-year-old Volvo is bound to be reasonably safe, which is a plus when surrounded by people who have never heard of winter tires. I just realized I’m starting to talk myself into actually buying one of these. Yikes. 

2005 Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon AWD

Senior Editor James Riswick: For the record, rule No. 2 was entirely written for me. I live in Agoura Hills, Calif., where winter typically consists of chilly nights, occasional mistiness and locals griping about the indignity of chilly nights and occasional mistiness. Wimps. Any way, to follow the rules, I’m going to pick something that’s passable for trips up to the local mountains where snow actually falls in abundance (two hours away) or road trips back home to Oregon. Front- or all-wheel drive was a given, utility was preferred, I didn’t want something from somewhere rusty, and as always, the car had to be interesting.

After multiple searches for Saabs and Volvos, I eventually stumbled upon this gem: a 2005 Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon AWD. Fun fact: This was the first Jaguar I ever drove. I recall actually liking my time behind the wheel, and the thing that made it lamentable back in the day (a Ford Mondeo Wagon wrapped in Jaguar XJ styling) makes it loveably kitschy today. As a wagon, it has the utility I want, including raised roof rails. It has all-wheel drive. It’s from Virginia, so no rust concerns. And it’s definitely interesting. I like this little guy. Yet another example of doing this exercise and walking away kinda wanting my choice for reals.