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SUVs for Winter: Handling Snow and Ice

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SUVs are a popular choice for many drivers, especially during the winter months when road conditions can be challenging. With their larger size, higher ground clearance, and often all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive capabilities, SUVs are known for their ability to handle snow and ice better than smaller vehicles. However, not all SUVs are created equal when it comes to winter driving. In this article, we will explore the key features and factors to consider when choosing an SUV for winter driving, as well as provide some recommendations for the best SUVs for handling snow and ice.

1. All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing an SUV for winter driving is the type of drivetrain it has. SUVs typically come with either all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD) systems, both of which can provide better traction on slippery surfaces compared to front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive vehicles.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD): AWD systems are designed to automatically distribute power to all four wheels, providing better traction and stability on slippery roads. This can be especially beneficial when driving on icy or snowy surfaces. AWD systems are typically always engaged and do not require any driver input. They are generally more common in SUVs and crossover vehicles.

Four-Wheel Drive (4WD): 4WD systems are typically found in larger SUVs and trucks. Unlike AWD, 4WD systems are usually selectable and can be engaged or disengaged by the driver. This allows for more control over the vehicle’s traction and power distribution. 4WD systems are often preferred for off-road driving or when encountering extremely challenging winter conditions.

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When choosing an SUV for winter driving, it is important to consider your specific needs and the typical road conditions you will encounter. AWD systems are generally sufficient for most winter driving situations, but if you frequently drive in areas with heavy snowfall or off-road, a 4WD system may be more suitable.

2. Ground Clearance

Another important factor to consider when choosing an SUV for winter driving is the vehicle’s ground clearance. Ground clearance refers to the distance between the lowest point of the vehicle’s undercarriage and the ground. SUVs typically have higher ground clearance compared to sedans or hatchbacks, which can be advantageous when driving in deep snow or over icy terrain.

A higher ground clearance allows the SUV to navigate through snow without getting stuck or scraping the undercarriage. It also helps prevent snow from building up in the wheel wells, which can affect the vehicle’s handling and traction. However, it is important to strike a balance, as a very high ground clearance can negatively impact the vehicle’s stability and handling on icy roads.

When choosing an SUV for winter driving, consider the typical snow depth in your area and the type of roads you will be driving on. If you frequently encounter deep snow or drive on unpaved roads, a higher ground clearance may be beneficial. However, if you primarily drive on well-maintained roads with minimal snow accumulation, a moderate ground clearance should suffice.

3. Winter Tires

While SUVs are generally better equipped to handle winter driving compared to smaller vehicles, the type of tires you use can significantly impact their performance on snow and ice. Winter tires, also known as snow tires, are specifically designed to provide better traction and grip in cold weather conditions.

Winter tires are made from a special rubber compound that remains flexible in low temperatures, allowing them to maintain better contact with the road surface. They also have deeper tread patterns with more sipes (small slits) that help channel away snow and water, reducing the risk of hydroplaning.

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When choosing winter tires for your SUV, look for the “Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol on the sidewall. This symbol indicates that the tire meets specific performance requirements for snow traction. It is also important to ensure that the tires are the correct size and load rating for your SUV.

Investing in a set of winter tires can greatly enhance your SUV’s performance on snow and ice, providing better traction, shorter braking distances, and improved overall safety. Remember to switch back to all-season or summer tires once the winter season is over, as winter tires can wear out quickly on dry pavement and may negatively impact fuel efficiency.

4. Electronic Stability Control

Electronic Stability Control (ESC), also known as Electronic Stability Program (ESP) or Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), is a safety feature that can greatly enhance the handling and stability of an SUV on slippery surfaces. ESC uses sensors to detect when the vehicle is losing traction or skidding and automatically applies the brakes to individual wheels or reduces engine power to help regain control.

ESC is particularly beneficial in winter driving conditions, where sudden changes in traction can occur. It can help prevent the vehicle from sliding or spinning out of control, reducing the risk of accidents. Many modern SUVs come equipped with ESC as a standard feature, but it is important to verify its presence when considering a specific model.

When driving an SUV with ESC, it is important to remember that the system is not infallible and should not be relied upon as a substitute for safe driving practices. It is still essential to drive cautiously, maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, and adjust your speed to the road conditions.

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Now that we have discussed the key features and factors to consider when choosing an SUV for winter driving, let’s take a look at some recommended SUVs that excel in handling snow and ice:

  • Subaru Outback: The Subaru Outback is known for its excellent all-wheel drive system and high ground clearance, making it a popular choice for winter driving. It also offers advanced safety features and a spacious interior.
  • Toyota RAV4: The Toyota RAV4 comes with available all-wheel drive and offers a comfortable ride, good fuel efficiency, and a reliable reputation. It also comes with Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of advanced safety features.
  • Audi Q5: The Audi Q5 combines luxury with winter-ready features. It offers all-wheel drive, a well-insulated cabin, and advanced safety technologies. The Quattro all-wheel drive system provides excellent traction on slippery surfaces.
  • Jeep Wrangler: The Jeep Wrangler is a rugged SUV that excels in off-road and winter driving conditions. It comes with a selectable four-wheel drive system, high ground clearance, and aggressive off-road tires.
  • Volvo XC90: The Volvo XC90 offers all-wheel drive, advanced safety features, and a luxurious interior. It also comes with a dedicated “Comfort” mode for improved traction on slippery surfaces.

These are just a few examples of SUVs that are well-suited for winter driving. It is important to test drive multiple models, consider your specific needs, and consult expert reviews before making a final decision.


When it comes to winter driving, SUVs can provide better traction, stability, and ground clearance compared to smaller vehicles. Factors such as the type of drivetrain, ground clearance, winter tires, and electronic stability control can greatly enhance an SUV’s performance on snow and ice. Additionally, choosing a model with a reputation for winter readiness, such as the Subaru Outback or Toyota RAV4, can provide added peace of mind.

Remember to always drive cautiously and adjust your speed to the road conditions, regardless of the vehicle you are driving. Winter driving requires extra attention and preparation, and choosing the right SUV can be a significant step towards ensuring a safe and enjoyable winter driving experience.

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