All-Season Sports Cars

Owning a sports car in a climate with prolonged, snowy winters can be trying. Technological advances can make owning a sports car in a winter zone easier, but you still need to choose the right vehicle.

After consulting the brain trust, we've developed a list of performance cars that we consider acceptable for winter driving, as well as a set of must-have features that cars need to be considered for our list of top-rated winter performance vehicles. First, here are the features:

Active Safety Systems

While seat belts and airbags help protect you in a crash, it's better to avoid the situation entirely. Over the past decade, active safety controls have increased in sophistication. Here are three such systems that are prerequisites for sports cars to make our list:

  • Antilock braking system: ABS makes sure the brakes don't lock under hard braking; when your car's brakes lock, you can't steer and the braking distance increases.
  • Traction control: This is programmed to maintain traction, making sure excessive torque doesn't cause the wheels to spin.
  • Electronic stability system: This system uses ABS by applying brake pressure to individual wheels to help steer your car. It activates when it senses the car is slipping or skidding away from your intended path and is always bundled with traction control.

No matter what active safety systems your car has, pushing its limits during the heart of winter is a recipe for disaster. It doesn't matter how many computers your car has, you can't defy the laws of physics.

Winter or All-Season Tires

Further, computers can't overcome improper tires. Many sports cars come with summer performance tires. Summer tires are specifically built to maximize traction on asphalt at high temperatures; low temperatures and snow greatly reduce friction, making summer tires unsafe.

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class 320, 350 and 550 come with 19-inch all-season tires

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class 320, 350 and 550 come with 19-inch all-season tires

Keeping that in mind, the cars that made our list had a set of all-season or winter performance tires as a factory option.

Bob Toth, Goodyear's marketing manager for performance tires, described all-season tires as the bridge between summer and winter tires. Still, he said, to achieve that balance, sacrifices were made, sometimes making all-season tires an ineffective choice for certain wintery conditions.

If you want to limit your risk completely, Toth suggests winter performance tires. "Electronic stability and other technologies may help take out the human element from traction optimization, but those devices can only optimize the traction that's available from your tires," he said. To make sure you're getting quality winter performance tires, the industry came up with the "mountain-snowflake" symbol, located on the sidewalls, for certified performance snow tires.

Since performance vehicles typically wear wide tires, which climb over rather than cut through snow, there can be significant traction loss. That's why Toth suggests narrower tires and wheels for the winter.

The disadvantage to installing winter tires is you'll have to switch them out in the summer; higher temperatures quickly wear down winter tire treads.

The 2009 Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Limited features a full-time all-wheel-drive system and performance all-season tires.

The 2009 Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Limited features a full-time all-wheel-drive system and performance all-season tires.

Rear-wheel drive is still largely considered the best option for a sports car on dry pavement. Typically, these vehicles have good weight characteristics, making their handling better. When it snows, however, these rear-wheel-drive sports cars can fishtail and lose traction easily. You'll notice that our list excludes any RWD vehicles because they can be unwieldy for novice drivers in the winter.

In the snow, front- and all-wheel-drive cars are the superior choices. These powertrains typically have more weight placed on the driven wheels, improving traction.

Even so, front-wheel drive has its limitations. The amount of power front-wheel-drive cars can handle, as well as the complexity of both propelling and steering your vehicle through one set of wheels, reduces handling and performance limits.

All-wheel drive is the best of both worlds for this category. More than 80 percent of the vehicles on our list have an available all-wheel-drive system. It provides the greatest handling and performance characteristics, and it has great versatility in the snow.

Whether they are designed to be sporty or not, Subaru puts all-wheel drive on all its cars. "When you have all the wheels putting down power at once, you accelerate more smoothly and there's more control," said Subaru's Dominic Infante.

Ground Clearance

Vehicles that made the cut had active safety systems, the right tires and were either front- or all-wheel drive, but another consideration was made, too.

Ground clearance is a significant factor in winter performance. When there are several inches of snow on the pavement, it's best to choose a vehicle whose body will go over rather than through the snow. Sports cars typically have a lowered suspension, as well as ground effects, like side rocker panels and rear diffusers. These performance enhancements can get your vehicle stuck in snowy conditions.

The vehicles on our list were chosen based on our belief that they can handle a street with some snow on it. Still, if you live somewhere where the streets aren't plowed regularly, you might want to consider one of the SUVs or crossovers on our list, such as the Infiniti FX50 or the Porsche Cayenne.

Top-Rated Winter Performance Vehicles
All sports cars are listed in alphabetical order and are from the 2009 model year.
Make/Model FWD/AWD
Acura TLFWD (AWD opt.)
Audi A3FWD (AWD opt.)
Audi TTFWD (AWD opt.)
BMW 335i xDriveAWD
Cadillac CTS w/AWDAWD
Chevrolet HHR SSFWD
Honda Civic SiFWD
Infiniti EX35 w/Journey AWDAWD
Infiniti FX50AWD
Infiniti G37xAWD
Land Rover Range Rover SuperchargedAWD
Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport AWDAWD
Mercedes-Benz CL550AWD
Mercedes-Benz M-ClassAWD
Mini Cooper SFWD
Porsche Cayenne TurboAWD
Saab 9-3FWD (AWD opt.)
Subaru Impreza 2.5GT AWD
Subaru Legacy 3.0 R LimitedAWD
Volkswagen GTIFWD
Volkswagen GLIFWD

*Some models come in RWD variants; we recommend only the FWD or AWD models

Posted on 12/1/08