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Specifically: Lake Tahoe Snow - Best car/suv with either 4x4 or AWD around $3000?

edited July 2012 in General Discussion

I'm new here and need some advice from those who know a lot more about cars than I do. I've done a fair amount of research, but some is conflicting, some helpful and some seems to say that in the price range I can't depend on anything in the snow for sure.

I live in the SF Bay Area, CA. I would be driving the majority of the year in regular, every day street conditions, and when snow season hits, hopefully November-March, I would take as many trips as possible to the Lake Tahoe area, which is about a four to four and a half hour commute.

From what I gather, ground clearance seems to be ideal when the snow really starts to fall, rust is obviously to be avoided at all costs, snow tires and driving ability is a key factor with anything in the snow. Some have pointed out that trucks don't have the weight over the rear axle and can lead to an imbalance of weight/pressure being applied to the tires. I have compiled a list of cars, trucks and suvs that seem to perform at least decently in snowy conditions. But, the years range anywhere from mid to late 90s, up to the very early 2000s, with an average of approximately 130,000+ miles, some as low as 80k-ish.

Any help or info would be greatly appreciated.

Toyota - 4Runner
Subaru - Forester
Volvo - XC90

Subaru - Legacy, Impreza or Outback
Toyota - Tacoma or Tundra
Jeep - Wrangler

Toyota - Rav4 or Matrix S AWD
Suzuki - SX4
Volvo - XC70 or S80 T6
Audi - A4 or A6 Quattro
Honda CR-V or Pilot
Nissan - Pathfinder
Pontiac Vibe
Kia - Sportage
Chevy Blazer 4x4
Chevy S-10 4x4
Ford Ranger 4x4


  • I wouldn't recommend 4WD. You're not going to get a good 4WD vehicle for only $3k. You're going to get an abused rust bucket. Plus, you don't need 4WD, even for Tahoe trips. You'll be doing city driving most of the time. Just get a good front wheel drive vehicle and invest in a good set of all-season tires, and a set of cable chains.
  • Cross off Volvo, Audi and Jeep from your list. Any of those brands you get in your price range will likely need that much in maintenance/repairs in the first year or two.
  • Sounds like fun. I'm not a big fan of light trucks. They used to be a good budget alternative but have gotten surprisingly expensive for their limited amenities. They also get used hard. A little searching here will find strong criticism of Subarus. A shame, as I also like the old Forester. The 4Runner is an obvious choice. I'm surprised you also don't have the XTerra on the list, or have they not been around long enough? Any Pilot you can afford must have high mileage, but it's awfully nice. Likewise the similar Toyota Highlander. The Matrix/Vibe of that era may have engines prone to oil sludging. It depends on the engine and how it has been treated. Otherwise, a very appealing vehicle, though the awd version is rare. I also like the little SX4 and per Consumer Reports it is quite reliable. It's probably the most recent awd car you can afford.

    There are many other adequate, uninspired SUVs you haven't named, Escapes, Explorers, Mariners, Vues, Rodeos, Passports, various Misubishis and many others. I have no idea which have fallen to your price point, but I wouldn't rule them out. They aren't all that impressive and don't have the butch credibility of some of your options, but they also don't have great resale value, which is good for you. An Escape in decent condition is better than a thrashed 4Runner. When cars get old they all get somewhat unreliable, whoever made them. Maintenance records are good if you can get them, but at your price single owner cars are the exception. If you're OK with a manual transmission, you can reduce your risks. Automatics are more prone to unpredictable failure and will be too expensive to fix on a car worth so little.

    Others have already advised you to avoid Volvos and Audis Heed their advice. If a luxury vehicle has fallen to your price level there is a good reason for it. Wranglers are miserable highway and city vehicles. Almost everyone I know who bought one regretted it. They're uncomfortable, noisy, inefficient, slow (until recently), and unreliable.

    Significant rust is very rare in California. By all means check for it, but odds are you won't find any unless the car grew up elsewhere. Awd is surprisingly common here (I live in San Francisco). No idea why, given our weather. I suspect the premium for used awd vehicles is less here than most places since hardly anyone actually needs it and it cuts gas mileage. I don't know what the CHP considers 4wd, but that plus snow tires will avoid chain requirements most of the time, more than fwd plus snow tires. I wouldn't be too concerned about ground clearance if all your driving is on major paved roads. If the snow is so deep a car with chains can't get through the road will likely be closed.

    Hit Craigslist and have fun. For those who say to look beyond Craigslist, in the Bay Area there isn't much point. Craigslist is local and so dominant hardly anyone would try to sell a car here without listing it there.
  • edited July 2012
    In my experience, if one is dead set on buying a cheap awd or 4 wd vehicle, go simple. Look for a compact pick up with a 4 cyl and part time 4 wd. It's the closest you can come to something that may give you the best reliability and be cheaper to fix when it does fail. A used Suzuki sidekick or Chevy Tracker may be alternatives as well.
  • edited July 2012
    jesmed: That seems to be what I have come across for the most part, the two or three deals, or at least they seemed that way, by the time I got to them, were gone.

    bscar2: That seems to be what I've heard as well, test drove a 01 A4, honestly I wasn't that impressed.

    MarkM: Wow! Thanks for all of the info, where do I start? Reasons I didn't include the XTerra and Passport was due to the fact that I thought I had heard they were fairly unreliable, same goes with Escapes, Explorers, Mariners, Rodeos, Montero and the like. Is this incorrect? I've also been discouraged by a friend from buying something like a Highlander, or Rav4, as they are not built on a truck chassis.

    I have two friends that are fairly knowledgeable, but sort of polar opposites. One, can fix pretty much anything and knows a ton about cars and is used to buying beat up cars for a grand or so and has a little crazy in him. Says I'd be fine in a lot, where as the other friend is knows a lot about cars in general, but isn't a real hands on car guy for fixing them, not to say he doesn't know what he is talking about. I'm guessing maybe somewhere in between I can find something that will suffice?

    I only need something for a season or two, three at the most then I am upgrading to something much newer in the $10k-$20K range. And I know how to drive stick, so that shouldn't be an issue.

    Dagosa: I've been looking into Rangers, and S-10s, but from what I find, there are not many that haven't been driven pretty hard, even more so than slightly more expensive suv counter parts. And used Tacoma's are ridiculously over priced imo.
  • $3000 isn't much of a budget to work with. Forget Volvo's and Audi, they can have repair bills bigger than your budget. I think you'd do much better with a FWD car and winter tires. If you must have AWD or 4WD I think your best bets on that budget are Ford Escapes or Explorers. There are lots of them for sale, so you can find one with good service records. Contrary to what you've heard they are reliable and since you'll be getting an old one with lots of miles on it the repair bills aren't too bad either.

    I'm not a big fan of old, high mileage Subaru's either. Lot's of posts about head gasket problems and AWD problems when previous drivers ran mismatched tires.
  • edited July 2012
    Your other alternative, would be to search for a two wheel drive pick up, any make model you can find, with a limited slip rear differential. Make sure you have at least 500lbs of tube sand in the back and winter tires and you will do very well indeed in winter snow. Even an old van. Sorry, for three grand, I'm with Uncle, you're looking for a beater in 4 wd and two wheel rear wheel drive LS with ground clearance, winter tires and added weight are your best alternative. Fwd cars give you little clearance, a prime deep snow consideration. You would be surprised how much better in snow, good clearance will do for you. Btw, if there is a reliable 4wd vehicle out there for $3k, it will be a donation from a relative. Got one ?
  • UncleTurbo: So the case seems with Audis and Volvos. I've heard about gasket issues with subs, but I wasn't aware of issues with the AWD system and mismatched tires, thanks for the heads up. I'm actually looking into Escapes, they seem to be a bit outside of the $3,000 range, but for just a couple or few thousand more they are around 2002 and sub 100k miles, same with Xterras.

    Dagosa: Yeah a friend at work was telling me you can water/sand beds for the back, good to know the proper weight I would be looking for. Well, the problem is in CA they force you to put chains on if you have anything less than 4x4 or AWD, if the conditions call for it. I am trying to avoid having to get out and put chains on, and from everything I've read, most people are not fans of driving in the snow with chains. But I won't rule it out just yet. And no, no relative that will donate unfortunately.
  • @powpow - are there any alternatives, like a ski shuttle/bus, maybe associated with a ski club? As others have said, there's not much good available for $3000 with awd/4wd. You could get a better-condition fwd car and a set of chains.

    I wouldn't worry about ground clearance too much, those highways are heavily traveled and plowed.
  • edited July 2012
    It is pretty hard to beat a Tacoma 4 cylinder 4x4 truck in reliability and in snow. That's my daily commuter. Throw some sandbags in the bed when it snows and you're unstoppable (in a good way assuming you're not on ice. Then you're just over your head).
    It is probably equally hard to find one for 3K.

    I am very partial towards Subaru but you'll have a pretty hard time finding a good one that has no issues and doesn't require some work for that price.
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