Need Advice! Cheap Commuter Car, Winter Driving As Well

I will be starting a new job soon that is located way out in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota. We are not looking into moving because we love the place we live now. So that means I will be commuting around 220 miles everyday! I love to drive, so the hours on the road aren’t the issue, but I am considering buying a used beater to plug some miles into and leave the nicer cars to around town and whatnot. Also have to keep in mind that 5 months out of the year there could be snow on the ground.

My current ideas are either:
a.) Buy the cheapest subaru AWD vehicle on the used market and sacrifice the mpg a little for winter handling
b.) Buy the best gas mileage used vehicle out there (i.e. civic, corolla, etc) and hope the roads are always passable in 2WD.

Cosmetics are no issue what-so-ever. As long as it gets good gas mileage and can almost guarantee I am not going to get stranded.

What should I buy? How many miles is too many miles for those cars? Any other suggestions? I would like to stay under $5-6k for a budget.

Thanks in advance for the advice.

Maybe it would help if you told us what your “nicer cars” are, and why one of them won’t work for this commute.

220 miles every day is not something to sneeze at, especially in a Minnesota winter. I’d want a reliable car for this commute, not some junker.

a.) Buying the cheapest Subaru on the market is not a good idea. You’ll spend more keeping it going than you spent to buy it.

b.) I like this idea better, assuming you equip the vehicle with FOUR winter tires.

I think winter tires are more important than vehicle choice, but I still want to know what’s in your garage right now, and why you don’t just drive it to work.

There is no guarantee you not going to get stranded, regardless of what you drive. Forget that.

I’d got for something with a bit of ground clearance on it, since you’ll never know how the roads are plowed, IF they are plowed, in the area you’re gonna be driving in. No use getting 40mpg if you wind up having to stay in a motel for the night because they don’t plow the roads very often.

Any used car will be a gamble, so get it inspected before you buy. If you see a nice Subaru out there, but it has different/mismatched tires on it, run away from it, it’ll be a headache down the road.

Plenty of regular cars make it through the winters, Snow tires plus gas savings may outweigh 4wd for your choices.

In my very humble opinion, if you commute to the middle of nowhere, you may find the security of awd is worth a few extra miles per gallon. The problem is, older awd or 4wd vehicles can be expensive to repair. If you can afford it, a newer Rav, CRV or Subaru would be my recommendation. Newer models cost very little more to maintain than 2wd cars with the added penalty of a fewer mpg’s.

If you want reliability, buying cheap and old, especially in awd is not the way to go. A Toyota 2wd pick up with weight in the back, snow tires and chains for real bad traveling is quite economical to operate and a relatively cheap and reliable transportation alternative.

I know a lady who raved about her Prius in the summer and worried in the winter when traveling over snow covered roads to no where. Spending hours in a ditch was not a pleasant experience waiting for help. She had snow tires by the way. Snow tires are NOT the be all end all in winter travel unless they are on a capable car to begin with. Just like a capable car is not as well with out snow tires. You need both.

I’d stay clear of an old used Subaru unless you have lots of money for repairs.

A FWD car with 4 winter tires will get you just about anywhere. If you can see the road you can go if you have winter tires. If you can’t afford winter tires and summer tires with the annual change over, buy winter tires and run them into the ground and then replace them with winter tires. They don’t wear that much worse on a small fuel efficient car than a summer or all season tire.

An old Ford Escort should be on your shopping list.

4WD may not be as good as FWD.

There are two problems with winter driving. First is getting your car moving. Moving is important, but the second problem is far more important.

The most important thing is the ability to stop and to control direction.  4WD is no better at stopping or maintaining direction control than FWD.  You may well be safer with a 2WD than 4WD.  

I am not against 4WD, but don't allow it to give you too much confidence. 

I might add that modern cars with stability control would be my preference on my next car. 

 Remember:  it is better not being able to get on the road than to slide off it.

Truck based 4wd systems do create directional stability problems at higher speeds on both dry and slippery conditions and are not designed for speeds greater than anyone in their right mind should be traveling in slippery conditions. But with all due respect, modern awd systems enhance directional stability over fwd which are really poor in this area. The opposite is true.

They even aid braking directional stability when using engine braking and slippery conditions are suddenly encountered. Just like a high performance sports car can give you a false sense of security if pushed too far, so can any awd/4wd vehicle in slippery weather. But, driven sanely, they offer directional control and overall traction, including engine braking, that fwd car owners can only dream about. It isn’t even close. They are better handlers on dry as well.

Safe drivers who own them, generally find them even safer. A modern awd car with winter tires is the ultimate safe vehicle available to the average consumer with minimal sacrifice in mileage and very little in maintenance if you buy a reliable one to begin with. A fwd car with winter tires can go almost anywhere you can see the road is a real stretch. Problem though, is that the good awd cars are NOT CHEAP !

Gas cost is everything for you. At $3 per gallon, you will spend over $8300 each year for gas if you buy a 2001 4WD Toyota Tacoma. If you buy a 2001 Subaru Impreza, gas will cost you a little under $5900 annually. If it’s a 2001 Corolla, you will spend $4400 for gas every year. I’d look in the Corolla class if you don’t mind a car that size. It will cost less than the same year Subaru and you will save $1500 in gas each year you own it. You should also consider moving if the job works out. Not immediately; you will want to decide if the folks you work with or meet in the new town are worth the move. Maybe they are.