Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Thoughts from those in the upper MidWest?

Hello there all,

I’m looking for some sage advice from a midwesterner on purchasing a (used) car (as per a previous discussion I started, I’m looking for a hatchback). I’ll be moving out to Montana at the end of the summer. More specifically, Missoula (which I’ve been told is the “banana belt” of the state…relatively speaking, less snow).

Of course many friends’ initial response to this was- “oh, get a Subaru! You must need AWD!”

But my question is- do I REALLY need AWD? Just how important is it out there? The lower gas mileage is a very big (and probably the only at this point) downside for me. I will be -

  1. living within the city of Missoula
  2. a full-time grad student who’s journalistic degree may lead her into some off-road places (though this is certainly not a sure thing)
  3. venturing out accordingly to the national wonders of the area for periodic camping and trekking and
  4. from the onset, driving out there from the east coast (so putting a lot of miles on it right away).

Any Montanites or neighbors have any advice or suggestions on how to prioritize these gas effic/awd options?

Thanks much ya’ll.

I’m in Minnesota but have a niece in Missoula. I’ve never been sold on the need for AWD in Minnesota, but Montana is different. There are hills and mountains everywhere you go and they get plenty of snow. Plus it is not exactly a rich area so road maintenance funds aren’t like they would be in more populace areas. I saw a lot of Subies out there and that’s about all they had for rentals but lots of trucks too so you aren’t really limited to Subarus. Don’t worry about the gas mileage. Going up and down hills will kill the mileage anyway.

Since it’s on the mountainous western side of the state, I’d get something with AWD.

Missoula is smack-dab in the middle of the Rockies and well up into snow country. If I were there, I’d definitely want AWD or FWD, with a set of good winter tires on spare rims to do the fall/spring changeover routine.

Upper-midwesterner here who also has a journalism degree: If you’re using the vehicle for news, you need true 4wd, and it needs to be an SUV. When the story is in some godawful backwoods middle-of-nowhere spot that you have to take a 0-maintenance access road that’s covered with rocks from the last slide, even a Subaru isn’t going to get you there.

That said, I’ve never felt that a J-school student, even in grad school, should be spending a lot of money for their own equipment, whether that’s a camera or a car. If your student press office really wants you to get to a remote story, they can rent you a vehicle that can get there, or stick you in the car with the local TV guys who are going there anyway.

For that region, if you take making it a news car out of the equation, a Subaru would do you fine, as long as you put good winter tires on it when the snow starts flying.

It has gotten to the point that the difference in gas mileage and price aren’t that big, so why not get awd? It doesn’t have to be Subaru, of course, though they sell some of the cheapest and most capable awd models. If traction on paved (but snowy/icy) roads is your concern, than any awd car will do. If you also expect to drive on unpaved, poorly tended roads, you want something with more ground clearance, and if you want to drive Jeep tracks in the wilderness you need 4wd and an appropriate vehicle. Chances are you won’t be doing much of that while you’re in school, and probably not later, either, but something like a Subaru Forester would be nice for both summer camping trips and more secure winter driving, if not for off-road expeditions. If you still want to save money and gas and get a hatchback, there is always the Subaru SV Crosstrek. It’s just an Impreza hatchback with the suspension lifted a bit and some off-roady bits stuck on here and there. It won’t give you the off-road ability of a vehicle built for that purpose, but it will give you awd and improved ground clearance. My guess is that it is probably quite popular in Missoula.

Thanks for the suggestions all. @MarkM‌ I haven’t really spent any time checking out the SV Crosstrek, I’ll give it a look.

I am of course not limited to just subarus. But I have to say, I really reeeeeally wanted to avoid getting a proper SUV. So for more affordable cars (like a hatchback, which is my preferred style no matter what), subaru seems to have the most to offer.

@shadowfax I don’t foresee getting crazy assignments out there, or even doing anything related the breaking news world. (i’ve been a visual journalist the past 8 yrs, but this program is concentrated on in-depth environmental journalism). Though I can definitely see how having a true AWD would be necessary if you were chasing assignments in the middle of nowhere.

@Bing, thanks for bringing up transport tax funds, that wasn’t really something I had considered. Worthy of noting for sure.

As for snow alone (without considering the rugged roads part), I grew up and learned to drive in what comes up as either the TOP snowiest or second snowiest city in the country (Syracuse NY) and no one I knew ever had AWD vehicles. We DID however always invest in high quality snow tires. So I guess in terms of city driving, I’m not too concerned for the snow. It’s the outer areas that I question.

This bring up any other thoughts?

Cheers everyone!

Just be sensible and stay to roads you know when it’s snowy. AWD would be nice to have, but you’re certainly right that it’s not essential around town. The SV Crosstrek looks a bit dorky, but is still a Impreza hatchback at heart. The slightly raised suspension would be of some modest value in the winter, but more in the summer, when you may want to drive roads that are a bit bumpy (but not so bad as to require 4WD.) It’s a car I’d like to have in those places.

Piece of mind,just do your Ps& Qs and watch the tire sizes,of course its going to be a bit more problematic,but you wont have to put on chains or get stuck in a sudden snow squall-Kevin

You will like AWD on snow with hills. It’s not much different than driving on dry roads. On highways with snow or slush, just remind yourself that conditions are bad and slow down. The AWD won’t tell you that conditions are bad until the roads are dangerous.

A full size pickup truck will remind you every time you try to pick up speed in 2WD. The spinning rear wheels say “take it easy” so you just let off the gas pedal. You aren’t looking for 11 MPG so pickups are kind of out. My 2003 Rav4 gets 18 MPG in the winter. I love the AWD system. I was tired of shifting into 4WD whenever I had to go up the hills around home. Life is easy now.

I would just add that from my experience in rural Minnesota and South Dakota, the snow totals might not be as great as in Syracuse but it is a whole lot more rugged with the wind and remoteness. You don’t know what loneliness is until driving in a freezing blizzard across South Dakota. Your life virtually depends on staying on the road. Two feet of snow in town is one thing but trying to walk 10 miles to the nearest farm is something else. Don’t skimp.

@Bing I just did exactly that last winter. We should have been able to beat the blizzard out of SD, but it accelerated and caught us right as it was getting dark. It was horrible - the car had good winter tires and was never in real danger of sliding off due to lack of grip, but you couldn’t see 2 feet in front of the hood. You can’t stop, because the guy behind you will plow right into you even if you’re pulled off the road, because he can’t see the road and is looking for tail lights to follow. So you have to keep going until you get to a town, which can be a very rare sight out there.

@Bing I drove across SD last summer and that was plenty lonely enough for me.
Seeing for miles ahead and miles behind and not one other vehicle in sight.

We can see the Rocky Mountins out of our back window, and have never felt the need for an AWD vehicle. Both our cars have good winter tires starting at the end of October, and they come off in April.

We ski, snow shoe and spend a lot of time in the mountains.

AWD makes sense in areas of very heavy snowfall or bad roads.