Three Small Cars Navigate a Big Winter

SNOW TROOPERS: Both the MINI Cooper Hardtop (pictured) and the Toyota Yaris boasted good control and front-wheel-drive, essential for a good grip in snow. GLENN GOULD

It seems every other day this winter we’ve broken a record for cold and snow. Fortunately, I have a full size AWD truck to battle my way through this snowmageddon.

Big is good when it comes to deep snow. You have a better view over the snow banks and an increased chance to be seen by other vehicles. However, there are downsides to big vehicles in the snow. It is a pain to clean snow off a full-size truck or SUV. Too, as parking spaces shrink, you often have to park far from your destination. Having to trudge through snow and slush that extra distance in uninviting. Also, slogging through deep snow in a big vehicle chews up a lot of gas.


Just to see how small car owners fare in this weather, I parked my big rig and went out into the big snow in three small cars.I found that along with the change in size, I needed a change in driving technique and psyche.

Just getting out of our driveway took a different approach. Because I could only see about two car lengths due to the huge snow banks, I had to sprint onto the main road. Sort of the mouse coming out of its hole and seeing if the big bad cat was about to pounce. I was the mouse and the big snow plow was the cat. This procedure would be repeated at every intersection without a traffic light. And, there are few traffic lights in my rural section of Massachusetts.

On the plus side, small cars are easy to clean off. No long-handled snow brushes are needed. They warm up faster than their plus-size relatives, and small cars are a better fit for small parking spaces. And don’t get me started on the challenge of side roads that are down to nearly one lane. Those have been a real white-knuckle driving experience in my truck. But, with one of the small cars, I was able to squeeze by oncoming traffic without getting stuck in a snow bank.


The first small car I drove was a 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club edition with six-speed manual transmission. It even looked sporty buried in snow. However, the first test was during the first big blizzard and the only thing I was driving was my snow blower. Fortunately, the Miata had a set of “real’’snow tires and moved about our driveway quite well, even though it was RWD. Moreover, part of its standard equipment was a limited slip differential, traction-control, and dynamic stability system. In a normal snow storm you would be OK once the plows are out and sanding. However, it was impossible to drive that neat little car because of unsafe road conditions. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until warm weather for a rematch.

The next small car arrived after the blizzard, a 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop. Sure, we still had huge snow piles and clogged roads, but not whiteout conditions. The MINI was a FWD car with automatic transmission, which is one of the best combinations for snow this side of an AWD vehicle. It also had electronic stability and traction controls.

We found the MINI’s traction adequate and it had the zip to get me safely out of the “mouse hole’’and onto the highway. An upgrade to a set of aggressive snow tires would have provided the MINI with even better traction. FWD cars usually handle snow and ice much better than a RWD vehicle. Actually, the MINI has a great rally racing heritage due mainly to its FWD configuration. Our little MINI Cooper’s set of LED fog lights looked very similar to those found on the vintage MINI rally cars. I must say, except for some styling cues, there was nothing vintage about this MINI. It had LED headlamps, automatic climate control, Harman/Kardon premium audio system, and a MINI Wired package.


I found the MINI to be a blast to drive during our most recent arctic outbreak. With the huge snow banks lining the roads, I had visions of screaming through the snow capped Alps in a rally prepped MINI Cooper. Just a daydream, but we did have some fun in the snow. In the MINI, we also felt confident that we would get where we were going, all the while enjoying the MINI’s many creature comforts.

The third contestant was the 2015 Toyota Yaris five-door LE Lift-back. It was FWD and had an automatic transmission. Though the Yaris is a small economy car, it still had standard automatic safety systems similar to the other vehicles. Certainly, the Yaris won’t be found on anyone’s short list of performance autos, but it still was fun to drive. The engine was responsive and the handling nimble. Again, once the plows had done their job, the Yaris did a commendable job of handling the residual mess of snow and ice. Accordingly, a set of snow tires would only make things better. Also, finding a parking spot it would fit into was no problem.

Bottom line: With the use of a modicum of common sense, any one of these small cars is capable of surviving a winter like this one.


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