Winter Driving Guide
Chionophobia is the fear of snow. GTA motorists get it bad.
They’re afraid of what snow does to formerly dry streets and highways and what slushy brine does to cars left to soak in it for months on end. It’s not pretty.
Perhaps this is the year to let your expensive ride hibernate, and climb into a cheapo car or truck to battle the elements. Maybe it’s time to consider a winter beater.
Drive a beater and you can lessen the stone chips, rust, excessive mileage and bad-weather mishaps that can take the shine off your fair-weather crush. Even skilled drivers can’t prevent other motorists from sliding into them in icy conditions.
Here are five cheap-to-keep winter beaters you can find for around $5,000 — but don’t forget to budget for four snow tires.
2001-05 Chevrolet Cavalier/Pontiac Sunfire
At first we weren’t going to put this pair on our inglorious list. Not everyone was enamoured with General Motors’ econobox offerings when they were new. But a funny thing happened over the years. The cars kept rolling along, a little worse for wear, but they’ve persevered.
The second generation (1995-2005) provided some overdue revisions to the front-drive platform, which carbon-dates back to 1981. The unibody was stiffened and a new front subframe and suspension improved handling. The updated Cavalier/Sunfire was available as a two-door coupe and four-door sedan; a convertible was also sold until 2001.
The base engine was a 120-hp 2.2 L pushrod four cylinder, while a 150-hp DOHC 2.4 L four was the lone optional power plant. In 2000, buyers could choose between a Getrag five-speed manual transmission and a four-speed autobox. A smoother “Ecotech” 140-hp DOHC 2.2 L four became the step-up motor for 2002 and the sole engine in 2003.
Problems? “The only thing is the interior and exterior,” an owner posted, unhelpfully. The Cavalier and Sunfire are awash in flimsy plastic trim and seats that barely keep your rear end off the floor. Watch for blower motor issues, faulty dash electronics and air conditioning problems. The good news? Repairs are not pricey.
2003-06 Mitsubishi Lancer
Looking to drive Japanese? It doesn’t get more Rising Sun than Mitsubishi. Unlike competitors that have relocated production to North America, the Lancer is still stamped, “Made in Japan.” This four-door is the automaker’s gas-saving compact, though you won’t feel hard done by while enjoying the spacious cabin relative to its size.
All Lancers shared a 120-hp 2.0 L four-cylinder engine, although a more robust 162-hp 2.4 L four was introduced in the sporty “Ralliart” sedan for 2004, along with some styling tweaks. The larger engine gives the Lancer some welcome thrust, but fuel economy is disappointing. The Ralliart Sportback wagon is a fantastic mini-hauler, but an exceedingly rare find.
The Lancer distinguishes itself in the compact market by delivering Lexus-like refinement and some unexpected luxury touches. How many others come with a fold-down rear armrest? More importantly, the Lancer has been favourably reviewed by Canadians who took a chance on the new nameplate when it landed here in 2002.
The relatively few mechanical problems recounted by owners include prematurely worn clutches and brakes, as well as paint that appears to chip and scratch easily. Shuddering or surging displayed by the automatic transmission may require the autobox to be flushed and refilled with newer SP-III fluid.
2003-07 Ford Focus
Ford’s world car aspired to be more than just another econobox, thanks in part to its impeccable grooming overseas. The Focus offered a variety of body styles, including a Canada-only five-door hatch and a wagon that could swallow most appliances. All featured a roomy cabin, decent refinement and reasonably efficient engines.
Base models got a 110 hp version of the old Escort’s single-cam 2.0 L four-cylinder engine, while higher trims got a 130 hp twin-cam spinoff. For 2004, Ford introduced a 145 hp 2.3 L four cylinder borrowed from Mazda, an especially sweet motor. All models got some updated, if more staid, styling for 2005.
Unfortunately, the Focus was a little unfocused at launch, with so many recalls mailed out letter carriers were booking overtime. Avoid the premiere 2000 and 2001 model-year cars. Newer Foci are better, with many of the initial hiccups worked out.
The most common problem involves faulty ignition switches, which won’t allow the key to be twisted. The Focus eats brakes, so be prepared for frequent service. A malfunctioning air conditioner may be traced back to a leaking compressor shaft seal. Other headaches include faulty alternators, window regulators and automatic transmissions (in small numbers).
2002-06 Suzuki Aerio AWD
Fitted with four winter tires, any front-drive compact can take you through snow-clogged streets. But if you’re slogging outside the GTA, an all-wheel-drive car can give you greater peace of mind. Available as a four-door sedan and wagon, Suzuki’s Aerio won’t win any beauty contests, but it has the right AWD stuff to pull you through.
The deceivingly small-but-tall Aerio yielded a generous amount of passenger space and a good view of the road. Suzuki gave it an overachieving DOHC 2.0 L four that made 145 hp — power that was put to good use coupled with the optional all-wheel-drive system and four-speed automatic transmission.
The Aerio gained more horses for 2004, trading up to a 2.3 L four that generated 155 hp, along with an analog dashboard instead of the former digital display. Be aware that the AWD system was optional, so be certain yours has it if that’s what you want.
The made-in-Japan Suzi garnered lots of accolades — one online boast claims 650,000 km accumulated on a 2003 model. In terms of headaches, about the only reported repairs had to do with a few failed air conditioners, worn CV joints and short-lived factory tires. The AWD powertrain has proven to be a little thirsty, more than you’d expect a small car to be.
2001-06 Ford Ranger
With their greater ground clearance and optional four-wheel drive, trucks make excellent winter beaters. Like the Cavalier, the Ford Ranger hasn’t changed all that much since the Reagan administration, although it was reworked for 1998 along with its corporate cousin, Mazda’s B-Series truck. Second-generation models got a larger regular cab, a revamped four-wheel-drive system and two optional rear-hinged doors added to extended SuperCab models.
Inside, the Ranger offered good, comfy space up front, but the SuperCab’s rear jump seats were suitable for kids only. Starting in 2001, base two-wheel-drive Rangers received a DOHC 2.3L four-cylinder “Duratec” motor, good for 135 hp (later raised to 143 hp).
Ford’s resilient 154-hp 3.0L “Vulcan” pushrod V6 was standard in 4×4 models, while the big enchilada was a SOHC 4.0L V6 lifted from the Explorer, making 207 horsepower. It pulled like a mule, but owners reported the big six guzzled fuel like a full-size F-150.
Mechanically, a common fault is a sensitive fuel pressure inertia switch found in the passenger foot well. Designed to cut off the fuel pump in the event of a collision, it may staunch fuel delivery at any time, stalling the truck. Other noteworthy headaches include short-lived front suspension components, driveline vibration, leaky transmissions, overhead lamps that drip water, and sundry squeaks and rattles.
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