For some odd reason, since mid-Missouri received upwards of a foot of snow a couple of days back, I've been pondering the idea of picking up a winter beater. My current commuter car (that takes me roughly 40 miles down the highway twice a day) is an '08 Honda Fit Sport, which is an excellent car... until it hits any ice, and then it doesn't have enough weight and a LSD to handle it well. Or snow piled deeper than 3 inches, at which point the front air dam becomes a snow plow. So yeah, it's been real fun getting to work this past week, and the thing I keep kicking myself over is that in the past 3 years, I've purposefully gotten rid of all of our good, bad weather vehicles. Had a 2000 GMC Envoy (really a rebadged Jimmy) with the Vortec v6 and good 4WD, but sold it to my sister-in-law earlier this year as part of a deal to acquire her '90 Corolla for a crapcan racer. Couple years back, sold off my '95 Chevy Corsica (with the 3.1L v6), and that was the most surprisingly sure-footed winter car I'd ever had, even better than the Envoy. Yeah, it wasn't as high off the ground, but it was just heavy enough to get a good grip, and since all of that engine weight (iron block, not aluminum block 3.1, she was a hefty girl) was right over the drive tires, I can't begin to count the number of 4WD/AWD/4x4 vehicles I'd pass every winter as they were slipping and sliding, and the old granny car just kept chugging along.
So I'm to the point of thinking about getting one. Of course, so have a lot of you (go to Google and type in "winter beater site:oppositelock.jalopnick.com" and watch the scroll of posts), and I've been reading and pondering. I've seen some deals online already, but as the wife and I are trying to replace our other subcompact hatchback (a new gen Fiesta, inherited from my mom when we had to take it away from her) with a minivan, plus the time to buy a winter beater is not in the winter time when you're desperate for it, now is not the time to buy, but to study.
What are the important factors in choosing a winter beater? For me, AWD or 4WD, good heater/defroster (probably more important than the drive system... if you're freezing and your windows are fogged, what's the point?), reliable, tough, has a manual transmission (gotta have my manual!), and cheap enough that it can be a spare car you don't have to drive often to justify it's expense. That last is pretty important as well, because if you're already using a $13K car for your daily because that's the best you can afford, buying another $10K worth of "beater" vehicle just doesn't make economic sense.
What's been interesting me are small, body on frame foreign utility vehicles, like yesterday's NPOCP VehiCROSS. I would so get a VehiCROSS, but the rarity of them, plus the high build quality, mean that finding them in the sub 10 grand price range is hard, and the sub 5 large price range (usually where one thinks of a beater's price range to top out at) is nigh impossible. I've also found myself of late drooling over one of the older model Subaru Forester XT's with a manual transmission (less likely to be hooned than its hatchback brethren, and not as popular, so cheaper to find good used vehicles), but again, generally too expensive to meet the cheap requirement. What a great RallyX vehicle that would be, though! Another fun option would be one of the venerable Army Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicle (CUCV), particularly the later M1008 truck or the M1009 Blazer, which I still have on my military license (when you're in the Guard, you get to play with a lot of equipment the regular Army stopped using two decades ago). Sadly, as cool as one of those would be, getting harder and harder to find parts, and just not a lot of good diesel mechanics out there for the civilian market. And never a manual transmission, always automatics.
Otherwise, I'm looking at the usual suspects - Isuzu Rodeo and Amigo (they did a good job with the VehiCROSS, why not the more common and cheaper cousins?), Nissan Pathfinder and XTerra (first gen each), Toyota 4Runner (2nd gen), and the S-10 Blazer (1st gen). We'll see what comes of it later this year when I've (potentially) got extra scratch and the prices drop.