QotW: What’s the best winter JNC?

Civic Wagon tracks

Massive loads of snow have been falling on our planet, even in regions like Texas (though still sunny in LA, in case you’re wondering). And while it’d be stark raving insanity to drive a classic car through the slush and salt, what if reasons of circumstance, finances, or general good taste prevented you from driving a new car?

What’s the best winter JNC?

One of the best snow cars we’ve ever owned was an FF 5-speed Honda. It whisked us through the blizzard of 2003, past armies of suburbanites unintentionally drifting their SUVs with no problem whatsoever, with nothing but a set of all-season Yokohamas. We put up this tracked Civic Wagon simply because it’s totally rad bitchin’ awesome, but AWD isn’t a necessity.

What say you, dear reader? As always, the most entertaining comment by next Monday will receive a toy. Click through to see the winner of the last QotW, “Which completely inconspicuous car will be a JNC of the future?” 


JNCers provided a Christmas buffet of entertaining comments this week, making it difficult to pick one winner. Dave‘s call for the Mazda 929 made a lot of sense, as did j3wman‘s treatise on the Suzuki SX4, Toyota Matrix XRS and Honda Fit Sport. Bert‘s LS 400 nod generated a lot of great responses, and Dandy‘s Lexus ES 300 was just the kind of out-of-box thinking we like. However, there can be only one and so this week’s champion is Kevin:

The Toyota Corolla All-Trac Wagon, and pretty much any other All-Trac Toyotas, will surely be future JNCs. Dependable, MANUAL 4WD and awesome early 90s styling make for a completely useable car that will get you nearly anywhere! And in Sprinter form, the unassuming little wagon is simply bad ass!

4AFE reliability, front wheel drive fuel consumption levels with 4WD traction when you want it, and great styling.

Who needs ya’ Outback?!
I believe that as time goes by, they will continue to become rarer and rarer, (in MT they’re already pretty hard to come by in reasonable condition) and appreciation for the simple 4WD layout, that gives YOU the option to use it as YOU need it, will shoot these beauties to JNC glory!

Omedetou, Your comment has earned you a set of JNC decals!

JNC Decal smash


Photo courtesy tracked wagon.

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32 Responses to QotW: What’s the best winter JNC?

  1. Lukas says:

    The best winter-JNC? In the US?
    Look no further and get a Subaru Leone 4WD or Loyale 4WD, as the last model-years were called over there. They will rust like a scottish fishing-boat and by the end of the winter, you will be able to sweep it out of your garage, but as long as it drives, it will get you everywhere. Huge ground-clearance, a cool dual-range-transmission and the rumble of the lame but trusty Boxer-engine will make SUV-owners green with envy.

    • j3wman says:

      Down side being the horrifically unreliable EA82T

    • AndyB says:

      There is no way you can argue with that. I still have fond memories of me and my brother driving through snow that was up to the hood in his rusty ’80 GL hatch. We used to plow out the road up Lolo Pass like we were in a boat on an icy river. And did quite a few 180, 360, and 540 degree spins on the icy roads coming down from the hills. (Some intentionally, sometimes not so much) The few times our shinanigans landed us in a ditch and the Subaru wasn’t able to just back out of it, we could pretty much just physically lift that car back onto the road. The thing was only 2 wheel drive, but we went places Jeep owners where scared to drive!

  2. Nigel says:

    A 94′ and up Corolla or a 92′ and up Civic.
    (A good set of snows, two on the front only if you dig the dorifto).
    Older than 94′ and 92′ should be kept for summer.

  3. BearChair says:

    I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this one. You guys are certainly right; Toyota’s all-trac models and the Subarus are a great choice for a good winter car.

    In high school, a buddy had an ’89 fifth generation Toyota Celica (ok, technically it was a 1990 model year, but it was made in 1989 that still has to count). He was an awful driver, and in two years of driving had already gone through a Pontiac Grand Am and Grand Prix, but his dad owned a junk yard, so there was a roughly infinite number of replacements each time.

    It was a base ST liftback, but while its skinny tires where a bit underwhelming the rest of the time, it was a star in the snow. There are a few partially completed housing developments in my town, which meant completed roads with no houses around them, and more importantly absolutely no traffic or any threat of it.

    After a big snow one night, we took the Toyota to one of these incomplete developments and started doing handbrake slides in the snow. Of course, as time when on speeds increased, until eventually by friend pitched the car partially off the road. The rear wheels were still on the pavement, but the front wheels were hanging just far enough into a ditch to have no traction. After about an hour of digging out the snow to find said ditch and then pushing, we got the car back on the road with no damage at all.

    The next winter, the same buddy was driving the car on a snowy road. He went over a hill (probably going too fast, but I wasn’t with him); the car got light and ended up sideways in the road. Before he could get it sorted, another car came up the road and hit him. He was fine, but the Celica was totaled.

  4. Daniel says:

    Best winter car I’ve ever driven (and I still do) is the Mazda ’92 323 GT-R. With its 4WD that sends a bit more to the rear axle, its very safe an so much fun to drive in snow!

  5. Greylopht says:

    Has to be the L series of Subaru Leone

    Sure MY’s and earlier were good, but L series I can say had it all. I know, I have currently two. I love my BRAT in the snow, but it can not go through anything near as deep as the L. With the five speed Duel Range gearbox and the slightly more powerful EA 82 that debuted in them, they had enough grunt in the low gears to seriously get you through the nasty stuff. The suspension travel can only be described as seriously impressive by car standards and with adjustable right hight, things only got better, (Manual on base models via strut adjustment bolts, and two torsion bar adjustments under the back seat, air struts on other models.)

    They also had a very decent set of other options for off roading and snow travel that are very handy. Especially on the early cars (pre 88) you had CV boot protectors, rear heat and AC, insulated rear hatch and side panels, heated mirrors. Just those little touches that make life nice, and heated mirrors is a BIG one.

    There is also something about the style. They have captured the mid 80’s so well with there larger 80’s angular body and a not quite 80’s sci fi interior that still looks good today when presented right.

    Sure the EA82’s and especially the EA82T’s like to spontaneously munch there head gaskets and spit there lifters, but they are a reliable motor if well treated and I have several that are pushing the 300K mark. Sure they rust away when the roads are salted ( see this more from cars not ever washed)

    But now there are less and less of them out there, and they are quite easy to modify. Want a modern turbo in one, well it is almost a bolt in procedure. Even I have swapped to a EJ22 in my 90 L series. And that is the kicker, being able to keep these great little cars going on a budget. Upgrades are quite vast and bolt in (Well in relative JNC terms) and being able to update the cars is a big step to keeping them around.

    Shame we do not see many of them here on JNC, hmm perhaps once my 85 is out of paint middle of next year.

  6. Walter says:

    The best JNC for the winter would be the Subaru Justy AWD with ECVT. The ECVT was manufactured by Van Doorne (also known for their DAF passenger vehicles with CVT) and joined with the 4WD from Subaru it really makes sense! Just imagine: a small 4WD car with CVT that will give you traction anywhere anytime! Who needs an Impreza, Legacy or Outback if you can have a Justy? 😉

    • Dave says:

      I LOVE these! 3-cylinder, 4WD at the press of a button, plus a great design. My band directory in high school had one. We always made fun of it ‘cuz he was like 7’ tall, but now I miss that car. It’s one of the rarest cars from that period. I’ve never seen one in the classifieds.

      • Walter says:

        Probably almost gone extinct now…
        BTW: it is a bit of a shame the Justy has a mechanical reverse. Would have been fun to drive as fast in reverse as in forward gear like the DAF vehicles. See also some of the videos of these DAF cars doing a reverse race posted on Jalopnik last week.

  7. Nik says:

    I’m driving a 1983 Tercel 4WD. That little car has taken me through more storms, snow, creeks, flood water, you name it I’ve gone there in that little car. Nothing compares to it.

  8. invinciblejets says:

    My vote is for the st165 celica all trac.
    Its fun to drive all seasons but 4wd and light weight make it perfect in winter….lots of space with the hatch…its just so sexy to especially in white….and I mean come on 3sgte ..nuff said…

    • Tim says:

      Damn, and here I was going to recommend the ST205. Rally winner, good looks, and a lovely quote about cheating. Good luck finding anything like one in the US, though!

  9. There was a similar kit for the model T Ford, but being 2 wheel drive it settled for front skis.

  10. Sammy B says:

    1986-89 Toyota Van 4×4 5MT. I give this a small nod over the supercharged all-trac Previa from the 90s….because manual transmission!

    If we have to stick with cars specifically, I’m going rare…Camry all-trac. Though any corolla or tercel all-trac wagon would be excellent.

    I’d love to say AWD matrix, but they’re auto only and thus quite lame!

  11. dickie says:

    My pick, quite obviously, would be an old Toyota Pickup wearing chains with some extra ground clearance.

    I see a lot of people mentioning cars in their replies, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that even the most capable sedan platform ain’t gonna make it 100% of the time. Now, you’re probably going to say, “waitaminnit dickie, you’re from Texas. What the hell do you know about a capable winter beater?”

    Well, it might have to do with the fact that I learned to drive when I was old enough to reach the pedals on a POS farm truck in rural Michigan winters. Manual transmission, no 4WD so it definitely required some finesse to keep it between the ditches. Nothing gets your blood pumping in the morning like push-starting a truck with minimal traction in negative temperatures to make it to school on time. Our driveway was 1/2 mile of loose gravel with wheel ruts and puddles that would quickly ice over, then become disguised by snowfall.

    I got to relive some of that magic this past weekend when my area was hit by the winter storm that caused accumulation of up to 4″ of ice on every surface you’d want to try to drive on. Believe it or not, this isn’t a freak incident. We tend to get one good winter storm a year here in North Texas, and it’s just as treacherous as the (admittedly heavier) Midwestern versions I grew up with, if not more so. There are several factors that lend credence to my assertion:

    – TXDOT is ill-equipped to handle the weather. They don’t have the resources, crews and training to effectively combat icy roads. They sand overpasses and bridges, which causes far more problems than it solves. Sand absorbs moisture as the ice melts in the sun, then compacts as it’s driven on. When the wet sand re-freezes, it turns the road surface into a cobblestone texture that wreaks havoc on all kinds of vehicles’ suspensions and tires.

    – Temperature variation means that it can warm up just enough to start a partial thaw which immediately freezes after the sun goes down, turning previously cleared roads to skating rinks overnight. Because they use sand instead of salt and only cover elevated surfaces, this process repeats daily until temperatures rise for an extended period.

    – Texas seems to have an overabundance of idiot drivers under normal conditions. A light summer drizzle can cause traffic to come to a standstill for miles as people forget whatever minimal knowledge they had to learn in order to pass their written license test. The passing-only lane becomes a haven for 30mph whiteknucklers and everything to the right might as well be breakdown lanes… So you can imagine what happens under legitimately bad road conditions. It doesn’t help that every jackwagon with a pickup thinks they’ve suddenly been endowed with superpowers that render them totally invincible. The interstate becomes a Jamaican bobsled run with people spinning and careening from guardrail to guardrail because they just HAD to make their third trip to Wal Mart that day.

    So back to my choice of a suitable JNC for winter driving.

    Anything on a car platform, even at stock (deridingly referred to by some as “4×4”) ride height simply doesn’t cut the mustard 100% of the time. Which is the percentage of mustard you need to be cutting, or you might as well stay home. Case in point: In my excursion to work last Tuesday, I noticed several abandoned cars that had a thick trail of black/brown snow behind them where a chunk of ice had punctured their oil pan. Even if you armor up with a skidplate, that leaves you as stuck as a turtle on his back when you highside it on said ice chunk. The roads tend to clear where people drive on them, and that means there’s a buildup of ice/snow/slush/sand between your wheels. The only solution is ground clearance, and if a dealer stock Subie Outback isn’t high enough it’s unlikely any car you could name is up to snuff. So point goes to the Pickup with a bonus for whatever extra height you can muster (to a point).

    When I decided that it wasn’t worth risking my car to make it to work, I spent my afternoons enjoying the weather and traveling by foot. One thing I noticed about the passing traffic was the difference a good set of chains seemed to make. The mail made it even through the worst of the weather, just like their motto says: “Rain or shine, snow or sleet, we deliver your mail!” Every delivery truck I saw had their wheels wrapped. Law enforcement was predictably unhindered by the weather, mobile thanks to their 4WD Tahoes and – you guessed it – tire chains. There was only one vehicle I witnessed all week that belonged to a private owner who knew well enough to throw them on before he ventured out. I heard from people touting their big 4×4 pickups and the capabilities of their mud tires etc… but they all seemed equally helpless to make it up the slight incline and out of the Tractor Supply parking lot when they went to leave.

    Obviously you can take the formula and apply it to pretty much any JNC truck that can be so configured, but nothing starts and runs as reliably as an R motor. And I chose the ‘Yota for style points. Add some OEM tape stripes and period-correct bumper bars and lighting or leave it clean and simple; there simply isn’t a better, more capable JNC winter beater out there.

  12. pstar says:

    Kudos to the staff pick that you guys picked a FWD and noted that awd isn’t a necessity. Listening to all these clowns who don’t dare face an inch of snow with anything less than an awd Subaru, you’d think that people in the 50s and 60s went into lockdown mode every time they saw a snowflake. No, they drove those big rwd sedans and it worked fine. More than a few Scandinavians relied on their rwd Volvos to carry them through some ice and snow, and Russians do and did the same with knockoffs of rwd Fiats. And lets not forget that the Germans have really only mass adopted AWD in the last decade or so. Before that, the iX BMWs, the 4matics, and the quattros were a pretty small share of the overall market.

    I don’t know when the consumer reports / soccer mom mantra was born that the only way you will travel in ice or snow without dying is with an AWD wagon or SUV, but it is pathetic.

    It is fun to get the tail out in the ice and snow with a big automatic transmission behemoth where you can’t in dry weather. Stuff like heated seats and mirrors and fast acting defrosters make the winter more bearable in a big way. And since you’ll have the windows up most of the time, a good stereo and an enjoyable luxurious living space help. LS400 might not meet your JNC criteria, so lets go with a well optioned Cressida.

    • Nick Edwards says:

      Yeah, RWD is so much more fun..

      I used to drive my 1972 Datsun 510 4 door, lowered (1/2″ gap between fender and tire in front, tuck tire in rear) and 205 wide BFG Radial TAs all winter here in Canada. A couple times there was so much snow, I lost all steering because the snow lifted the floor of the car so the wheels were off the road…..

    • Randy says:

      You’d use a nice LS 400 or a Cressida as a winter beater? Wow… I’d put them away – at least to save them for DECENT winter days, date night, etc., but for everyday flogging around? Same goes for Nick’s 510, or what Wagoneer mentioned. I’d rather spend the winter cleaning/tuning/detailing that old Corolla for the post-salt seasons.

      I think I’m a decent driver, but I SERIOUSLY doubt the abilities of those AROUND me.

      Plus, those big, old RWD rides just aren’t around anymore. My ’69 Impala got around with minimal problems, as did my dad’s various ’70-something full-size rides, compared to what passes as a “big” sedan today.

      BTW, personal favorite that I’ve had for winter and then some: 1976 Chrysler Town and Country station wagon! Nineteen feet long; 5,000 pounds; snow tires. Rusted, dented and ugly, with a 440 that rated about 9mpg, but *I* got it down to FOUR! 🙂 (Nothing like the sound of a big-block 4bbl sucking through a modified air cleaner! Sounded like it was going to suck in the universe when I’d open it up at the green light! Surprised MANY thumpa-thumpa Mustangs! It put out a truly UNGODLY sound when opened up in a tunnel! Yes, *I* was that obnoxious SOB in the next lane, and if I could afford the gas, I’d be him again!)

  13. Wagoneer says:

    Hi JNC,

    I know you guys are Americans and this is really an American blog, but I have to contribute with a very Scandinavian choice. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Denmark I was very used to heavy winters and having to dig out my dad’s awful old British cars (first a Morris Marina and then an Austin Allegro). I always envied my school mates who were driven to school in their parents reliable Mazdas, Toyotas and Datsuns. The stand out car from this period was my best friend’s dad’s KE70 Corolla.

    We’re talking about the very basic two door saloon in DX trim and 1,3 litre engine, but light weight and rear wheel drive. It was light metalic green and had absolutely no special accessories. Steel rims, just the way it should be, with Toyota center caps. On the days my dad could not pick me up I got a lift from my friend’s dad and remember the back end stepping out on the ice covered roads even at very low speeds. This was before winter tyres became more common practice in Denmark. It was a safe and comfortable ride.

    My friend’s dad, who worked for the national roadside assistance and rescue company, was a good driver and his daily workhorse was a BJ40 Landcruiser Tow Truck. That was also a pretty cool car but the KE70 is the one I would enjoy most today in a typical Scandinavian winter. Reliable, light weight, under powered, but fun to drive.

  14. Nick Edwards says:

    Honda Element?

    I’m currently driving a 2003 with 532,000 kms (330,000 miles). It’s an auto AWD 🙁 you can get them 5spd AWD.

    Styled after the love child of a toaster and Rubbermaid storage container, how could anyone disagree with it. The interior has been fitted with the most luxurious rubber to grace a floor, with plastics that are the envy of recycling bins the world over.

    After a hard days skiing, fold the seats down and have a rest on a bed that would make the Days Inn look like a 5 star resort.

    Or go for performance and pull the rear seats right out. Add to that the short wheelbase and fat tires, and not only are you floating over the snow, you can be the idol of all those kids on their Huffy Green Machines in your ‘hood.

    • Nick Edwards says:

      and yes I know is not really classic yet…. but it’s getting up there in years, so future classic!

    • Randy says:

      Good choice – especially with the plastic body panels!

      But wide tires? Narrow tires will dig in… Good, meaty snows on steel wheels.

      Is there enough room in back for an inflatable mattress?

      They’re still strange looking, but probably supremely useful.

  15. Dave says:

    Both the Civic Wagovan and 4WD Corolla wagon (Sprinter Carib?) are super awesome in their own rights and unbeatable style as winter rides. If I had either of those, I’d probably not be able to subject them to salt and bitter cold. The best winter JNC is (or should be) any of your favorite JNC. If you live somewhere with *real winter,* park it safely in the garage when there’s snow and ice, keep it away from salt and sliding cars =P But that’s a cop out answer. It’s true that you don’t need 4WD or a truck to get through snow; snow tires and good driving go a long way. However, snow tires, good driving, and a 4WD truck go a little further. I think a good and interesting choice is the original Nissan Pathfinder. Yes, this is an ugly truck mostly lost to time by now. I never thought much of it when it was new, but I saw one the other day and was really delighted by it. It’s not pretty, but it looks cool. It’s sensibly sized and a capable off-roader. Being based on the D21 Nissan pickup, it’s a tangible descendant of the Datsun 720, and that’s cool. Also, it’s nothing terribly special (altho it is rare by now), so you don’t have to feel that bad about exposing it to winter elements.

  16. andrewzuku says:

    dickie gets my vote! A 4×4 Toyota Hilux (Pickup) is the answer 😉

  17. To commit heresy, the best car I ever drove on snow, ice and black ice covered with snow was my 1964 Corvair [yes it had the front and rear roll bars that Nader pissed about not being standard]. The weight over the rear drive wheels was just perfect. The only problem I had was when delivered in Cheyene Wyoming, the servicing technician didn’t trust the teflon thrust washer/bearings on the gear shift and applied axle grease. Guess what happened at 20 below zero! I waited until the engine heat warmed the teflon bearings, manhandled the gear shift into second gear and waited until the clutch leisurely drifted into gear, then drove to work.

  18. Randy says:

    Are we just buying something to rat around in, or are we playing with building them?

    Partial agreement with dickie; partial disagreement.

    Truck-based, yes, for the ground clearance and depending on your lifestyle, the added ruggedness – BUT – I’ll diverge from there.

    Pathfinder – 4runner – Samurai/Sidekick – others, ’cause sometimes you have to cart them around with you. Keeps the groceries dry, too, and has the additional ground clearance especially if you live in Michigan, the Dakotas, etc.

    If you don’t get massive amounts of snow, then a Subie, but I don’t know if I’d use a classic like a Brat or Justy, unless it was an unrestorable rat. Just too rare.

    I think I’d lean away from white, given a choice. You want something that’s NOT going to blend in with the surroundings that well… Maybe put that reflective pinstriping on it, too.

    Just don’t forget the snow tires, eh? I know somebody who insists that 4WD is all he needs, with no grasp of the concept of traction. Wish he would’ve been around when the neighbor’s H2 got stuck 2 houses away from me.

  19. Yuri says:

    With the proper driver, any car can be a good winter car.
    I moved to LA after learning how to drive in Wisconsin.
    I drove an SR5 AE86 to the top of Mt. Wilson in a snowstorm on stock tires, and couldn’t understand why the Ranger at the top was freaking out and threatening to call the highway patrol if I didn’t put chains on it. My thought was “Who uses chains?” I guess apparently that’s a thing out here….

  20. XRaider927 says:

    for me its the 1997 subaru outback…. ‘coz for the looks, its a station wagon but with heightened suspension perfect for winter(with the help of snow tires) its very useful enough to handle enough terrain even for a boxer-powered engine…

  21. Austin says:

    One time I was cruising my ae86 down to the gas station. (In case you were wondering, its basically the worst jnc in the snow, on the entire planet.) But there was a man in an original Toyota van. And it had 345,000 miles on it. Anyways, turns out he owned 10. And he said it would out do hummers off road, in the snow, whatever with its amazing 4wd. I can’t tell if he was a moron for owning 10, or a genius. Either way, that’s a car I wouldn’t mind one for these scary snowey seasons.

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