Whether you live in a place with harsh winters, going to college up north, or just want a car that handles better on snow, we’re going to look at the best picks under $5,000.
- Subaru Impreza
Many of you may have guessed that there would be a Subaru on this list before reading, and you’re absolutely right. For decades, all production Subarus have been All-Wheel drive, with the only exception being the Subaru BRZ (and the BRZ is definitely not on this list). With so many years spent mastering all-wheel drive, an invaluable feature when driving in hazardous conditions, and certain models having comparable reliability to other Japanese car makes (Honda, Toyota, etc), Subaru will always be a solid choice for a winter vehicle.
One can easily find a second generation (2000-2007) Subaru Impreza and its variants for under $5,000. For an earlier model, you may have to find with a few more miles, as Subarus tend to hold their value very well. This isn’t solely a negative, that means if you plan to sell it come Spring, or at any point down the road, you will get a good bit of what you spent on it back during re-sale.
As mentioned before, the Impreza has AWD to handle snow, with 4 doors, and plenty of space if you opt for the wagon or hatchback variants, and gets decent gas mileage as well.
What about its downsides? The only real downside to Imprezas is the demographic of car owners they attract. Subarus in general are often modded and driven hard by young car enthusiasts, which can affect reliability in unpredictable ways.
- Toyota 4Runner
If you want something nigh-indestructible to get you through the winter, look no further than a third generation (1996-2002) Toyota 4Runner. I’ve seen many of these for sale with well over 300,000 miles on them, which is something to brag about! The 4Runner has bondy-on-frame construction, meaning that the chassis and body of the vehicle are two separate entities, meaning the 4Runner can take a beating without compromising drivability. The only true downside of the 4Runner is fuel economy, with 4WD variants getting about 17-21 MPG. Which, considering this is a nearly two-ton vehicle, is not too shabby. With 4-wheel drive available for when roads get snowy or icy, paired with Toyota’s notorious reliability, the 4Runner is a top-contender for one of the best winter vehicles.
- Honda Pilot
The first few years of the Honda Pilot (2003-2005) are equipping with Honda’s Variable Torque Management 4-wheel drive system (HVTM-4).This 4 wheel drive system took some inspiration from of all-wheel drive’s better road-going comfort, knowing better what tire to send more power to depending on traction conditions. When conditions are ideal, the Pilot becomes much like a front-wheel drive vehicle, only sending power to the rear two when necessary. After 2006, Pilots became available with front-wheel drive as an option, and while these are a less expensive option, don’t make for an ideal winter vehicle. Functionally, the pilot is very similar to the 4Runner. The Pilot makes for a more comfortable daily-driver, and is slightly more fuel efficient. They tend to also be a bit more inexpensive to get your hands on when compared to the 4Runner.
- Audi TT Quattro
No car list for college students would be complete without at least one sports car. Sure, you could always get the WRX version of the Impreza, but those can be costly and hard to find. Keep in mind, being an Audi means repairs on this vehicle will cost a pretty penny. But you’re looking for a vehicle that is all about “smiles per gallon”, this is your best bet. Being so small in stature the TT allows you to get the most out of its 225HP. While the styling may be controversial, I think its aged fairly well. Sure, that 350z will smoke you on dry pavement, but with the TT Quattro’s AWD, this is a sports car you can get away with driving year ‘round (and not end up in a ditch). I would give a word of warning, European cars tend not to be the best choice for first cars, as maintenance is usually other costly or difficult.
- Pontiac Vibe
The Pontiac Vibe is an odd little hatchback, but one that doesn’t get enough credit. With one of Toyota’s extremely reliable 1.8 liter 4-Cylinder engines, as well as the rest of the drivetrain being derivative of the Toyota Matrix, reliability should be no problem with the Vibe. Pontiac Vibes may easily be one of the least expensive ways to get a reliable, fuel-efficient (26-31MPG on the AWD 2003 model) All-wheel drive car, and have no problem recommending it to any student currently car shopping.
- Infiniti G35x
If you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated, the third generation of the Infiniti G35 comes with an AWD option (G35x). To top off its classy looks, this is easily some of the most Horsepower you’ll find on this list, getting upwards of 260hp from its 3.5 liter V6 engine. If you want it to scratch that sports-car itch so many of us seem to have, you can opt for the coupe variant, and with the G35 being primarily rear-wheel drive when the AWD isn’t active, driving it will also feel very sporty.
- Ford Five-Hundred
Finally, an American car (the jury’s out on if we can call the Vibe American or not) with AWD on this list. The Five-Hundred is easily the most boring entry on this list. However, boring does not inherently mean bad. This may be the most European-feeling car Ford ever made, intended to be a luxury sedan during its inception. It’s a comfortable, unassuming ride that gets mediocre fuel economy (19/25 MPG), an unimpressive 203 horsepower on a 3,800lb chassis, and the styling is “meh”. But there is a mature charm to the Five-Hundred, and you get European luxury without the European price tag.
- Volvo S60
As someone who’s first car was a Volvo S60, I think they make a great option for students wanting an affordable AWD car. The nice thing about used luxury cars is the previous owners are often older people who bought them brand new and never brought the RPM’s over 3,000. Volvos are also renowned for their safety, and while expensive to repair, very rarely need to be repaired. I put about 40,000 miles on my Volvo, and only had one $300 repair. This car is, in my mind, the kind of luxury the Ford Five-Hundred was trying to emulate, and I’ll leave who did it better up to you to decide.
- Jeep Liberty
Jeeps in general may be the least expensive way to get a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Jeep also has one of the longest histories of building rugged SUV’s on the planet. Jeeps are a popular, inexpensive to repair vehicle, and a solid choice for students in general. The liberty has plenty of interior room, cargo capacity, and is one of the best vehicles for handling snowy terrain. The Jeep’s large tired and high clearance means it will take more than a few inches of snow to stop it. The Liberty’s 2 biggest downfalls are shared with most Jeeps, first is fuel economy is lack luster at 17 city and 22 highway MPG, second is Jeep’s declining reliability, which is something to keep in mind for a winter vehicle.
- Chevrolet Silverado/GMC sierra
I grouped these two pick ups together as mechanically, they are identical. I saved pick up trucks for last as pragmatically they are all very similar as winter cars. They will be less fuel efficient that most other options, but will have all the utility that comes with owning a truck. With the first generation’s ability to tow over 9,000lbs, not only will you have a vehicle that can handle snow, you can tow all your friend’s cars out of ditches who didn’t read this list first. As far as long-term reliability while being driven in harsh conditions, pick-up trucks tend to be second to none.
Well there you have it, 10 of the best cars students can buy for winter, all under $5,000. You may have noticed a theme with these vehicles, AWD and 4WD vehicles are king when it comes to snow. If for some reason neither of those are an option, FWD will definitely do better in snow than RWD. While RWD is fun, it’s definitely not ideal for keeping traction in snowy conditions. The next most important thing is reliability, you need your winter vehicle to be reliable, as getting stranded out in the cold is a terrible situation to find yourself in. Lastly, if you’re a student spending a fortune on tuition, you want to make sure your vehicle is fuel-efficient, to save you some extra cash in the long run. Best of luck picking your winter vehicle!