As winter approaches, drivers who own all-wheel-drive cars are glad that they do—and those who don’t wonder if they should.
In the past several years, the all-wheel-drive (AWD) category, long dominated by Subaru models such as the Outback and Forester, has become much more competitive, with many more brands to choose from. Here are the six best for under $30,000…
Best AWD car value: Subaru Impreza. The Impreza has been completely redesigned for the 2017 model year, and whether you opt for the sedan or the five-door hatchback, the results are impressive. Earlier Imprezas were affordable and reliable but also a bit bland and basic, with uninspired styling and low-end interiors. The latest Impreza, expected to reach showrooms in December, still comes standard with AWD and is attractive inside and out. It’s roomier, more fuel-efficient and slightly more powerful than prior Imprezas—its two-liter, four-cylinder engine will produce 152 horsepower (hp), up from 148 hp. Optional safety features generally not offered on entry-level cars will be available, such as headlights that turn with the car and automatic precollision braking. But what really stands out is that the Impreza’s price is at least $6,000 less than that of any other appealing AWD vehicle.
Pricing for 2017 models had not yet been announced as of press time, but Subaru has indicated that the base price will climb only a few hundred dollars from the 2016 model, which starts at $19,090.* Fuel economy is expected to improve from the 2016’s already laudable 28 mpg city/36 highway.
Best AWD SUV value: Kia Sorento LX. This midsize SUV looks and feels upscale inside and out. It’s fairly roomy, too (though tall adults will be cramped in the third row of seats). The Sorento’s base 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine provides 185 hp, which is reasonable for a vehicle of this size while still offering decent fuel efficiency. The Sorento LX—that’s the least expensive trim available with AWD—comes with a nice list of standard features including a rearview camera and sound-deadening windshield. This is a well-made vehicle—Kia has steadily improved its build quality during the past two decades—and Kia’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is one of the best. The Sorento’s base price with AWD is $29,395. Fuel economy is 21 city/25 highway.
Most fun-to-drive affordable AWD car: Subaru WRX. The WRX offers a high-end sports sedan experience at a low-end price. And thanks to its AWD, this is one sports car that you can enjoy year-round—many rear-wheel-drive sports cars spend bad-weather days locked away in garages. The WRX’s two-liter, four-cylinder engine is turbocharged and delivers a robust 268 hp, which—combined with the WRX’s low weight and AWD traction—makes this car a blast to drive.
Fuel economy is 20 mpg city/27 highway if, like many people who buy fun-to-drive cars, you opt for the manual transmission. It is 18/24 for the automatic. Prices start at $27,515 for manual and $31,015 for automatic.
Most fun-to-drive affordable AWD SUV: Mazda CX-5. The CX-5 is an SUV that handles like a performance-oriented sedan. Its 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine produces a very reasonable 184 hp (a smaller engine is offered, too, though not on AWD models). But as with most Mazdas, the joy of driving the CX-5 comes not from brute power but from its responsive handling and powertrain and sporty suspension. This is arguably the most attractive vehicle in its class, too. The CX-5 does fall a bit short of some competitors when it comes to towing and cargo capacity, however.
Mazda is redesigning the CX-5, which will show up in calendar year 2017 as a 2018 model-year vehicle. Do not let this pending redesign dissuade you from getting a good deal on the current CX-5, which already is a wonderful vehicle. AWD 2016 models start at $25,795 and get 24 mpg city/29 highway.
Best near-luxury AWD vehicle: Buick Encore. This compact SUV is small in size and perhaps a bit underpowered, but in every other way it delivers what luxury buyers want, thanks in part to a major update for the 2017 model year. The Encore’s cabin is quiet, comfortable and well-appointed. Its ride is smooth and refined, and its styling has a cool, premium vibe. It’s a lot of luxury for less than $30,000.
The base 1.4-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine produces just 138 hp. That isn’t going to win many races, but neither is it as slow as you might fear, thanks to the Encore’s small size. With certain trim levels, the engine can be upgraded to 153 hp. Prices start at $27,715 with AWD. Fuel economy is 26 mpg city/31 highway.
Most well-rounded affordable AWD vehicle: Honda CR-V. This compact SUV delivers tremendous reliability, excellent resale value, a comfortable, quiet, carlike ride, along with attractive styling and more useful interior space than you would expect—its 70.9 cubic feet of cargo space is comparable to that of some midsize SUVs.
The CR-V is being redesigned for 2017, with improvements rumored to include even greater interior space and sportier styling. There’s also a chance that Honda’s “Honda Sensing” safety technology options package will be offered on all CR-V trim levels in 2017. This reasonably priced package includes features such as collision avoidance and lane-keeping assist, two items generally found only on higher-end vehicles. But don’t feel that you have to wait for this redesign—the 2016 CR-V is a superb SUV, and attractive deals might be available.
The 2017 prices had not been announced as of press time, but the 2016 starts at $26,045 with AWD. Its 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine produces 185 hp with excellent fuel economy (for an SUV) of 26 mpg city/33 highway.
*Prices in this article are manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for 2017 models, including destination fees, except as noted.