Snow. It's an atmospheric anomaly in Los Angeles and something our So Cal-based editors see little of. Yet, for every reader who actually takes his sport/utility to the desert for some heavy-duty rock crawling, there are dozens who routinely drive on snow, slush, mud, or wet roads.
That's why manufacturers are placing more emphasis on offering full-time all-wheel-drive systems. While some SUVs may not have the low-range transfer case required for heavy trailwork, AWD adds traction that helps them go a few more places, potentially increasing the safety margin of doing so, whatever the weather. With apologies to Audi, an ever-growing number of today's newest sport/utilities and crossovers are about all-roading, as opposed to off-roading. Two new, affordable players in this growing subset of the SUV universe are Subaru's updated Forester and Mitsubishi's new-for-'03 Outlander. We chose one of each and went in search of tractional challenges--and got more than we bargained for.
At 9000-feet elevation, Mammoth Mountain--in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range--is a Mecca for skiers, with an average of 385 inches of snow each year. As luck would have it, meteorologists predicted arctic air from Alaska would collide with a Pacific warm front, bringing the snow level down to 4500 feet just as we prepared to hit the road. But we were well armed.
The new kid on the AWD crossover block, Mitsubishi's Outlander delivers a solid value hit to the segment. Our LS tester came with all the essentials, but without many frills. Basing at $19,297, it carried a grand's worth of options: the convenience package (including cargo cover, keyless entry, roof rails, and floormats) and appearance group (16-inch alloy wheels and rear privacy glass). With destination fees, the tab came to an easy-to-take $20,877.
After over 25 years of producing four-wheel-drive vehicles, Subaru knows a thing or two about getting its customers to the grocery store and back when there's a foot of snow on the ground. Our Forester 2.5 XS came loaded with cold-weather goodies that aren't even options on the Outlander: AM/FM/weatherband/cassette/six-disc CD in-dash changer, outside- temperature gauge, dual-mode heated front seats, front/rear-window wiper/de-icer, and dual power heated exterior mirrors. With a base price of $22,895 and an extra $1300 for the automatic transmission, plus destination charges, the Subaru costs nearly $3500 more than the Mitsu.