I’ll never forget the first time I drove in the snow. I was driving a two-wheel drive sedan I had brought with me from Texas (where "snow" means a light frost that shuts down the city for two days). As it turned out, neither my tires nor my mental state were up to the task at hand as my car slipped and slid all over the road. I was terrified.

After that experience, I realized choosing the right vehicle for where you live can literally be a matter of life or death. Here is what to consider to keep you and your family safe on the road!

Pick the right tire for your climate

In less extreme climates, just choosing the right tires can do a lot to protect you on the road and the make of the vehicle won’t matter so much. In more extreme climates (for instance, in areas that get a lot of snow for a month or longer each year), you may need to have two different sets of tires on hand and also be more deliberate about the type of vehicle you choose.

Climate considerations when choosing tires:

  • Do you drive mostly on straight roads or narrow, winding roads?
  • Do you ever go off-roading?
  • Do you get a lot of rain, sleet, ice or snow?
  • Is your climate very dry and hot?
  • Do you drive mostly in stop-start city traffic or along highways for longer trips?
  • Are the roads well maintained in your area?

Basic tire choices:

Names may vary depending on the brand, but these are the basic categories of tires to consider for passenger vehicles.

  • Performance summer: In extremely hot, dry climates, performance summer tires give you enhanced handling and maneuverability.
  • All season: All season tires are the most balanced in terms of handling diverse but not extreme weather conditions.
  • Touring: Touring tires offer enhanced handling and maneuverability—many types also include light snow traction.
  • Performance winter: Winter tires are designed for extreme snow, ice, sleet and rainy conditions. The right type of winter tire can prevent you from having to chain your tires (or stay home).

Bonus tip: For more on how to save on tires read this post.

Think about fuel efficiency

When choosing a vehicle, there are two different ways to look at fuel savings—price at the pump and miles to the gallon.

The former you can't typically control (although you can always shop around for a cheaper price!). The latter you absolutely can control—within the limitations of any climate extremes that may prove more taxing on your vehicle's fuel efficiency capabilities.

In general, you’ll get the best gas mileage and most efficient use of fuel with the lighter, fuel efficient front-wheel drive passenger vehicles. However, if front-wheel drive along with the right tires still doesn't give you enough handling and traction for your local weather, you may need to be prepared to sacrifice miles per gallon in the name of safety.

Tips to improve miles per gallon in cold weather:

  • Park your car in a warm place and try not to "idle" it to warm it up.
  • Piggyback errands so you’re driving for longer periods at one time.
  • Use less heat (including defrosters and seat warmers).
  • Ensure your tires are always at ideal tire pressure.
  • Ensure you have the right tires for weather conditions.
  • Use oil and fluids designed for cold weather conditions.
  • Remove any modifications that increase wind resistance.

Other tips to improve overall fuel economy:

  • Avoid hilly or unpaved terrain.
  • Avoid using four-wheel drive.
  • Avoid idling your car and driving at high speeds.
  • Avoid accelerating and braking too much.
  • Avoid towing or carrying heavy loads.
  • Avoid having too many accessories running while driving.
  • Avoid driving on under-inflated tires or on the wrong tires for the type of driving you do.

Choose the right vehicle for your climate

For more extreme climates, the type of vehicle you select can have a huge effect on your family's safety. Here is an overview of the different types of handling options so you can select the best type for your local weather.

4 types of handling options:

  • Front-wheel drive: With front-wheel drive (which is what most passenger vehicles come equipped with) the power train relies on the front wheels for handling. This results in a lighter chassis, better fuel efficiency and more storage capacity, but it’s not a good choice for extreme weather conditions.
  • Rear-wheel drive: Rear-wheel drive concentrates the power train on the back wheels for handling. Most older model trucks and work vehicles will have rear-wheel drive, which offers greater durability, traction and handling, especially as weight loads increase. Rear-wheel drive is also the drive of choice for race cars—so if you drive on windy or narrow roads and need superior braking, a rear-wheel drive car can be a good choice.
  • Four-wheel drive: For the most part, you’ll only want a four-wheel drive handling system if you regularly drive in very low traction conditions (such as deep snow, off-roading or rugged, wet surfaces).
  • All-wheel drive: An all-wheel drive system is an ideal choice for extreme weather conditions. There are various configurations of all-wheel drive, but each gives extra handling and traction needed to navigate extreme and ever-changing weather conditions.

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Car Buying 101: How to Pick the Best Car for Your Climate