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The winter beater: a good idea or bad?

20 Dec 16
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My brother buys cheap, older cars for winter – he drove a $600 Cavalier for three years – and keeps his $70,000 truck clean and safe in the garage. The Chevy only broke down once on him. I thought he was nuts, but now I’ve got a new X5 and I don’t want it to get dinged by gravel, rust out early or have some idiot slide into it. Is a winter beater a such a bad idea? – Cory, Edmonton

Baby, it’s cold outside – so, I’m keeping you in the garage until Easter, But does it make sense to keep your AWD-equipped pride and joy, with its heated seats and steering wheel, in showroom shape while you face black ice in a Cavalier?

“I would not recommend running an old, cheap, beater car for winter use,” said Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs for the Canada Safety Council, in an e-mail. “You need reliability, and all the new safety features on your side in bad winter driving – since most people would not spend money on the old beater car, the safety concern is even worse.”

Marchand said a winter car might make sense if your other car is really just a summer car.

“Many high-end sport cars may not work at all in snowy country – a reliable used car, not a cheap beater, could make sense,” Marchand said. “My sister-in-law stores her Mazda Miata in the winter, so she shares the family SUV, a Subaru Forester, with my brother during the winter months.”

And, most people don’t keep a car long enough for rust to become an issue, Marchand said.

Still, there’s an argument to be made for letting a beater take the brunt of winter – but you’ll need to figure out how much that beater will really cost, said Calvin Feist, automotive instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton. For the new car, it’s kind of like keeping a comic book in plastic – you might get better resale value.

“(Your) new car doesn’t wear out as soon, there are less maintenance and repairs and you’re less likely to get in an accident,” Feist said.

You can pay less for insurance on the stored car – but then you’re also paying for insurance for the beater.

“I personally don’t believe in winter beaters – I drive the same vehicle all year and maintain it so I have no worries,” Feist said. “When it is ready to be replaced, I do so.”

An older car is more likely to need repairs, even if it’s just for wear and tear like tires and brakes. That will add to the price tag.

“You can find reliable vehicles for under $2,000 or even under $1,000,” Feist said. “They will need some type of work [so] your $1,000 car is now a $1,500-2,000 car.”

And then you’ll need a place to park a beater – if you’ve got no room in the garage, do you really want to be scraping ice off your beater at six in the morning? Or to pay for storage for your real car?

And, if you’re in Ontario, you’ll need to make sure the beater passes its used car and emissions tests.

“It would make sense to make it a condition of the sale that the vehicle passes its emission test requirements,” said Stephen Leroux, automotive professor at Centennial College in Toronto. “Some vehicles may require thousands of dollars of repairs to allow it to meet the emission standards – the cost of the repair can exceed the value of the vehicle.”

Leave it to beater?

Then, there’s finding one.

“Winter beaters are not cheap or really easy to find anymore,” said Sean Cooney-Mann, store manager for an OK Tire in Toronto. “Good used cars have risen in value due to new safety standards.”

Cooney said he’s a fan of Japanese cars with four-cylinder engines.

“They are reliable, need minimal repairs and the body tends to hold up well – they’re not known for unexpected, high-cost repairs,” Cooney-Mann said. “The real problem is finding one.”

Editors at made a list of their favourite cheap cars for beating winter.

While some of the cars, like the 1998 Subaru Outback, can still be found for less than $5,000 – other experts had hazy memories of now-rarer cars, like the 1981 Dodge Colt (“Used price: Good Luck!”).

And, cheap is relative. It might make more sense to spend $12,000-$15,000 on a more reliable used winter car – like a six- or seven-year-old crossover with all-wheel drive.

Have a driving question? Send it to . Since Canada’s a pretty big place, let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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