Go with an old school subaru brat, selectable 4wd and the bed of a pickup when/if you need it. Can be made to get pretty decent mileage with the little watercooled boxer and will be in your price range.
Ideally the "new" awd vehicle would replace both vehicles. Winters in the UP of Michigan are treacherous, with an average snowfall of 200-300 inches per year - more in some places. The terrain where I am is unusual for Michigan, with VERY steep hills/streets that are unavoidable. The setting is basically a valley with a canal running through it, very close to Lake Superior.
Front wheel drive will get you around here in the winter, but not safely when it comes to the hills and driving through blizzards (yes, we get those) and snow drifts. We use more sand on the roads than what we use salt, because salt just doesn't work here.
Here's a good taste of this area in winter... he mentions that it's only the 2nd day of snow in the video. It actually looks like he lives just up the street from me ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTKzDQEcqOI
I know there's some cars with selectable 4-wheel drive, like the Eagle 4x4.
I found a 96 Suzuki x90 for ~$1500. Anyone have an opinion on those?
I'll be looking into some of those other ones you all listed. Thanks!
Oh... and the fuel economy I'm looking for is based mainly on highway use. My car gets about 17 city regardless of how I drive it, but 30+ highway. My Explorer got 10mpg in the winter, and maybe 15 in the summer for city driving (my last trip with that I actually got 25mpg highway, but the 4x4 is busted now and its not worth fixing). So, if it gets 20+ mpg in the city with AWD or 4x4 I'd be happy, regardless if it's a car or SUV, etc. 25+ is what I would like for highway, but ideally 30+ mpg. Most of my driving is City in the winter.
Geo tracker. Especially if you don't want a subaru. The subaru Justy will be your best bet for FE on an AWD, but if you don't want to go subaru, your best bet is a geo tracker.
If you can find a Toyata Matrix/Pontiac Vibe awd for that price, maybe (29hwy, 25combined). But you can definately find a good quality Geo Tracker, or Chevy Tracker, and they have EPA of 25 or so highway, 23 combined, and they are a simple reliable, and rugged little car. Amazing for actual offroading as well, as they have a wheelbase shorter than a wrangler, and with the 4wd Lo setting, some pretty hefty torque for a small 4cyl.
I had a friend who had one of those, and he got 30mpg when he kept it in 2wd, and he was an idiot of a driver.
So definately, go for a tracker. Either that, or snow tires on your current car.
The snow in that video isn't so bad. I'm sure it must get a lot worse there.
We get worse than that every year in northwestern RI and Worcester MA area. I don't think I used my 4wd more than 10 minutes all last winter. I would have used it more but my front differential is making a noise and I can't afford to fix it...
I tried to use my 4wd conservatively last winter, but I still used it about 40% of the time while driving in snow, and we did get a lot of it... Luckily I have the locking rear end, which did get me through quite a bit before having to activate 4wd.
@Jay, that photo is typical of what we usually get up here if not more.
It's not so much the snow, it's the hills in combination with the snow. We're talking steep hills, the one in that youtube video was actually a very small, short (not steep) hill compared to most. Think San Fransisco hills (but not quite as long).
Thanks again everyone for your responses. I'm still looking, but I guess I'm going to make due with what I have for right now ('93 buick century 3.3L v6 fwd with 1yr old goodyear triple-tread tires).
There was a Subaru Brat for sale, but it was an hour away from my parents' house when I was on a trip down there (my parents are about 9 hours drive from me).
Because, new tires would also mean new rims for those winter tires, and then a place to store the tires when not being used (new rims if you don't want to eventually ruin both sets of tires from taking them off and putting them back on one set of rims). It's a huge hassle, and more money than I want to put into this car. And most winter tires I know of aren't rated for more than ~60 mph, and can't easily withstand the heat of driving 70 mph ... I don't want to have to change my tires just to drive on the highway for a long distance (which I do about once a month or two - 1000 miles round trip).
The reason I got these tires is because they were amazing in the winter when I first had them in Lansing, MI (much milder winters) 7 or so years ago (2-3 more tire-brands later), and they have continued to impress me with their traction since getting them again last year. (they allow me to drive 35+ mph around a 15mph rated, nearly 180 degree-turn loop without any loss of traction, even in the rain which wasn't possible with other tires I've had - I have to drive the loop every day, but I don't drive that reckless every day)
I only drove with them for a month or two this past winter after my Explorer's 4x4 broke, but it was enough to make me not want to go through all the extra hassle of having a set of winter tires.
You can kind of see my Buick parked next to the Explorer... covered in more than 2 feet of snow.
You're stuck in the past, man. Winter tires are rated for normal speeds and in Michigan there's no reason you can't leave them on all year (plenty of people do in the slightly more mild RI/MA/CT area). No need for a second set of wheels, just replace your tires with modern winter tires.
The $53 tires I linked are S-rated (112mph). Winter tires should be an improvement, even compared to great-performing all season tires, even without studs.