October 20, 2011 | by Joe Phillips
AUTOS: Retro rides

Staying power—it’s what separates “South Park” from, say, “Family Matters.” Both were hot in the 1990s. But today, it’s Cartman who’s still kickin’—not Urkel.

Same goes for cars. Back in the day, Ah-nold made Hummers all the rage. Now those hulking gas hogs are a footnote in auto history.

Not so for a bevy of other haulers launched in the 1990s. The Ford Explorer, Honda Odyssey and Subaru Forester are still in dealer showrooms. And this year, these retro rides get major makeovers—both inside and out—that make them seem fresh all over again.

Ford Explorer
$29,000
Mpg: 17 city/25 highway
First introduced: 1990

Ford Explorer

Originally a truck-based SUV with basic amenities, today’s Explorer is now a brawny crossover—with a refined, carlike chassis and rich, upscale cabin. Size-wise, this new Explorer feels like a full-blown Expedition. That’s fine for freeway jaunts but not when I was navigating city streets. At least there’s a backup camera, complete with a color-coded guidance system to help back into tight parking spots. (And for drivers needing a bit more help, there’s even an automatic parallel-parking system.) To tout the Explorer’s green cred, there’s no V8—only a sturdy V6 or optional (and pricier) EcoBoost four-cylinder. It’s worth noting the EcoBoost has less horsepower but more torque, so the power difference is nil. What is noticeable is the roomy interior and all the high-tech gizmos: power liftgate, power-folding third-row seat, voice-activated nav system and 12-speaker Sony stereo with HD radio.

Honda Odyssey
$29,000
Mpg: 18 city/27 highway
First introduced: 1994

 

Minivans: boxy, boring, bland. End of story. Or so it seemed, until the new Honda Odyssey showed up for a weeklong test drive. Originally, this seemed the perfect vehicle to park and forget as I flew off to an auto show for a few days. But once back in town, I couldn’t wait to get back behind the wheel. What tapped into my inner soccer Mom? First, this minivan handled more like a tricked-out sport sedan, with fast acceleration, tight cornering and stop-on-a-dime braking. No, it isn’t a Porsche Cayenne—especially in the styling department—but it came close. Then there was the convenience, including 15 cup holders and a nifty trash-bag holder that flips out from the center console. And there was that awesome audio/entertainment system, with a really wide video screen that can display two movies at once. In the end, the Odyssey was one ugly ducking that quickly turned into a beautiful swan.

 

Subaru Forester
$21,000
Mpg: 21 city/27 highway
First introduced: 1997

Bigger and more substantial, the Forester is still the kid sister to the larger, gussied-up Outback. The good news is Forester now has a livelier engine, upping both performance and fuel-efficiency. Accelerating from a standing start is peppy, at least the first few gears. But if you mash the accelerator to the floor, there’s a considerable amount of drag—and audible wheezing—as the engine struggles through higher gears. Once the desired speed is reached, though, weaving in and out of traffic is a breeze. That’s because the Forester is light (about 200 lbs. less than the Outback). And as with all Subarus, it has stellar all-wheel drive. One drawback is the namby-pamby TomTom stereo/nav system, with miniscule screen, lackluster speakers and a confusing, user-unfriendly interface. Luckily, I found plenty of other amenities to overcome the potential buzz kill: panoramic sunroof, heated seats/mirrors, spacious cargo room and one-touch folding rear seats.

 

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