A funny thing happened to SUVs during their evolution from crude, outdoorsy trucks to the city-slick crossovers that have taken over the driveways of America. Turns out, a lot of people really miss those old trucks. I know I do.
Now, all respect to the Honda CR-Vs, Audi Q5s and Lexus RXs of the world. Those modern SUVs have become America’s de facto family car for good reason: They’re roomy and versatile, with easy-loading liftgates, all-wheel-drive and up-high seating that makes many drivers feel safe and in command. As SUVs have downsized and adopted smaller engines, they’ve become markedly more fuel efficient, to the point that many owners don’t think of them as trucks at all.
But like station wagons and minivans for older generations, these family SUVs have a problem: They’re ubiquitous and suburban, therefore boring. (There are exceptions, like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Range Rover Velar and Porsche Cayenne Coupe—all at the luxury end of the spectrum). Their soft-boiled silhouettes, largely dictated by the imperatives of passenger and cargo space, tend to make them look alike.
Naturally, a backlash is brewing. Several auto companies are looking to inject personality, off-road chops and yes, some testosterone into the segment. Even some street-focused crossovers, like the handsome new Kia Telluride, are reviving the boxy, utilitarian shapes that once characterized nearly all trucks. Long-retired nameplates—which were exploring wilderness and playing in the dirt long before the term “SUV” was coined—are being reborn, as makers look to cash in on nostalgic interest in vintage trucks. If you’re passingly familiar with terms like knobbies, winches and lockers, here are a few worth checking out:
2019 Mercedes-Benz G550. Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Like a McIntosh tube amp or a Purdey shotgun, the G-Class is an icon of authentic, handcrafted design for which people happily overpay. Now, at least, people will overpay for a modernized SUV: Mercedes has fully redesigned its boxy status symbol for the first time since it debuted 40 years ago as a military and civilian truck whose early customers included the Shah of Iran. (His large order was canceled when the Shah was deposed). This Austria-built 4×4 will still climb up, over and perhaps through any obstacle with its lofty stance, underbody armor, protective bull bars and trio of locking differentials. Off-road capability actually improves, thanks in part to a new independent front axle. But when it’s time to flaunt in Beverly Hills—or in my case, Brooklyn—the new G-Wagen no longer drives like a farm tractor wrapped in leather. A modern chassis, steering and technology transform the handling. The back seat is newly habitable. And the interior feels as sumptuous as an S-Class sedan’s, including Benz’s stunning widescreen cockpit displays. Go all out—as the majority of buyers do—and the resulting AMG G 63 version gets 577 horsepower from a twin-turbo V-8, good for a 4.4-second blast to 60 mph. Not off-road, of course.
Base price: $125,495 to $148,495
2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon. Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
It’s enough to make a truck fan’s head explode: A hardcore Jeep and a pickup truck, together in one vehicle. And might I interest you in my firstborn? Jeep has raided its own rich history to create the reborn Gladiator pickup, which it first offered in 1963. Fortunately, Jeep raided the parts bin of its all-new, radically modernized Wrangler. The result is an adventure-ready pickup that really stands out from the cowboy herd of Fords, Chevys and Rams. The Jeep can tow a useful 7,650 pounds, haul another 1,600 pounds in its cargo bed and still do all that Jeep-y stuff: ford thigh-deep water, clamber over boulders, draw jealous looks from guys in Toyota RAV4s. My Gladiator tester drew plenty of those looks in Maine, where it basically charmed the waders off of every outdoorsy guy I encountered. As a former serial Wrangler owner, I also succumbed to those charms, which include a surprisingly livable ride and interior features—onboard Wifi, an excellent infotainment system—that would have seemed embarrassingly posh in a truck not so long ago. As with the Wrangler, you can easily remove the Gladiator’s roof and doors for open-air fun. There’s another, welcome blast from the past: an available six-speed manual transmission.
The one negative? This Gladiator can get pricey for a Jeep, at between $55,000 and $62,000 for well-stuffed Rubicon or Overland editions. But some discipline with the options sheet can keep the price in check.
Base price: $35,040
1966 Ford Bronco. Photo courtesy of Ford
The Jeep Wrangler’s remarkable comeback—it sold a record 240,000 copies last year, triple its sales of a decade ago—has proven America’s pent-up desire for an affordable, all-conquering 4×4 with inimitable design and personality. And with Toyota having retired its FJ Cruiser, Jeep has basically had this lucrative market to itself. Ford wants a piece, badly. That means a rebirth of the Bronco, whose beloved 1966 original was a spiritual forefather of the modern SUV. Ford first promised an all-new Bronco in 2017, and it’s finally expected in showrooms sometime next year. Spy photographers have captured camouflaged Bronco test mules running around, and some facts have leaked: The Bronco will share its platform with an all-new midsize Ranger pickup. It will offer a turbocharged, 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine with roughly 270 horsepower, and Ford will develop a gas-electric hybrid model as well. Like the original, there will be a removable hardtop, with doors that can pop off and store in the cargo area. But for the Bronco, it’s probably less about the specs and more about the spirit: Fans are hoping the Bronco can capture the rugged, bare-bones attitude of its predecessors. Both the Wrangler and G-Class have proven that an SUV can balance retro design and hardcore capability with modern tech and creature comforts. If Ford follows that template correctly, the Bronco could be a winner as well—but until we see it and drive it, it’s not a fait accompli.