Besides old Glen Plake videos, nothing captures the ski-trip vibe of the mid- to late ’80s like that first generation of box-on-frame SUVs—slab-sided classics like the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, and Jeep Cherokee, followed in 1991 by the Ford Explorer. Just about everybody owned one—or wanted to. Back when nobody worried about gas mileage (or ride quality) they were must-haves for winter road trips.
The names survive, but current iterations are far removed from their truck-inspired roots. Most, like the 2014 Explorer, with its optional four-cylinder turbo engine, have also changed their gas-sucking ways.
The new Explorer debuted in 2011. It’s much larger yet lighter and more fun to drive than its predecessors, with styling cues seemingly pulled from Land Rover. Its V-8 is long gone, but it gets up to 28 mpg with a 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo. Impatient skiers can opt for the Sport model, with a 3.5-liter V-6 turbo that makes 365 hill-killing horses.
Your mental image of the once-boxy Pathfinder will also be obliterated when you see the smooth, almost carlike 2013 model, which shares many of its underpinnings with the Infiniti JX. It’s cushy, with pillowy leather, heated seats, and second-row video screens. It’s also pretty efficient, with a 3.5-liter V-6 delivering a steady 25 all-wheel-drive mpg. A new Hybrid version is on its way this year as well.
And just a year and a half into its newest redo, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee receives yet another makeover for 2014—including the much anticipated 240-horse, 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine option, promising up to 30 highway mpg with scrubbed exhaust. It can be outfitted with a quick-selecting terrain-control system, plus fully adjustable air suspension. There’s still a Hemi V-8 option or the crazy SRT supercar edition. Look as well for an all-new version of the smaller Cherokee, sized and styled just a bit like the new Ford Escape, later this year.
And while you can’t tell by looking at it, that massive, Judge-Dredd-rendered-in-Lego behemoth is actually a 2013 Toyota 4Runner. A three-row beast with more leather than a biker gathering, the 4Runner is also probably better off-road than ever. The 4.0-liter V-6 gets only 22 mpg on the highway, but you’ll get 270 horses to haul you along.
» Ford Explorer
Base price: $29,600
Highway mpg: 24
Ski-trip nicety: Terrain-management system
» Nissan Pathfinder
Base price: $28,650
Highway mpg: 26
Ski-trip nicety: Heated front and rear seats
» Jeep Grand Cherokee
Base price: $28,795
Highway mpg: 22/25
Ski-trip nicety: Back-seat Blu-ray
» Toyota 4Runner
Base price: $31,490
Highway mpg: 22
Ski-trip nicety: Automatic running boards
It’s Gotta Be Around Here Somewhere?!
» Touchscreen technology’s great, but when your navigation system can’t find the ski hill, you’re in trouble. Ford has endured criticism for the glitches in its MyFordTouch system. I recently discovered it had completely failed to plot Keystone, Colo. (town or ski area), onto its maps—a bit of a bother for already confused out-of-state visitors. Ford readily acknowledges the problems with its early-generation systems and says it’s working on fixes for bad iPod syncing and hard-to-tap touchscreens.