Retro as a design concept is hot everywhere these days, from fashion, architecture, gadgets and even appliances. Automobiles have been going retro now for several years, ever since the Chrysler PT Cruiser opened America's consciousness to the character, nostalgia and affordability of these retro-styled rides.
Once thought only attractive to Baby Boomers, true retro and retro-esque cars like the Ford Mustang, PT Cruiser and the all-new Dodge Charger are now designed for a wider market of cool teens, hip singles and families who disdain minivans. This retro-modern movement has also captured the hearts of buyers because these cars bring back generations of good feelings from the hard-working postwar '40s, the all-American '50s, the free love '60s and the super groovy '70s.
I took a road test in eight of today's top retro rides and discovered why these cars are a popular way to combine sentimentality with the appeal of modern design and the thrill of great driving.
Liked: Best retro interior, good looks
Disliked: Pony-car ride, thirsty engine
Over the years, Ford Mustangs may have kept retro alive, and some of the most popular modern versions have taken design cues from classic Mustangs. In my case, Ford Mustangs definitely have a throwback memory of cruising down Pacific Coast Highway in my mother's 1968 cherry red California Special with white pin stripes and an all black-and-chrome interior.
That Mustang made heads turn then and, even today, a Ford Mustang GT and especially the new pimped-out 2008 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 convertible still puts heads on a swivel. This year's California Special (GT/CS) edition is available from dealers now and has a limited production of only 3,000 vehicles.
I found the interior of the 2007 Ford Mustang GT to be closer to the original design than any other retro ride. I mean, if it weren't for the totally modern audio system with Sirius satellite radio, I might believe I was still cruising in that racy '68 "Stang." The gauges, controls and the silver-and-black handlebar shift look and feel so authentic that driving this car is like going back in time.
In my road test of a bright orange model, the Ford Mustang GT's 4.6-liter V8 engine is definitely an improvement over yesteryear's rather crude Mustangs, which had grunt, but lacked refinement. There's also a rather wide price range on today's Mustangs from $19,250 for a basic 2008 model, up to $45,000 for the new Ford Mustang Shelby convertible.
Liked: Super fast HEMI engine, great cruising car, posh interior
Disliked: Front spoiler way low for all-too-frequent mishaps
Dodge designed its retro-esque Charger as a family-sized sports car. Now do you really believe an iconic American muscle car can be transformed into a modern family car? I couldn't be more of a believer after driving a candy apple red Dodge Charger SRT8.
Okay, so Dodge Charger fans are kinda upset about the car being designed as a four-door sedan rather than the original two-door coupe. Too bad! I happily found the Dodge Charger to be one of the most stylish, comfortable and super powerful sedans on the road today.
The Dodge Charger's 6.1-liter V8 HEMI engine is the first car in dozens and dozens of road tests that made me hesitate when putting the pedal to the metal. Why? This super sedan didn't just smoothly accelerate to warp speeds -- it felt like the car actually JUMPED ahead several hundred feet without touching the ground. Surprisingly, the Dodge Charger is also an above average cruising car for when you want to drive slowly and savor the moment.
The exterior's Nascar-like looks with wide haunches, narrow windows, beefy hood and huge rear spoiler is another good reason to buy this retro ride. The interior, however, may be this car's best feature. The SRT8 model (priced out at $45,000) is one of the most roomy and comfortable sedans to date, especially with its suede and leather gray bucket seats, red saddle stitching, well-placed controls and DVD entertainment system built right into the center armrest.
Liked: Race-car drive, roaster good looks
Disliked: Tiny two-seat interior, bare bones storage
Do you love retro cars, driving fast and standing out from the usual crowd of BMW, Mercedes and Lexus? The Porsche Boxster, based on this marque's winning Porsche 550 Spyder roadster, is actually a rather affordable pick for those who just love a real driver's car.
I drove a pretty silver rag top Boxster S down my usual Pacific Coast Highway testing route and marveled at Porsche's racy ride. Shifting manually was a thrill, as was weaving in and out of beach-bound traffic in this 3.4-liter flat six.
Inside, the cocoa-colored interior was minimal and chic at the same time with its dark brown leather, suede and chrome accents. This mid-engine masterpiece still looks much like founder Ferdinand Porsche's original two-seat design. The Boxster's wide stance, bulging bumpers, rounded back and race car looks may make it worth the $50,000 price tag for a sporty roadster from a classic racing brand.
Liked: Smooth ride, true retro interior, rugged good looks
Disliked: Spare tire mounted on back obstructs rear view slightly
The Toyota FJ Cruiser may be one of the most funny-looking rides on the road, but this 4x4 is actually one of the best designed and most fun-to-drive vehicles ever made. The design influence comes from Toyota's rugged off-road FJ40 Land Cruiser, which was developed in the 1960s as Toyota's answer to the more popular Jeep. In fact, the Land Cruiser was Toyota's best-selling model here in the 1960s.
Today's Toyota FJ Cruiser is a study in how the blending of old and new can make something quite unique. Yes, the outside may look too wide, too high and a bit too brash, but this retro ride is actually a serious all-purpose vehicle. The 4-liter V6 engine makes for above average acceleration, a smooth transmission and easy handling. I especially enjoyed the Jeep-like buzz and the somewhat bumpy suspension.
The interior is all rugged with a rubber-like cabin and water repellent seats for hosing down after trips with the kids and dogs. The metallic center console and side door panels, which match the exterior color, are a welcome design throwback to the original Land Cruiser. The overall interior with its big knobs and rounded features is actually very pleasing, as is the super wide back seat, which can be accessed through the rear-hinged passenger doors.
Liked: Smooth ride, cool and useful retro interior, rag top
Disliked: Tiny trunk in convertible version
The Chrysler PT Cruiser practically started the retro revolution when it first hit the market back in 2001. Taking design cues from a 1930s and '40s Chrysler delivery vehicle, the PT (it means "Personal Transportation") was unlike any other car on the road until its popularity spawned copy cat vehicles like the Chevy HHR. Both vehicles were designed by Brian Nesbitt.
Like most car reviewers, I'm enamored with this vehicle both inside and out. The exterior styling is cool and even a bit sexy, especially the soft top models. Inside, the Chrysler PT Cruiser's designers got everything right from the matching metal accents to the soothing controls and even the comfortable seating. I especially love the four-spoked steering wheel, which sits low and makes you feel like cruising all day long. The 2.4 liter 4-cylinder GT turbo version I tested was a zippy drive with excellent speed, handling and suspension.
Liked: Smooth city and rugged off-road handling, luxurious interior
Disliked: Slow acceleration in this diesel version
With its boxy SUV design and completely modern interior, it's hard to label the 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee as a retro ride even if this model truly is an incarnation from the rugged 1974 Jeep of the same name. Jeep has seemingly gone beyond retro here and made a combination CUV/SUV with a smidge of Jeep design (like the front grille bars and squared-off fenders).
The 3-liter V6 4WD model I drove for this road test was actually the new diesel version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. With a kind of plodding bus-like feel, especially in the lower gears, it was rather disconcerting until you hit third gear and things sped up. Still, the rest of the Jeep Grand Cherokee package (around $37,000 for this fully-loaded model) hits high marks in speed, suspension, handling, comfort, room (enough for seven passengers) and tons of features.
Liked: Funky retro exterior, low price
Disliked: Average acceleration and handling, poor retro design inside
Even Gen Yers like my teen-aged daughter are enamored with the retro-modern VW Beetle. Let's admit it: This bubble-topped ride is pretty cute and unlike anything else on the road. Still, the "New Beetle" (as VW calls it) does rely on the original's iconic design, which captured the free love feelings of its time and became known as the "people's car" for its reliability, affordability, room for five and air-cooled engine.
As for mechanics, the new VW Beetle certainly has an above average ride for speed and handling, making it a fun and affordable (starting at only $17,000) "people's car" yet again. Unfortunately, I feel like VW cut short the retro feel of this car on the inside. Plastic was everywhere and I was disappointed in the zero use of metal accents. It's too bad the re-design of a truly iconic car couldn't be a bit more like the well-loved original.
Liked: Cool 40s exterior styling, roomy and versatile trunk space
Disliked: Average drivability, poor retro design inside
Like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Chevy HHR (an acronym for "Heritage High Roof") is based on a rather unknown model from the '40s (the 1949 Chevrolet Suburban, actually). Yes, the exterior has that '40s gangster look with low-to-the-ground build, bubble hood and roof and wide bumpers.
Inside, yet again, there's more of a modern feel with too much plastic and not enough metal and chrome. Billed as an SUV, the Chevy HHR is more like a CUV with car-like driving, room for five and a larger and more versatile back hatch space than the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The 2.2-liter 4-cylinder HHR engine gets average marks in speed and handling with good overall drivability. Starting at just $17,000, the Chevy HHR is an affordable way to get into the retro scene.