"Chevy finally has a vehicle that compares favorably in almost every respect to the Explorer."
Good: exceptional ride, plenty of horses
Bad: too-tall tailgate, hard-to-reach seat belts

 

Hands down, this vehicle should win this year's "Most Improved Award." The old Blazer was tired, cramped, pokey, hard riding and rattle-prone. While we don't know how the new TrailBlazer will hold up over time, it leaves the old Blazer in the dust in every single category and is now a legitimate competitor to the new Ford Explorer. It's a huge improvement for GM in the mid-sized SUV category. With a cars.com target price of $25,704 for the base, LS model, the TrailBlazer fits in Chevy's lineup right between the old Blazer (which they've decided to milk for another year) and the full-sized Tahoe. The TrailBlazer comes in two- and four-wheel/automatic, all-wheel drive versions, one body style (a four-door), and two ritzy trim levels, LT and LTZ. The EXT, a longer wheel base model with an extra row of seats, is also available.


Driving Experience

The TrailBlazer is built the rugged, old-fashioned way, with traditional body-on-frame construction. You might rightfully expect that the ride would be reminiscent of the early SUVs -- that is, truck-like. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ride is spectacular -- soft, car-like, and comfortable, subjecting our tuchuses to none of the roughness we had expected. In fact, the ride and the handling were our number one favorite thing about the TrailBlazer.

Our number two favorite thing? Chevy's new all-aluminum, 4.2-liter, straight-six engine. This is the only engine available in the TrailBlazer. We thought that its 270 horsepower was plenty for nearly every condition we encountered. And even with only six cylinders, the TrailBlazer engine actually produces 35 more horsepower than the largest V8 you can get in the Explorer.

The four-wheel drive TrailBlazer uses a conventional shift on the fly four-wheel drive, just like its predecessor. But the TrailBlazer adds to that an electronic controller called "Autotrac." Autotrac leaves the Trailblazer in rear-wheel drive, but automatically shifts the vehicle in and out of four-wheel drive when it detects rear-wheel slippage. This allows you to leave the vehicle in "Automatic 4WD" all the time, if you want to. So it functions as an automatic all-wheel drive. Whether it's as good as all-wheel drive, or just a poor man's version, we don't know. But it's certainly an improvement over the traditional 4WD of the old Blazer, which could not be used safely on dry pavement.


Interior

The TrailBlazer is sort of a super-sized Blazer. It's nine inches longer overall, nearly 1,000 pounds heavier, and has a wheelbase that's six inches longer. One of the places where that extra size gets put to good use is in the back seat -- an area in which the traditional Blazer is sorely lacking, in our humble opinion. Head, leg and shoulder room are now adequate in the back, and more than adequate in the front.

We found the height of the floor of the rear cargo area to be somewhat challenging. Chevrolet lists the tailgate height at 32.1 inches, which is an inch and a half higher than the Explorer's. That might not sound like much to you, but if you were a dog, which in theory we might carry around in the back of a vehicle such as this, you might find it difficult to get up into this area. (Note to manufacturers: Of course we would never carry a dog in a test car because it would be, what? Wrong, that's what.)

The TrailBlazer comes with power windows and locks, a dual climate-control system, side air bags, antilock brakes, a CD player (and a storage bin with just enough room to stash a few CDs in their cases), an intermittent wiper for the back window, and the usual assortment of cup-holders. The bells and whistles it didn't have -- like buttons on the steering wheel for the stereo and heated seats -- were all ones we could happily live without.


Ergonomics {C}

Overall, ergonomics are good. Most of the controls are understandable, and where you would expect them to be. The dual climate controls for the driver and passenger couldn't have been simpler. One ergonomic exception--the seatbelts are built into the seats themselves, and when they retract fully into the sides of the seats, they're hard to reach without pulling a tricep. The belt really needs some kind of a holder to keep it from fully retracting or else the TrailBlazer should come with a built in Ben-Gay dispenser.

We thought the exterior door handles were a little on the chintzy side. We thought they were too small and flimsy to get a good grip on.


Styling

The TrailBlazer is a nice-looking rig. It's a little more stylish than the Explorer, but it's not at all garish. We like it a lot. It didn't turn a lot of heads but then, again, we weren't chased out of town by angry, torch-bearing mobs, either. It's a little less middle-of-the-road than the new Explorer. A little bit less of a box on wheels.


Reliability

This is a GM product, so we can't promise you it'll run for 100,000 carefree miles. In fact, there have already been a number of early reports of dubious reliability with this vehicle. If reliability is your top priority, you want a Toyota Highlander. The TrailBlazer is not only a brand-new truck but it also has a brand-new engine. From past experience, we would guess that reliability would be about average -- though we're starting to wonder if "average" is more of a goal than an expectation for the TrailBlazer.

Another item of note, which we hope is not an omen: The TrailBlazer has already been subjected to a recall to replace front lower control arm brackets that might fracture, causing a loss of control of the vehicle.


Maintenance {C}

The goods news? We loved the engine compartment in the TrailBlazer -- there's plenty of room in there. So, when the time comes to replace major component groups, at least your mechanic won't scrape all of his knuckles. Seriously, service and maintenance should be easy to accomplish.

There's so much room under the hood, we suspect that eventually Chevrolet will put a larger engine in there. The current engine, however, has more than enough power for this vehicle, in our humble opinion, and we'd urge GM not to get involved in a horsepower or cylinder race when they already have an engine that suits this truck perfectly.


Overall comments

There are many competitors in the mid-sized SUV market, and two of them are TrailBlazer clones from other GM divisions: the GMC Envoy, which replaces the old Jimmy, and the new Oldsmobile Bravada, which replaces the old Bravada. About the only difference, aside from their higher price tags and different sheet metal, is the air suspension that's standard on the Olds and optional on the GMC. The Nissan Pathfinder, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Dodge Durango are similar, traditional, truck-based sports-utility vehicles with prices in the vicinity of the TrailBlazer's. The Toyota Highlander is a car-based SUV that's in the same neighborhood in terms of price and size.

As you might suspect, the real competition is the Ford Explorer and, its twin, the Mercury Mountaineer. And Chevy finally has a vehicle that compares favorably in almost every respect to the Explorer. The TrailBlazer, with its wonderful ride and handling and its smooth and powerful engine, represents a serious alternative.


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