- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

General Motors SUVs are in a bit of an identity crisis. Five years ago the lineup of GMC and Chevy sport utes defined the parameters of the market. Anchoring the selection was a mini-ute, the Chevy Tracker. At the far end was the Queen Mary of SUVs, the Chevy/GMC Suburban. In the middle were Tahoe/Yukon and Blazer/Jimmy, as well as Oldsmobile's Bravada.

Today, a number of brands have Tracker competitors and the Suburban is no longer the size standard on the behemoth end of the spectrum, having been supplanted by the corpulent Ford Excursion.

While Chevy has shown no inclination to try to trump Ford's Excursion ace does the world really need another Moby Dick-size passenger vehicle? it and GMC have been adjusting its lineups in an attempt to stake out more ground in the middle. Two years ago saw redesigned Tahoes and Yukons, while this year finds larger midsize SUVs on the dealer shelf.

Oldsmobile has retained the Bravada moniker for its new version. GMC eliminated the Jimmy nameplate in favor of its upscale Envoy label. Chevy embarked on a radically different path. It continues to offer last year's Blazer with some minor improvements as a price point vehicle. The new, larger, more expensive SUV has been named TrailBlazer.

Jeep was successful with a similar marketing ploy when it debuted the Grand Cherokee, while continuing to sell the Cherokee as a price point offering. Additionally, the Blazer will still be available with two or four doors, but the TrailBlazer is a four-door only SUV.

I recently spent a week with the TrailBlazer LTZ 4WD. The LTZ is the top end of the three trim levels, also including LS and LT. TrailBlazer is head and shoulders above the Blazer. Much more carlike in personality, TrailBlazer is a vast improvement in over-the-road handling and ride quality. A stronger frame and a revamped suspension have done much to civilize TrailBlazer's demeanor. One upgrade contributing heavily to the improved ride is the use of coil rather than leaf springs on the rear axle. There is still a ruggedness apparent in TrailBlazer's personality, but the rough edges have been sanded down significantly.

Just how much larger is the TrailBlazer than the four-door Blazer? Considerably larger. On a wheelbase stretched six inches sits an eight-inch longer and nearly seven-inch wider body. On its tiptoes Blazer couldn't overcome TrailBlazer's more then seven-inch height advantage. Trailblazer is beefier too with about 550 pounds of extra weight. And, it isn't over yet. TrailBlazer will grow still longer and heavier when the seven-passenger version is introduced later this model year.

Shouldered with pushing around TrailBlazer's extra load is an all-new 4.2-liter Vortec inline six-cylinder engine. So quiet is this new inline six that the ignition has been programmed to hesitate a beat before engaging to help prevent drivers from trying to start the vehicle when it is already running.

Producing 80 more horsepower and 25 additional pounds-feet of peak torque than the Blazer's 4.3-liter V-6, the inline six is the most powerful engine in its class. That is precisely the reason a V-8 isn't available in either rear-wheel drive or with GM's Autotrac four-wheel drive system In addition to Autotrac's two-wheel high setting, there are also four-wheel high and four-wheel low settings. The fourth setting is for automatic four-wheel drive, transferring the decision making to the vehicle's computers. Both drive-wheel configurations receive the engine's output through a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is no surprise. The Environmental Protection Agency rates TrailBlazer's miles per gallon at 15 in the city and 21 on the open highway.

TrailBlazer's larger outside measurements equate to more room inside. Legroom, headroom, shoulder room and cargo capacity are all increased. The seating is comfortable, the instrumentation logically arranged and the controls easy to operate. Front seat-mounted side-impact air bags are standard, as are eight-way power front seats, two-tone leather seating and a travel-note recorder. The audio system contains both a cassette deck and CD player. The standard features include all of this plus the normal amenities typically found in a luxury SUV.

Base price of the TrailBlazer LTZ 4WD is $33,730. Standard features not already mentioned include 17-inch aluminum wheels, OnStar driver's assistance system, rear audio/HVAC controls, cargo shade, cruise control, power windows/door locks, power outboard mirrors with turn signal indicators and keyless remote entry system. A number of options like a Bose audio system upgrade, heated front seats, side running boards and more added another $2,530 to the bottom line. Tacking on the $600 delivery charge brought the total as tested to $36,860.

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