Capably chic.by Ray Thursby
Broadly speaking, there are two distinct markets for sport-utility vehicles. The first, and oldest, demands functionality above all else. Customers in this group routinely fill their vehicles with people and/or cargo, make regular use of the inherent strengths of the breed, and will head for the great outdoors as often as possible.
A second -- and much larger -- cadre of buyers are most interested in some of the features shared by the majority of sport utes. They consider a high seating position and extra-strong construction as safety benefits for daily use and are attracted to the rugged aura these machines exude. But they also insist on big helpings of comfort and style. And they aren't likely to exercise off-road capabilities.
There are innumerable sub-groups within this market, of course, each with its own special needs. And there are fleet buyers who use sport-utility vehicles for farm labor, forest patrols and a thousand other workaday tasks.
The demands are many and diverse. Nevertheless, the trio of mid-size sport-utilities from General Motors -- Chevrolet Blazer, GMC Jimmy, and Oldsmobile Bravada -- are designed to appeal to everyone. Properly equipped, they can be as rugged as you'd want, or can be given a veneer of civilization that makes them suitable for everything from camping to an evening at the opera.
To meet competition from such stalwarts as the Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Isuzu Rodeo, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner, the three siblings from GM need to be very, very good. And aside from a few rough edges, which may or may not matter to you, they are.
Now in their third year since a major redesign, the Blazer, Jimmy and Bravada are familiar sights on and off the road. In any form they share a fashionable, aerodynamic front end teatment that harmonizes nicely with either the two-door's jaunty rear half, with its sharply-raked roof pillars, or the rather more formal four-door design.
Keeping the various permutations separate is best done with a wall chart or a stack of brochures but here's how they break down in a nutshell: Chevy's version comes in base, LS or LT trim;, Jimmy is available in SL, SLS, SLE or SLT; and Bravada offers a single model roughly equivalent to LT or SLT. It's also four-door-only.
Beyond differing plastic exterior panels, use of plain or plated trim, cloth or leather upholstery, two doors or four, and the absence or presence of convenience features, all members of the family are much the same. All are powered by a 4.3-liter V-6 engine and ride on a stiff ladder frame inherited from GM's mid-size pickup truck line.
All have standard four-wheel ABS and air conditioning, and the Chevy and GMC versions can be ordered with one of two four-wheel drive systems, one part-time, the other full-time. Bravadas have standard full-time all-wheel drive. All two-door versions have five-speed manual transmissions as standard dequipment, while four-doors are automatic only.
The Blazer and Jimmy offer numerous shock absorber/spring/antiroll bar packages to tailor them to intended use. Two are basic, all-around configurations that provide a smooth highway ride; four others address the needs of those who intend to use their vehicles off-road or for trailer-towing. Ride quality suffers with the latter setups, but they are useful for specific purposes. Picking the package most suitable to your needs is up to you, but we'd advise a long test run before you opt for the heavy-duty options.
A wide range of wheel/tire, trim and comfort and convenience items are available, as well. A power sunroof is new for 1997, joining various seats, sound systems and other amenities among the extra-cost goodies. Most of the high-line extras are standard on the Bravada.
The Inside Story
Comfort was a top priority for the Blazer/Jimmy/Bravada designers. Whether swathed in leather or trimmed in more basic cloth, the result is a space that is occupant and cargo friendly. The seats are excellent, providing better than average support and adjustability in our four-door Blazer tester. Stretch-out room is ample, though rear-seat passengers in two-door models will find their space a bit of a stretch to reach. Once in place, they will also find their outward vision blocked by that large, slanted rear roof pillar. Neither problem is an issue in the four-door.
Interior design remains more truck-based than car-like. The dashboard is big and blocky, holding the usual gauges and controls, plus -- when ordered -- pushbuttons for the optional electrically-controlled 4WD transfer case. Everything is placed for good access, though the actual quality of both the switches and the plastic panels that surround them is a notch below what you'd find in a Ford Explorer.
A more serious shortcoming is the omission of a passenger airbag. All other major players in the class have long since gone to dual airbags.
Aside from the occasional squeak from interior plastic -- usually when driving off-road -- the Blazer is remarkably quiet inside. Triple door seals keep wind noise (and dust) at bay, insulation masks most tire noise, and the engine makes only a soft hum at highway speeds, though induction and fan noise are both obtrusive during hard acceleration.
By and large, the Blazer/ Jimmy/Bravada cabin makes a good impression. With a materials upgrade and a second airbag, we'd rate it as excellent.
Ride & Drive
Considering the level of trim and equipment applied to our test Blazer, it is all too easy to look upon it as essentially a tall station wagon. Whether or not it actually feels like that to the driver depends on where and how it is being driven.
In an urban setting, the Blazer is quiet and composed, easy to drive with its automatic transmission and power-assisted steering. Good visibility and exterior dimensions smaller than those of a Chevy Malibu make it easy to maneuver.
Take the Blazer on the highway, and the picture changes slightly. Even in "touring" form, the suspension is firm, and reacts noticeably to pavement imperfections. It is still relatively effortless to drive, but a mushy brake pedal -- common to every GM truck and sport-utility vehicle we've driven -- can be disconcerting when panic stops are necessary.
Performance from the V-6 engine is good, particularly in the lower rpm ranges, and there is plenty of grunt in reserve for pulling a trailer or carrying a full load. The automatic transmission is especially nice, changing gears quickly and without noticeable hesitation.
For most customers, the base and "touring" suspensions will do just fine. Even off-road, our Blazer was sure-footed and controllable, whether asked to follow an existing trail or make a new one. Serious mountain goats or desert rats may want to investigate the off-road suspension packages, but you have to work the standard Blazer very hard to get beyond its innate rock-climbing ability. The optional power-operated transfer case makes switching from 2- to 4WD drive a snap.
As a general rule, any manufacturer's well-equipped mid-size sport-utility vehicle will set you back the better part of $30,000. That's a serious sum of money. In most cases, that price will bring with it all the expected power assists and a good audio system in a well-trimmed interior, plus 4WD and a top-level powertrain.
In this respect, the Blazer LS does not disappoint. All expected amenities are included -- in fact, more than you might expect -- encased in a well-built and solid structure that will breeze through normal use and absorb a lot of off-road punishment.
Compared to most of its rivals, the Blazer represents good value. Its road manners make it competitive, as do the options that allow customers to personalize it.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.