A mighty little SUV for not-so-mighty budgets.
by Martin Padgett Jr.
Base Price $13,925 (Convertible 2-Door 2WD)
As Tested $18,925 (Hard Top 4-Door 4WD)
For many of us, sport-utility vehicles are the stuff of lottery-winning fantasies. Most SUVs cost more than $35,000, many cost upwards of $50,000. But not all of them have to mean a huge deduction from your bank account. Of the truly trail-worthy SUVs, Chevrolet's new Tracker 4X4 is one of the least expensive. And, you might be surprised to read, it's one of the most satisfying.
Like other small SUVs, such as Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4, the Tracker fits a number of needs. It's got cubbyholes and storage space galore, places to store everything from mountain bikes to Rollerblades. And though it may be small, the Tracker has the power to cut and thrust through city traffic. With four-wheel drive, it inspires confidence in the wet and snowy months.
The Tracker takes small SUVs a step farther than Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4. The Chevy Tracker boasts a sturdy structure underneath its sheet metal that makes it more suitable for serious off-road travel. It's built on a ladder frame. And its four-wheel-drive system offers a low-range set of gears for off-road trail rides and hill climbs. Add in 8 inches of ground clearance, and the Tracker has the goods for any activity, on or off the pavement. So the Tracker might even tug you to an off-road adventure.
Chevy's Tracker would make an enjoyable economy car even if it came without the wagon body and off-road gear. But with its tall roof and 4X4 capability, the Tracker makes a strong case as an all-in-one vehicle that suits a wide range of needs. It's a slick piece of work -- and a hip choice if your annual car budget has just one line item.
A two-door convertible is the least expensive Tracker you can buy. Starting at $13,925, it comes standard with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and two-wheel drive. A more powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive are also available with the two-door convertible.
More practical for many people are the four-door Trackers. They come in various trim levels. All are powered by a 2.0-liter twin-cam inline-4 that produces 127 horsepower. All come standard with a 5-speed manual gearbox, but a 4-speed automatic transmission is offered for an additional $1,000.
The base two-wheel-drive four-door Tracker retails for $15,150. Four-door Tracker 4X4 models start at $16,250. Our Tracker 4X4 came loaded with optional power windows and mirrors and door locks, tilt steering and cruise control, and cost $18,925.
Completely redesigned and re-engineered for 1999, the only changes to the entire Tracker lineup for model year 2000 are color choices. Dark Blue Metallic is new on four-door models, Bright Blue Metallic for Two-Door models, and Copper Brown Metallic available on both configurations.
The 2000 Tracker represents the second generation of GM's mini-utility program. The first Tracker was a popular Geo model that went away in 1998, smarting from the newer competition from the RAV4 and CR-V.
General Motors ditched the Geo nameplate, but the Tracker didn't go away. Instead, Chevrolet worked with Suzuki on an updated mini-utility. The result is a more upmarket mini-utility. The current Tracker is tighter, more refined and a much better equipped vehicle than before.
Tracker sits on a new ladder-frame chassis designed by Suzuki that is much stiffer than the previous generation. Ladder frames are considered better for off-road use than unit-body chassis. (Toyota's RAV4, Honda's CR-V and most cars employ unit-body chassis.) Tracker shares its truck-based chassis with the new Suzuki Vitara and Grand Vitara.
As if to reinforce its intent, Chevy's Tracker is distinguished with unique styling cues that give it a more rugged appearance than the other mini-utilities. The Chevy design looks a little cleaner than the Suzuki version.
It may look like a truck from the outside, but the Tracker feels like a car from the inside. Front seats put driver and passenger high behind the wheel with plenty of headroom, although the seats are a bit narrow and spongy for truly good support.
The view from the driver's seat is great. The nose of the Tracker slopes away for good road visibility, and the narrow roof pillars allow panoramic vision. The spare tire is set low enough on the back door to see out the rear, though the rear head rests can block vision when they are in place.
Instruments are clear and switches operate with the click-click finesse of Toyota and Honda switches. The same goes for the Tracker's five-speed shifter, a smooth piece that combines with a light clutch for superior on-road driveability. If it weren't for the tiny little buttons on the radio, the Tracker's dash would be an unqualified success.
The optional air conditioning system automatically activates whenever the windshield defroster is turned on, which provides dry air for quicker defogging action. On four-door models, the system comes with a replaceable pollen filter that removes allergens and dust from the passenger compartment.
Storage is rarely a problem. With all the armrests, cupholders, door pockets, and netting throughout the Tracker, there's a place for everything so you can keep everything in its place. Flipping the rear seats down provides a large cargo area capable of holding a big dog cage.
Fabrics, plastics and materials are first-rate. They don't shout economy like the vinyl of past Trackers, and the dark gray provides a lighter ambiance. The doors thunk firmly in place, and the seams inside are small and unnoticeable. Of all the changes Chevy has made to the Tracker, the upgraded fit and finish is the most convincing and thorough.
The Tracker automatically turns on the headlights and all exterior lights when it detects darkness. In broad daylight, it runs the headlights at reduced intensity and turns off the taillights.
In everyday traffic around Atlanta and on short hops to outlet malls in the north Georgia hills, the Tracker proved why it's popular with the young and spendthrift. For a price equal to a well-equipped economy car, the Tracker delivers a surprising amount of versatility.
The 2.0-liter is a smooth engine with a usable powerband. It works well with the five-speed manual transmission and provides enough power to entertain. The Tracker can pass with confidence on interstates and there's no fear of getting run over when pulling away from busy intersections.
The nicest surprise, however, is the Tracker's new independent front suspension, which quietly damps down tar strips and other medium-sized bumps, and helps give it almost agile handling. The ride is especially well controlled for a vehicle with a short wheelbase. The track, the distance between the left and right tires, was increased by 2.4 inches. That gives the Tracker a much wider stance for improved stability. This isn't a car, however. Its ride quality is more truck like than that of a Honda Accord and it does not handle nearly as well as a Camaro.
A drive through Maryland made us wonder about the performance capability of the Uniroyal Tiger Paw tires. The tires squeal easily when making low-speed U-turns. Also, the Tracker lacks grip on wet pavement - a problem with many small SUVs. The rear tires lose grip when turning and accelerating briskly away from an intersection. Shifting into four-wheel drive can help cure this, but then the front and rear drivetrains will bind up in tight parking lots.
Braking is another pleasant surprise, with firm pedal feel. Its optional anti-lock brake system adjusts brake pressure to the front and rear wheels during hard braking situations, helping the driver maintain steering control by minimizing wheel lockup.
A new rack-and-pinion steering system replaces the old recirculating ball system on the previous version. It provides more precise steering feel and better responsiveness than before. Still, as with many SUVs, the steering response is a little mushy on center. That's probably due to the wide P205/75R15 tires that come with the Tracker 4X4, but those tires offer a good compromise of off-road traction and on-road grip.
The four-wheel-drive system is a snap to employ. A lever to the left of the manual transmission shifter allows the driver to choose rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive or low-range four-wheel-drive. It's a shift-on-the-fly system with automatic locking hubs, which means drivers don't have to stop or get out of the vehicle to engage the four-wheel-drive system. The four-wheel-drive system directs power to both axles equally, as opposed to all-wheel-drive or some on-demand four-wheel-drive systems that send power to the wheels with traction. A two-speed transfer case provides a four-wheel-drive low-range setting for driving through deep mud or snow or traversing steep inclines.
Chevrolet's Tracker is one of the growing number of nicely revitalized Chevrolets. The Tracker has been updated and transformed. It feels equally at home off-road, hauling a small load of furniture, or dealing with the daily commute.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.