by Sam Moses
On sale: February 2001
Estimated pricing: Low $30,000s
An all-new Chevrolet Trailblazer goes on sale this spring. Redesigned from the ground up, the 2002 Trailblazer, shares its basic architecture with the new GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada. All are engineering knockouts.
The Trailblazer is bigger than the Blazer and it's so good that it could be of concern to Ford, which has just redesigned its best-selling Explorer for 2002.
(Chevrolet will continue to sell its smaller Blazer, at least for now. And don't be confused by the 2001 Blazer's Trailblazer trim level, which is entirely different from this new Trailblazer. The 2002 TrailBlazer is 8.3 inches longer and 6.9 inches wider than the current 2001 Blazer.)
The 2002 Chevrolet Trailblazer uses a new inline six-cylinder engine instead of GM's traditional V6 and V8 engines. While there's nothing new about the basic design of the tried-and-true inline-6, today's technology brings a far more sophisticated powerplant.
For 2002, the Trailblazer comes with just one engine: the new Vortec 4200, an all-aluminum, double-overhead-cam, 24-valve inline-6. If a straight-six engine is good enough for BMW and Lexus, why shouldn't it be good enough for Chevrolet?
This is no ordinary straight six. From 4.2 liters, this double overhead-cam inline-6 produces a stunning 270 horsepower, 30 more than Ford's new 4.6-liter single overhead-cam V8. And its very broad torque curve with a peak 275 pounds-feet is nearly identical to that of the Ford V8. It incorporates state-of-the-art engine construction and management, and its 15 city/21 highway (EPA-estimated) mileage slightly improves on the old V6. In Baja, GM engineers couldn't stop raving about the new engine's towing strength. They excitedly report that during their own comparison testing, a TrailBlazer blew away a Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 in 6000-pound-trailer-pulling race up a mountain. It ran way cooler and used much less gas, they added.
The chassis and suspension are also highly developed, featuring a list of sports car stuff: rack-and-pinion steering, beefy four-wheel vented discs with twin-piston calipers in front, independent front suspension with short/long control arms, solid rear axle using five-link suspension with Bilstein gas-charged shock absorbers and coil springs, thick antiroll bars front and rear. The SUVs' chief designer, Ted Robertson, brought a resume including the '90s Camaro/Firebird. GM wanted his soul as well as his experience in the TrailBlazer, and they got it. He'll take some credit for trying to put some sport in sport-utility.
Some 20 to 25 engineers worked on the GM's new SUVs, and they were excited by the challenging performance targets, including power, emissions, mileage, cornering grip, ride quality, interior noise and roominess, even headlamp beam-all of which they believe they exceeded. Attention to detail is evident, from a box that helps air-cool the battery, to remarkably sanitary wiring under the hood, to rear-seat headrests that conveniently flip down for better rearward driver visibility. "Maybe we can even convince people that we're not the same old GM," said Ron Kociba, father of the engine. At the pivotal meeting when he proposed building an inline-6, a top executive responded, "Maybe this is an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the rest." GM clearly has done this.
Based on about 100 miles of driving on rough and fast Mexican two-lanes-flat and climbing, straight and twisting-and a few laps around an off-road course with steep climbs and descents and 50-mph washboards, the midsize GM SUV might very well be as much truck as any SUV has ever been, and more car than any SUV has ever been-at least for the price, expected to start in the low 30s. Official pricing is will be available shortly, and the vehicles begin rolling off their Moraine, Ohio assembly line and into dealerships in February.
An inline engine is smoother, simpler and more durable than a vee. Advancements in electronics, metallurgy and manufacturing methods now enable an inline engine to soar. In times past, the superior physics of the inline had a hard time breaking out of the cast-iron shell.
The engine is so quiet and smooth at idle that a "starter interrupt" feature had to be added to prevent drivers (initially GM test drivers and engineers) from grinding the starter by turning the key when the engine is already running. There's a media embargo on driving impressions until February 1, so we're not able to tell you how strong the TrailBlazer feels, passing a Mexican truck on an uphill two-lane, or that the faster you go the smoother it gets. And that's on Mexican gas.
The all-aluminum Vortec 4200 features variable-valve timing, electronic throttle control, coil-on-plug ignition and a seven-quart oil pan with a clever tunnel for the front drive axle, which allows the longish block to be mounted six inches lower, contributing to better balance and a lower center of gravity.
One transmission is common to all three SUVs, the Hydra-matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic that's used in GM applications from Corvettes to Cadillac Escalades. A significant advantage to the engine's very broad torque is that the transmission does dramatically less downshifting.
The chassis rails are shaped by hydroforming, a process pioneered in the '97 C5 Corvette that makes the rails stronger and lighter. No fewer than eight crossmembers contribute to a claimed 260-percent increase in torsional rigidity, and there are 12 tuned body mounts. The track is the widest in class, 2.2 inches wider than the 2002 Explorer in front and 0.9 inch wider in rear, with a very tight turning circle of 36.4 feet, achieved by sharper turning of the wheels, thanks to the suspension and engine location.
The new Trailblazer has four doors and seats five passengers, compared to the Explorer's optional seven seats on the same wheelbase, with that third seat fairly squeezed in. (Explorer also has 10 percent more cargo space, thanks to a lower floor behind that third seat). A GM seven-seater with a longer wheelbase can be expected before year's end. GM says its buyers told them that seven passengers on a five-seat wheelbase didn't appeal to them. So GM will build another chassis.
And coming mid-year is a rear seat DVD entertainment system, with a seven-inch flip-down screen and wireless headphones.
Beyond the engine, frame and transmission, the three SUVs go their separate ways. Each SUV gets its own sheetmetal, including hood, grille, fenders, rear doors, bumpers and lights all around. The interiors are also different. The suspensions, wheels, rear axle ratios and drive systems also vary, and the options and accessories are geared toward the buyers of each brand.
Among the three new GM SUVs, the Trailblazer "is the one for off-road," says chief designer Ted Robertson. It's the least luxurious and has the coil-spring rear suspension. It's also the one that's clearly Chevy, with a big bowtie in the center of the bar across the grille that's either chrome or body colored, depending on trim level: LS, LT and LTZ.
The nose is a scaled-down Suburban or Silverado, and the overall styling is sturdy, neat: bold utility lines, with graceful pillars and window shapes, confident fender flares and stylish headlamps, taillights and turn signals.
GM's electronic AutoTrac offers 4wd Hi, 4wd Lo, and awd which shifts power to the front wheels as computers sense the need. Changing functions is as simple as switching a knob on the dash, although the vehicle must be in neutral to accept 4wd Lo. (There's also a switch for flat towing, which precludes having to disconnect the driveshaft when the vehicle is being towed.) Two-wheel-drive models include traction control.
Standard on all models are side airbags in the front seat, providing backup for the door guard beams, in addition to the dual-stage driver and passenger frontal airbags. Standard towing equipment includes a hitch platform with seven-pin wiring for trailers with brakes. The standard final drive ratio is 3.73:1, with 4.10:1 available for towing.
Interior lighting is "world class" as GM claims, developed by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center in Indiana.
The seats come in fabric, cloth and leather, and don't offer much side bolstering.
Some Trailblazer options on the LS that are standard on the LT and LTZ include remote entry, cruise control, rear defogger, heated mirrors and GM's OnStar security system with GPS tracking and cell phone communication, including emergency assistance and remote unlocking.
LT adds foglamps, rain-sensing wipers, rear heat controls, running boards, leather interior, power heated seats, Bose premium sound system, Driver Information Center, rear seat radio controls and headphone jacks, and 17-inch wheels. About the only things you can get on the LTZ but not the LT are heated/memory seats, rain-sensing wipers and 17-inch wheels.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.