Redesigned from the inside out, and it shows. by Sue Mead
Chevy's Blazer was introduced as an all-new model in 1995, with a host of features that made it far more like a passenger car than its original version that was brought to market in 1983. It still has the heartbeat of a truck, but now has the flexibility to ferry your family, tug a trailer and stash your cargo -- all with a more comfortable ride and a little luxury along the way. The S-designation was dropped, but the Blazer is mechanically similar to the GMC Jimmy and the all-wheel drive Oldsmobile Bravada.
The Blazer comes to '96 showrooms riding largely on its laurels from last year which included Consumer's Digest's "Best Buy" award, Motor Trend's Truck of the Year award, as well as winning the 1995 North American Truck of the Year award. It's not a surprise that it garnered recognition in the industry since GM redesigned this SUV and gave it a new outside, a new inside and new suspension packages. But its best feature is its price. Here it outpaces its chief competitors -- the Ford Explorer and Jeep's Grand Cherokee -- by a good margin. The original Jeep Cherokee, however, is priced less.
What's new for the Blazer is a shot of adrenaline to its horsepower, improved performance and reduced emissions, new extended maintenance schedules, and an optional all-wheel drive. The Blazer comes in five models: two-wheel drive (available in two-door and four-door), four-wheel drive (available in two-door and four-door) and full-time all-wheel (available in four-door only). Trim packages are base and uplevel LS on all versions and an LT package on four-door models only.
Competitors in this ever-growing compact sport-utility segment other than the Explorer and Cherokee models are the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Passport and Isuzu Rodeo. Not to be discounted are the recently introduced Kia Sportage and Toyota's new RAV4.
The new Blazer was sculpted with sleeker, more wind-cheating lines while retaining its earlier, more rugged appearance at the same time. From the outside, it bears a family resemblance to the attractive S-Series Pickups. Grille and bumper are rounded and windshield glass is raked with aero exterior mirrors that smooth air and appearance. Standard Solar-Ray tinted glass helps keep ultraviolet and infrared rays out.
New for '96 is the Vortec 4300 V-6 engine, designed to produce more power and decrease noise. It delivers 190 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 250 lb-ft of torque at 2800 rpm. Engine block redesign, and additional bolts to join transmission bellhousing to a new cast-aluminum oil pan increases powertrain bending and stiffness and also makes things quieter in-cabin. On-Board Diagnostics (OBD-II) are more sophisticated and the Blazer's Vehicle Control Module (VCM) is more powerful in its job of emissions-monitoring. Coolant life is extended to 100,000 miles or five years.
A new, easy-shifting five-speed manual transmission with a new concentric design slave clutch is optional on 2WD models. All automatic transmissions now benefit from the brake/transmission shift interlock safety upgrade that requires the driver to apply the brake pedal to shift from Park.
Blazer's ladder-type frame with box rails is the base for a hefty variety of chassis packages to meet a wide range of driving needs and driver personalities. For example: Z83, standard on two-door models, gives a smooth ride and is for light-duty trailering while ZQ1 is standard on four-door models (same attributes). The Z85 Touring package is optional and is designed for a firm ride and heavy-duty trailering while ZM6 is an optional Off-Road package for two-door, 4WD that provides a very firm ride and heavy-duty trailering applications. The ZW7 Premium package is engineered for a premium smooth ride and heavy-duty trailering for four-door, 4WD. Tires are P205/75R-15 all-season steel-belted radials, P235/70R-15 AS/SBR and P235/75R-15 AS/SBR depending on the model.
Front suspension is independent coil springs (2WD) and independent torsion bars (4WD) while the rear is suspended by semi-elliptic, two-stage multi-leaf springs and semi-floating rear axle. A stiffened frame improves the ride and handling characteristics, plus helps with squeaks and rattles and diminishes pavement and powertrain noise.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the two-door model and a four-speed electronic transmission is an option. Automatic transmission is standard on four-door models. The enhanced 4.3 liter V-6 is standard on all models. Chevy's four-wheel drive system, called "Insta-Trac," can be engaged by means of a floor-mounted shifter or a push button on the dash. Full-time all-wheel drive is available on four-door models. GM's AWD system normally puts 65 percent torque to rear wheels and 35 percent to front, but when road conditions cause reduced traction at one set of wheels, the transfer case automatically sends engine power to the wheels with better traction.
Also new for '96 are five exterior paint colors and one new interior color.
The Inside Story
While the wheelbase remains unchanged with its makeover, the Blazer is now longer, lower and wider. This means you'll find front seat shoulder room is increased by more than three inches, and even though there is a lower step-in height, ground clearance remains unchanged. And, because the spare wheel and tire is now stowed under the floor on four-door models, cargo capacity is increased by 1.6 cubic feet. Chevy boasts that you can carry a washing machine in its box.
Our testers found ingress/egress easy and accomodating for all drivers, especially those who wear skirts. We were particularly impressed by front seat room and ergonomics with dash, dials and controls, but found the rear-seat leg room to be too small. Accessibility to the rear in two-door models is somewhat compromised.
The Blazer/Jimmy/Bravada was redesigned from the inside out and it shows. Depending on the model, the upscale interior is full of many comforts and comes with a cache of the latest car luxuries. There are sophisticated sound systems with CD players, adjustable reading lamps, built-in stowage bins, compass and outside thermometers, and options such as cellular phone hook-ups. One of our favorite features is the center console which sets the stage for eating, drinking, writing and stowing with cupholders (front and rear) and nifty spaces for storage. Seats come as bench, bucket and split/folding in the rear. We like the optional plush leather power bucket seats with power lumbar adjusters.
Ride & Drive
We found the Blazer's on-road behavior was competent with pluses directed at the new Vortec 4300 V-6. It performed smoothly with sharp throttle response and pairs well with the automatic transmission that shifted in the right places. It falls short in braking feel, although in the final analysis, the four-wheel anti-lock system works well. Disconcerting is considerable "brake travel" (a feeling of sponginess) when applying pressure to the brake pedal, before the brakes engage.
We also found the variable ratio steering feels "soft" rather than "crisp" but it handles well overall and is easy to park. The ride is smooth and visibility is good. Sound dampening efforts have paid off as the ride is relatively quiet with the exception of the early throttle range when engine noise is evident. Off-highway capability is enhanced by a laudable ground clearance that beats both the Explorer's and the Cherokee's underbelly clearance.
Safety features are aimed at "accident avoidance" to minimize the effects of a collision. Standard are four-wheel anti-lock brakes, center high-mounted stop lamp, child safety locks on rear doors, driver-side airbag, three-point seatbelts for outboard passengers, side guard beams on all doors and an energy-absorbing steering column and standard daytime running lights on all '96 models. A lock-out switch on rear windows (w/power windows) and keyless entry are optional.
Blazer and its stablemates have taken a good stab at being more like cars than trucks. They give a comfortable ride with some road poise and improved engine performance. There are many upgrades that make these models strong players. For instance, Blazer now has 24-hour roadside assistance, courtesy transportation, and a three-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.
Although GM has updated the Blazer to provide many important active and passive safety features, the lack of a passenger side airbag is a liability. With a motorcar world full of new SUV models and many that are nipping at Blazer's wheels, this competent compact needs to keep heads up.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.