by John Matras
This TrailBlazer is ready for the woods.
Base Price $18,995
As Tested $34,121
The TrailBlazer is well named, giving the suggestion that this Chevrolet Blazer is going boldly where no Blazer has gone before. Indeed, with a retail price of $32,670, the TrailBlazer has scaled new heights for Chevy compact trucks. Yet despite being packed with amenities, the Blazer loses none of its off-road capabilities.
The TrailBlazer is an upscale Chevy Blazer. It's available in two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive versions. Either way, the TrailBlazer gets a monotone exterior and special badging. The bumpers and front fascia, body side moldings, and outside rearview mirror are all body color, and TrailBlazers get special gold-accented aluminum wheels. Otherwise, the TrailBlazer looks like other 4-door Blazers.
Like all the other Blazer-class GM SUVs, a 4.3-liter Vortec V6 powers the TrailBlazer. The 90-degree V6 uses a cast iron block and head and overhead valves, and runs happily on 87 octane. Although the redline is 5600 rpm, the power peak of 190 horsepower comes at 4400 rpm. And, with a very useful 250 foot-pounds of torque at 2800 rpm, there's limited need to rev the engine to the redline. GM's 4-speed electronic automatic transmission is standard on the TrailBlazer.
Four-wheel-drive TrailBlazers get the Autotrac four-wheel-drive system, which is new for the '99 model year. As with the push button-controlled Insta-Trac standard on all 4x4 Blazers, the TrailBlazer driver can shift between 2WD and 4WD high on the fly. The 4WD low mode can be used by stopping and shifting the transfer case. Autotrac adds an Auto 4WD button. In this mode, the transfer case remains in 2WD until wheel slip is detected. The transmission shifts automatically into 4WD until prop shaft speeds are equalized, and then returns to 2WD. If multiple "slip events" are detected, the transfer case remains in 4WD for a longer time. Autotrac also has a transfer case neutral for towing behind a recreational vehicle.
Like all Blazers, the TrailBlazer uses a short-/long-arm front suspension; 4x4 models are sprung by torsion bars. At the rear, the TrailBlazer has a live rear axle with variable-rate multi-leaf springs. The four-wheel drive TrailBlazers come equipped with Z85 Touring Suspension. Using firm de Carbon shock absorbers and stiffer spring rates, the Z85 package has a more controlled ride.
The Inside Story
Inside, the TrailBlazer features special two-tone leather trim seats with logos embroidered on the headrests and the TrailBlazer name embroidered on the door panels. A leather-wrapped steering wheel is also standard with a new small hub thanks to a redesigned airbag. The TrailBlazer also gets special floor mats and a console-mounted transmission shifter.
The front seats are broad with limited bolstering. They are more like comfortable chairs than bucket seats. A bulge in the front passenger's footwell accommodates the Blazer's exhaust. The rear bench is low but will be comfortable for two adults, though three will fit. The rear seatback splits and folds 60-40 for cargo flexibility.
As the top-of-the-line 4-door model, the TrailBlazer also includes all the standard features on the LT trim level, including the electronic climate control, a thermostat control that really works. Tilt wheel and speed control, power windows, locks and mirrors are also included. Our test TrailBlazer also had the optional power glass sunroof ($750), heated driver's seat ($250), steering wheel radio controls ($125), AM/FM stereo with CD player ($100), enhanced speakers ($495), underbody shield package ($126), and heavy duty trailering equipment ($210), all of which came with and a package discount of $1400.
Ride & Drive
Expect to step up to get in the TrailBlazer. Though not as radical as larger 4x4 rides, the TrailBlazer has a higher seating height than the typical sedan. The payback is that commanding view of the road that SUV owners cherish.
The TrailBlazer comes with full instrumentation that is well laid out; it shares its instrument panel with the other Blazer-class trucks. General Motors has made major strides in its minor controls, and the dash of the TrailBlazer is an excellent example. The switches, knobs and levers for the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and audio controls look and feel good and don't require a correspondence course to learn how to operate.
The engine fires off eagerly with a twist of the key and settles to an idle that's steady but telegraphs some of the basic imbalance of a 90-degree V-6. That smoothes as revs increase, and in the operating range between 2000 and 3000 rpm the Vortec is a friendly companion. Full throttle causes the V6 to accelerate with a healthy growl that gets louder as revs rise. The TrailBlazer's acceleration is more than adequate to keep up with traffic.
The TrailBlazer's Touring Ride suspension is firmer than either the standard Smooth Ride setup of the base Blazer or the optional ZW7 Premium Ride. Some may not appreciate the additional road feel. But the reward is an easily discernable improvement in responsiveness, a reduction in float and, thanks to greater roll resistance, less lean in the corners. The result is an overall greater feel of control and confidence at a minor cost of slightly bumpier ride. I preferred the crisper responses of the firmer suspension on winding mountain roads.
The Auto 4WD mode can be used at all times. It keeps the transmission in two-wheel drive until slip occurs, so there's no fuel mileage penalty. Yet it reacts instantly to loose gravel or wet or icy pavement, shifting seamlessly into four-wheel drive. If there's any shortcoming in the system, it's that the driver isn't alerted when the system is shifting into four-wheel drive mode -- as on cars that use warning lights to indicate traction control is functioning).
Out on Interstate 80, the TrailBlazer cruised effortlessly. The V6 operates in the low 2000-rpm range at highway speeds and, except for a subtle bass line from the engine and a steady road rumble up through the suspension, the ride is quiet enough for easy conversation between front and rear passengers. The tires selected by Chevrolet are free of whine and aren't so heavy as to overwhelm the suspension. A slight whisper of wind noise around the A-pillars is the only other distraction. The ride, though firm, is not at all harsh or jiggly. Not all sport utilities are this civilized over the road, and we wouldn't hesitate to drive a high-mile day in the TrailBlazer.
Loading for a big trip would be easy. Access to the commodious cargo compartment is via a rear liftgate. A cargo cover is standard; unlike those that require you to climb into the cargo area to unreel them, the TrailBlazer's cover goes from side to side. With no separate reel, nothing is in the way when you want to lower the rear seats to load large cargo: the reel need not be removed and become another piece of cargo. With the spare mounted under the rear, a flat tire won't mean unloading all your cargo.
The TrailBlazer is one of the reasons so many people use a sport-utility in place of a car. It will do everything a car will do, and almost as well. Plus it adds almost unstoppable mobility in the worst weather and the capability to go where the roads don't. And of course, as the TrailBlazer, it now has the ability to take the Blazer line into a luxury market it has never before visited. A trailblazer it truly is.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.