Real SUV capability at a size and price you can manage.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $15,235
As Tested (MSRP) $18,795
The first human being to recommend traveling light was probably hiking through the forest with his belongings on his back. Or maybe she was trying to cut through rush-hour traffic on the way to soccer practice. In either case, bulk was not an advantage.
And so it is with SUVs: A hulking, 5,000-pound, $40,000 behemoth may look impressive in your driveway and yeah, we know it could tow City Hall if it had to. But that doesn't make it the most ideal companion for the backwoods, or even the back streets. Chevrolet's Tracker, on the other hand, is a fully trail worthy SUV that's not much bigger than the car-based compact SUVs. A real truck, it's built on a ladder frame, and its four-wheel-drive system offers a low range. Yet it's not much more expensive than a well-equipped compact car.
The current-generation Tracker, which debuted in 1999, is far more refined than before. Now, the 2001 models offer attractive new trim options and an all-new V6. The Tracker makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.
Tracker prices begin at $15,235 for the two-wheel-drive, two-door convertible. That's about $1,300 more than last year, but it buys a significantly upgraded vehicle. Last year's standard 1.6-liter inline-4 is now history; and the previously optional 2.0-liter inline-4 is now included in the base price. Air conditioning, which was an option last year, is also standard.
Four-wheel-drive convertibles are now offered in either base ($16,335) or sporty new ZR2 ($18,185) trim. The same 2.0-liter engine provides the power, but ZR2s add fender flares over wider tires, plus skid plates, cruise control, power locks with remote entry, power mirrors, and other conveniences.
Tracker is also offered as a four-door wagon, which many people will find more practical than the convertible. Four-door models also come in either two- or four-wheel drive, with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder as the base engine. Again, the ZR2 package is available on the four-wheel-drive version, but four-door ZR2 models are powered by an all-new 2.5-liter dohc V6. A four-speed automatic transmission, optional with the four, is standard with the V6.
Also new for 2001 is the luxurious LT trim level, offered with two- or four-wheel-drive but only on the four-door body. LT Trackers trade the ZR2's sporty fender flares for classy contrasting bodyside cladding and a chrome grille surround. LT trim levels pack all the same functional features as the ZR2 (including the V6 and automatic transmission) and add lower-profile tires, a luggage rack, CD player, color-keyed mirrors, and full-cloth upholstery.
A flagship 4WD LT lists for $21,230.
Like previous-generation Trackers, the current model shares its mechanical platform with a Suzuki mini-utility. Earlier Trackers were badged as Geos. Tracker was promoted to full Chevrolet status in 1998, but by then it was losing ground to newer, more car-like compact SUV's like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
So one of the goals of the current design was to achieve more car-like refinement, without sacrificing Tracker's off-road ruggedness. Unlike the RAV4 and CR-V, Trackers have always been built on a ladder frame and offered a part-time four-wheel drive for maximum off-road capability, both of which are features associated with true trucks.
So rather than switch to a unit-body platform, the current Tracker rides on a ladder frame that's even stiffer than before. As if to reinforce its intent, Tracker is distinguished with unique styling cues that give it a more rugged appearance than the other mini-utilities. And we think the Chevy design looks a little cleaner than the Suzuki Vitara and Grand Vitara, which share the new platform.
At the same time, however, Chevrolet and Suzuki gave the Tracker more competitive creature comforts. It may look like a truck from the outside, but the Tracker feels like a car on 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 Tracker's nose slopes away for good road visibility, important when driving off road, while narrow roof pillars allow panoramic vision, important on busy streets. 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 highly legible and the switchgear operates with the finesse of a Toyota or Honda. If it weren't for the tiny little buttons on the radio, the Tracker's dash would be an unqualified success.
Now standard, the air conditioning 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. Convertible models can be ordered with a lockable storage compartment.
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.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is smooth and provides enough power to entertain when coupled with the five-speed manual. With its relatively broad power band, the Tracker can pass with confidence on Interstates, and there's no fear of getting run over when pulling away from busy intersections. The Tracker's five-speed manual shifts smoothly, and combines with a light clutch for easy drivability. A four-speed automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.
The V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. Like the four-cylinder engine, it's a dual overhead-cam unit (four cams total) with four valves per cylinder. It produces 155 horsepower at 6500 rpm, and 160 pound-feet of torque at 4000, both representing a significant increase over the 127 horsepower and 134 pound-feet offered by the four-cylinder.
Built like a truck, the Tracker rides and handles like one. The tires squeal easily, even when making a low-speed U-turn. Like many small SUVs, the Tracker lacks grip on wet pavement; the rear tires tend to spin when turning and accelerating briskly away from a stop sign. We suspect the Uniroyal Tiger Paws may be the culprits. Shifting into four-wheel drive can cure this, but you'll need to shift back into two-wheel drive when approaching tight quarters or the front and rear tires will fight each other as the drivetrain binds up. The independent front suspension does a good job of damping out tar strips and other medium-sized bumps, and improves the Trackers agility. The ride quality is not bad for a vehicle with a short wheelbase. The track, the distance between the left and right tires, is 2.4 inches wider than in the old Geo Trackers, which improves stability.
The latest Tracker's rack-and-pinion steering does provide a more precise feel and better responsiveness than the recirculating-ball system used on the old Geo models. 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 4X4, but those tires offer a good compromise of off-road traction and on-road grip.
Braking is a pleasant surprise, with firm pedal feel. The 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.
The four-wheel-drive system is a snap to employ. A lever to the left of the 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 four-wheel drive. 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 for traversing steep inclines.
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.
The Tracker handles off-road duty, hauling small loads of furniture, and the daily commute. It's a manageable size, making it easier for daily use in today's crowded world. And it comes with a manageable price, making it easier to afford.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.