by Martin Padgett Jr.
Redesigned, refined, comfortable and capable.
Base Price $19,999
As Tested $20,429
For many of us, sport-utility vehicles are the stuff of lottery-winning fantasies. A hefty new Suburban, if you can find one, will set you back nearly $40,000. A Lincoln Navigator, nearly ten thousand dollars more.
But not all SUVs 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 the rest of the crew of mini-SUVs -- Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, and others -- the Tracker fits a number of bills. It's got cubbyholes and storage space galore for Rollerblades and mountain bikes, and the power to cut and thrust through city traffic. Its four-wheel drive inspires confidence in the wet and snowy months, and might even tug you to an off-road adventure.
But unlike the CR-V and RAV4, the Tracker has some sturdy off-road character underneath its sheet metal. It's built on a ladder frame, and has a four-wheel-drive system that offers low off-road gearing for trail rides and hill climbs. Add in eight inches of ground clearance, and the Tracker has the goods for any activity, on or off the pavement.
The 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.
The new Chevy Tracker is the second generation of GM's mini-utility program. The first Tracker was a popular Geo model that went away last year, smarting from the newer competition from the RAV4 and CR-V.
Unlike the Geo nameplate, the Tracker didn't go away. Instead of banishing the Tracker to the recycling bin, Chevrolet worked with Suzuki on an updated mini-utility. The result is a more upmarket mini-utility. The new Tracker is tighter, more refined and a much better-equipped vehicle than before.
The Tracker sits on a new ladder-frame chassis designed by Suzuki that's much stiffer than the previous generation. It shares this chassis with Suzuki's new Vitara. Chevy's Tracker is distinguished with unique styling cues that seem a little more rugged than the other mini-utilities. The design looks a little cleaner than the Suzuki version.
All four-door Trackers are powered by a 2.0-liter twin-cam four with 127 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission, which we didn't sample, is also offered for an additional $1,000.
Four-door Tracker 4X4 models start at $16,295. The base two-wheel-drive four door retails for $15,195.
A two-door Tracker convertible is also available, starting at $13,995. It comes standard with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine or optional with the 2.0-liter engine, and is available in two- and four-wheel-drive configurations.
Our Tracker 4X4 came with optional power windows and mirrors and door locks, tilt steering and cruise control for a total price of $17,345.
The Inside Story
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.
Instruments are clear and switches operate with the click-click finesse of Toyota or 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.
Storage is never a problem. In fact, all the armrests, cupholders, door pockets, and netting throughout the Tracker may leave you wanting for more stuff. There's a place for everything in here, 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.
Ride & Drive
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 Tracker drives more like a small sedan than a bruising American-style SUV. 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.
Braking is another pleasant surprise, with firm pedal feel and optional ABS. But 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, for the tougher muck, 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. Chevy puts it as part of its broad SUV family, but in many ways the tracker feels more like a nimble economy car that just happens to have off-road capability.
The Tracker has been updated and transformed into a capable replacement for the economy car. It feels equally at home off-road, hauling a small load of furniture, or dealing with the daily commute.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.