Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Fashionably Late

High hopes for down-size Chevy SUVs

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Well, not that late, really; but at this stage in the SUV party, new arrivals need an entrance strategy to rate a notice. Chevrolet, of course, is one of the hallowed "early adopters" of sport/utility vehicles. A case can be made, in fact, that the 1935 Suburban kicked off the whole shebang, albeit wearing the inter-war uniform of the indefatigable CeeBees while GIs cantered about in Willys Jeeps.

If the question of who got there "fastest" remains open to dispute, there's certainly no argument about who's got "the mostest": Chevrolet currently fields seven distinct SUV species wearing the various genus names Tracker, Blazer, Tahoe, and Suburban. While the latter two monster trucks received only minor massages for the '99 model year, the entry-level Tracker and to a lesser extent the compact Blazer offer notable--or at least conspicuous--changes in their bid to feed the nation's escalating SUV addiction.

Chevrolet Trailblazer

It's hard to look at the cream-colored, two-tone leather upholstery embroidered with woodsy "Trailblazer" icons on the headrests and not somehow sense that our extraordinary SUV delusion is nearing the same bursting point that popped the Dutch tulip-bulb bubble back in the 1630s. The Blazer, stunningly redesigned in 1995 to go anywhere, suddenly finds itself with nowhere else to go in '99. It's hemmed in by newer, more luxurious PrestigeUVs on the high side and by a burgeoning bumper crop of smaller, less expensive mini-SUVs on the low side.

The solution? Take the stalwart four-door Blazer, load it up with electro doodads and a country club interior design, tack a seven-grand price premium on the sticker, and call it a Trailblazer. It's the sport-ute equivalent of a guy in blue blazer and gray slacks...wearing Docksiders without socks.

Although a four-wheel-drive model is also available, the rear-wheel-drive version I tested distinctly avoided blazing any trails. Suspension tuning is decidedly cushy. It's Chevy's Z85 Touring Suspension, to be exact, and it's dedicated to the long, open highway rather than the rock-strewn camp road. I note that the 4WD Trailblazer uses the same setup, only with a change to on-/off-road tires. The undebatable prospect of a jouncy ride and teeth-clenching body roll when traversing the rough stuff will surely deter genuine backroads Bubbas from developing too serious a crush on the cute little Trailblazer. But that's probably a good thing, especially during deer season. I can't imagine how you'd remove a blood-and-guts stain from that buttery-soft, bone-white seat leather.

Around town and through the 'burbs, the Trailblazer is competent enough. Although its lack of a V8 option runs counter to the prevailing trend toward more-more-more, no one else can boast Chevy's vaunted Vortec engine design. The 250 foot-pounds of torque, in particular, are V8 caliber. Accordingly, acceleration is zesty, and fuel mileage from the 4.3-liter V6 at least approaches respectability at 16 mpg/city, 21/highway.

The all-power-everything interior pretends to luxury. I love the "semi-automatic" HVAC system. The radio/CD controls on the steering-wheel, however, are counterproductive. Because of the wheel's "deep dish" design, these remote controls are farther out of reach than the traditional dash knobs on the stereo unit itself. There's a sense they're just for show anyway, just like most of the Trailblazer's appurtenances. Anyone seriously determined to own a '99 Blazer will no doubt beat a trail to the $23,420 window sticker on the four-door base model--and work up from there.

Chevrolet Tracker

When is it considered more discreet not to fanfare the arrival of a completely redesigned new model? How 'bout when you're gnawing table scraps while your manufacturing partner is savoring sirloin? That's one way to interpret the joint decision by Suzuki and Chevrolet to debut the Chevy Tracker and Suzuki Vitara mini-SUVs simultaneously--but to reserve the V6-powered Grand Vitara (reviewed here July 30) exclusively to Suzuki.

You just gotta smile when you note the facetious bravado of Suzuki sales and marketing boss Gary Anderson: "Chevy wouldn't give us a piece of the Suburban, so we're gonna keep the Vitara V6 for ourselves." This year, at least. Just the same, in its newest iteration Chevy's four-cylinder Tracker successfully casts aside its reputation as the company's much maligned entry-level SUV. Boasting 1.6-liter and 2.0-liter powerplants, this onetime toy car has grown up for '99. And none too soon, what with all the world's mini-sport/utes flooding North America in search of ever more bitterly contested market share.

My Tracker tester was a four-door, four-wheel-drive, 2.0-liter model with five-speed manual transmission. Finally, Tracker boasts a shift-on-the-fly transfer case for alternating between 2WD and 4WD (up to 60 mph). It's important because, one, you can't safely tackle highway speeds in 4-by mode; and, two, the front wheels still bind when the steering wheel's at full lock unless you revert to rear-wheel-drive.

Yes, the 127-horsepower two-liter feels puny (although positively brawny compared to its 97-horsepower cousin with the 1.6). And, yes, the lightweight Tracker can work itself into a fit of darting jitters whenever the wind doth blow. But the cabin is all stately and respectable, functional and comfy. The new Tracker is even remarkably quiet by its own former standards. Best of all, here's a four-door SUV whose base price starts at a humble $15,195 (for 2WD) and only climbs to $19,886 (as tested) despite 4WD and a full list of add-ons. Tracker may be Chevy's best SUV value for '99. The irony is that it's probably not the mini-SUV Chevy really wanted to brag about--but it's the only one Suzuki let 'em have.

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