Ryan Bubear goes off the beaten track with the Chevrolet Trailblazer 2.5 LT 4X2...
A certain bakkie-based SUV has long been the number one choice among South African families looking for the best of two particular worlds. This behemoth boasts the seating versatility (and sheer space) of a large SUV, and the go-anywhere off-road ability and towing prowess of a bundu-bashing bakkie.
Yes, the Toyota Fortuner — which consistently features in the top-ten list of best-selling passenger vehicles of the month — is still selling better than extra-soft two-ply during a particularly nasty outbreak of diarrhoea. Based on the platform of the even-more-popular Hilux, the Fortuner has yet to feel the need to even consider looking over its shoulder. Until now, that is.
The folks at General Motors have finally created a Fortuner of their own. Enter, the Chevrolet Trailblazer. Designed in Brazil and bolted together in Thailand, this body-on-frame SUV is built to withstand the rigours of travel in markets notorious for tough conditions — think the Pacific Rim, the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and yes, Africa.
Five models in the range
The seven-seater Trailblazer is based on the next generation Isuzu KB's platform. In short, it's an SUV on top and a bakkie underneath. The range is made up of five models, priced from R364k all the way through to R480k (2.5 diesel 4x2 manual; 2.8 diesel 4x2 auto; 2.8 diesel 4x4 manual; 2.8 diesel 4x4 auto; and 3.6 petrol 4x4 auto). I had the entry-level 2.5-litre LT 4x2 on test.
The 2449cc Duramax turbo-charged diesel engine sends 110kW to the rear wheels, with peak torque of 350Nm arriving at 2000rpm. Despite being the smallest powerplant in the range, it never feels lacking in grunt, pulling strongly from low down thanks to that mountain of torque. Chevrolet claims that it can hit 100km/h from standstill in 12.5 seconds, which is a mere 0.7 seconds slower than the 132kW/440Nm 2.8-litre 4x4 manual. A fair amount of diesel chatter makes its way into the cabin during bouts in the lower gears, but things soon quieten down once you're up to highway speeds.
The Trailblazer has a claimed combined fuel economy figure of eight litres per 100km, which surprisingly appears to be achievable in the real world. I ended my week-long test on 8.5 litres per 100km (or 11.8km per litre), despite an extended bout of low-speed off-roading and no active attempt to save fuel during the daily commute. This translates into a near-as-makes-no-difference 900km from a single 76-litre tank.
No tar? No problem...
The 2.5 performs admirably off-road, despite the fact that it isn't equipped with the all-wheel drive (2H, 4H and 4L) system of the more expensive variants in the range. Over rough surfaces, the bakkie underpinnings and five-link independent rear suspension system help to manage nasty undulations, while the 267mm ground clearance and high approach and departure angles (31 degrees front and 26 degrees rear) mean all sorts of obstacles can be tackled with confidence.
Back on the tarmac, the ride is compliant, if a little on the soft side. As expected of a vehicle of this size, weight and height, handling is not a strong point. With its high stance and bulky dimensions (4878mm long, 1902mm wide and 1848mm tall), the Trailblazer feels more at home in the bush than in the bends. However, it does excel when it comes to towing, with the 2.8-litre boasting a massive towing capacity of 2950kg. The 2.5-litre can manage 2500kg while the 3.6-litre V6 petrol can haul along 2480kg. More good news for weekend adventurers.
Out on the road, it's an intimidating vehicle to encounter, thanks in no small part to its sheer size. Of course, the trademark Chevy bowtie grille helps up the aggression too, as do the hefty chiselled bonnet and high-mounted headlights. The rear gets wrap-around glass while long, chunky side-runners add to the utilitarian feel.
Inside, the Trailblazer is less bakkie and more SUV. There are seven seats, and each is capable of housing an average-sized adult with legroom to spare. The two seats in the rearmost row, however, are mounted higher (so-called "theatre-style" seating) than the rest, and this means headroom is a little tight for six-footers. With all the seats in position, luggage space is a mere 205 litres. But should you need more loading space (and have fewer people to lug about), the seats fold flat to increase that number to a cavernous 1830 litres.
There are a multitude of in-car storage options dotted around the cabin, including a large centre console and a double cubbyhole, and more cup-holders than even a dehydrated family should ever need (11, at last count). Overall, there's plenty of space for both people and things.
My test vehicle features the lowest trim level, but still sports air-con (including separate controls for the second and third rows), electric windows, six-speaker audio system (CD/MP3/iPod/USB), Bluetooth, four 12V sockets, tilt-adjustable multi-functional steering wheel, cruise control, and rear parking sensors as standard. The interior colour scheme, however, is not particularly well-suited to a young family, with the light-in-hue cloth seats susceptible to attack from grubby handed children.
Both trim levels include airbag protection for the driver and front passenger, as well as curtain side airbag protection for rear occupants. Three-point seatbelts and adjustable head restraints are also provided for all seven seats. ABS with EBD and Panic Brake Assist come standard on the 2.5 LT, while all other models add traction control and stability control. Aftersales support? Every Trailblazer gets a five-year or 120 000km warranty and a five-year or 90 000km service plan.
Each time I drove the Chevrolet Trailblazer, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was behind the wheel of a big bakkie, rather than an SUV. There's a certain refinement missing from the Trailblazer — with its bakkie-dominant personality — that can be found in something like its Captiva cousin.
But its rugged reliability, off-road competency and towing capacity will leave "pure SUVs" red-faced. It's all about trade-off: are consumers prepared to compromise on refinement for the go-anywhere attributes listed above?
Judging by the success of a certain Toyota, they undoubtedly are. Look over your shoulder, Fortuner... you now have an actual challenger.
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Click through to page 2 for specs and pricing.