It pays to advertise. Or that's the theory, anyway. As Mark Twain once wrote, "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising." Perhaps that's why General Motors sold only 22,000 Trackers last year: lack of advertising. But this year, promises GM Brand Manager John Middlebrook, things will be different. "All in all, this is certainly our largest investment in Tracker advertising ever. Our goal is to more than double our sales from '98 to '99."
It helps if the product you're trying to sell is an improvement over the one it replaces. In this case, it is. The Chevrolet Tracker is an all-new vehicle for 1999, and not because of a name change. In 1998, General Motors dropped the Geo nameplate, giving Chevrolet an entry-level sport-utility vehicle in the Tracker. Chevy also picked up an entry-level family sedan with the Prizm. However, neither vehicle is actually built by General Motors: The Prizm is a rebadged Toyota Corolla, and the Tracker is a rebadged Suzuki Vitara (formerly known as the Sidekick).
Tracker comes as either an open-top two-door convertible or as a four-door hardtop. The Tracker Convertible is powered by a 1.6-liter, SOHC four-cylinder engine, which makes a measly 97 horsepower. The four-door Tracker that we drove comes with a 2.0-liter DOHC motor, available as an option on the convertible. The larger engine makes 127 horsepower and 134 foot-pounds of torque, which may be better than the base engine, but it's still nothing to brag about. Take a look at what Suzuki's peddling these days. There's the Vitara, which is identical to the Tracker, and the Grand Vitara, which comes with a 2.5-liter V6 engine. Though the V6 is still on the tame side, it's a needed improvement and, trust us, the extra horsepower doesn't go to waste.
But Suzuki's keeping the V6 to itself -- at least for now -- so the Tracker must make do with what it's got. Other than the engines available, the Chevy offers the same plusses and minuses as the Grand Vitara. On the one hand, it's a small SUV that proves quite capable off the road. On the other hand, it's not as pleasurable to drive on the road.
The Tracker's standard five-speed transmission is burdened with a clutch that offers little feel. Worse, when the clutch is depressed, the shift action is really depressing. In fact, it's the worst tranny behavior we've experienced in a new car. To create a simulation of the Tracker's transmission, simply jab a stick into a pile of rocks, and stir. The sensation of shifting gears is so remarkably unrefined that at first we thought the gears were stuck. After a time, however, we became accustomed to the awkward, clunky mechanism, and its deviousness added character to this scrappy sport-ute.
Ergonomically, the new Tracker is improved, but still falls well short of the mark set by the Honda CR-V. The center stack controls are comprised of upper climate controls and lower stereo controls. While this arrangement is the opposite of what we prefer, the stereo controls are laid out simply, and aren't set too far away from the driver. The climate controls, however, include an ungainly slider switch for setting the temperature.
Thanks to its larger body the Tracker's interior offers more room than last year. The high ceiling means that both windshield and side windows extend vertically, offering outstanding visibility; occupants are tricked into feeling like they're riding high above the road. The view to the rear, unfortunately, is blocked by the rear headrests and the exterior-mounted spare tire. Another quibble is that neither of the front passenger seats has armrests, though praise goes to the driver's dead pedal, which is a footrest big enough for a size-13 boot.
Off the road is where the Tracker shows its stuff. All four-wheel-drive Trackers come with a shift-on-the-fly 4WD system featuring automatic locking front hubs. Operated by a two-speed transfer case, the system offers 4-Hi and 4-Lo for increased traction on slippery surfaces. Try as we could, we were unable to get the Tracker stuck. After rolling the front left tire into a canyon-sized gully, we thought we had it: the wheels weren't moving much more than gravel, even in 4-Hi. But shift into 4-Lo, and the Tracker scrabbles its way out of trouble like a mountain goat.
This 4WD system is not as sophisticated as many of the latest torque-transfer systems offered by higher-end SUVs, but it proves that the old way of doing things works just fine. Power is divided equally between front and rear axles, and because something is bound to find traction, it works.
The 4WD system is complemented by a rugged ladder-box frame that feels much more sturdy off road than the car-based platforms found in vehicles such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The frame is comprised of seven strong cross members, which helps the Tracker resist twisting. This year, the rear five-link suspension has been reworked, and track width has increased by 2.4 inches for better stability. An eight-inch ground clearance is good enough to hurdle most small obstacles, and when faced with light-duty off-road chores, this is one small sport-ute that will not scrape its undercarriage.
As for the ride and handling, we're less impressed. The Tracker plows to the outside of corners with a frightening amount of understeer. Of course, that's if you take corners at a fast clip. Under normal conditions on dry roads, there's really nothing to say about the driving experience. The engine is simply not powerful enough to disrupt the Tracker's line of progress. Dive into a tight turn at speed, however, and the Tracker gets in the way of its own feet, forcing the driver to claw at the rack-and-pinion-operated steering until the car's upright weight settles into the turn, which can occur quite suddenly, jolting the vehicle back in line. An antiroll bar helped to reduce body lean, but we still don't recommend taking a Tracker to any rally race.
In the past couple of years, sales in the mini-ute segment have increased exponentially, and they're going to continue to grow. That's one of the reasons for GM's optimism when management discusses the future of the Tracker. While increased advertising can't hurt the Tracker's chances for survival, it might not have the desired results of doubling sales. Look at Nissan for evidence of ad spending not having much effect on consumer behavior.
What GM fails to account for is that the mini-ute segment itself will expand at the same rate as sales. Hyundai, Pontiac, Mercury, Ford and Nissan -- to name a few-- will all enter the mini-ute fray in the near future. Doubtless some of the upcoming vehicles will offer similar or better value than the Tracker/Vitara twins, and it's no stretch of the imagination to say that they might even offer more powerful engines. If any of the newcomers also display the Tracker's off-road prowess, keep an eye on the rearview mirror. Chevy, listen up: Give the Tracker the power to get out of its own way, because this SUV won't appeal to buyers in hindsight.