SUVs constitute a very important, if not the most important, segment in any major manufacturer's lineup. And while recent years have seen ever evolving ideas concerning what an SUV can be -- mini-sized, gigantic-sized, hybridized - the bread and butter of any SUV lineup is still the midsize four-door.
GM knows a little something about this segment of the market. In fact, they invented it 17 years ago with the release of the S-10 Blazer. It may have had only two doors, but close enough.
Since then, it's been a virtual SUV free-for-all, with nearly every automaker on the planet, Porsche and BMW included, generating their own version of the four-wheel-drive family truckster. Meanwhile, the General just seemed to sit back and watch like a proud father. Subsequent versions of the Blazer, along with its Jimmy and Bravada cousins, slipped into decay with cramped interiors, dated designs, and archaic underpinnings. Something had to be done, quickly.
Well, hope has finally arrived in the form of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, and Oldsmobile Bravada.These five-passenger SUVs from General Motors sport a radical new engine, completely redesigned suspension system, and individual design philosophies that give each model its own distinctive look. Debuting early this spring as 2002 models, they're set to go head-to-head with Ford's recently revamped Explorer and Mountaineer twins for domestic SUV bragging rights.
At the recent press introduction in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, GM rolled out all three new models to showcase their reenergized presence in the midsize market. Product engineers and designers were candid about their desire to crush the competition. No big surprises there, but at least this time they have the goods to back up their fist-pumping assertions.
The drive route wound its way around the Baja peninsula utilizing the only paved road in Cabo. Long highway-like straights were interrupted by occasional twists and turns through low hills providing a good chance to test both high-speed comfort and low-speed maneuverability.
First up was Chevrolet's TrailBlazer. Available in three different trim levels -- LS, LT, LTZ -- the TrailBlazer offers the widest range of options and price levels (actual figures are not yet available). Base LS models come well equipped with dual front and side airbags, A/C with dual zone control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, a six-speaker AM/FM CD stereo system, and the Autotrac system on four-wheel-drive models. LT models add a power driver's seat with premium cloth, 16 x 7-inch polished sport wheels, keyless entry, the OnStar communications system, fog lamps, and an electrochromic rearview mirror with compass. Standard equipment on the top-of-the-line LTZ models includes power adjustable leather seating with memory, 17 x 7 aluminum sport wheels, automatic climate control with separate rear seat controls, premium stereo system with rear seat controls, rain sensing wipers, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with satellite stereo and climate controls.
All these features are in addition to the all-new 4.2-liter, inline six-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission that come standard in all three of GM's new sport-utes. Rated at 270 horsepower and 275 ft-lbs. of torque, the all-aluminum six boasts more power than most competitors' V8s, while at the same time meeting NLEV (national low-emission vehicle) requirements and turning in roughly 16 mpg city and 21 mpg on the highway (official numbers haven't been confirmed yet). As if that wasn't enough, a completely new suspension with double wishbones up front and a multi-link setup in the rear is also standard, along with premium Bilstein shocks and a remarkable new frame structure that sets new standards for rigidity in an SUV.
We rode in an LT version with a cloth interior and the optional 4.10 rear end gears. The new powerplant is noticeably smoother than its pushrod predecessor, providing abundant passing power at virtually any speed. Not-so-fond memories of the old 4.3-liter V6's wheezing and huffing in the upper rpm ranges were laid to rest as the new engine pulled impressively to the redline. Off-the-line torque is a little on the soft side when loaded with three adults, much like the 4.7-liter V8 in the Dodge Durango. We were also a little disappointed in the less than silky purr of the engine at full song, lamenting that it just didn't do justice to the engine's refined feel through the pedal.
GM engineers used numerous high-tech displays to highlight the innovative new frame structure and redesigned suspension system used in all three of their new SUVs. While it all looked cool in the hotel courtyard, we were even more impressed with how it all came together out on the highway. Overall ride quality and road feel have been improved dramatically. The enhanced structural rigidity comes through in a reassuring manner, nothing harsh, just solid. The TrailBlazer was tight and rattle-free on the 60-mile stretch to Todos Santos, with only minimal road and wind noise. Our only complaint stems from the steering that felt a little too numb at dead center for our tastes.
On a short off-road course, the suspension really showed its mettle, sucking up the washboard terrain without ever bottoming out, and otherwise maintaining tight control in the rough conditions. Credit the high-end Bilstein shocks and front and rear coil springs for the precise control in the dirt.
Ergonomically, the TrailBlazer is light years ahead of last year's four-door. The seats are soft but supportive, with a much-improved driving position. Gauges are clear, if not a little on the plain side, with an excellent view afforded through the four-spoke steering wheel. The climate controls were easy to use and the dual-zone feature did a great job of compensating for the tropical sun that radiated through the driver's window.
The longer wheelbase and wider track results in a noticeably larger interior cabin. Rear seat passengers are likely to notice the biggest difference, with the TrailBlazer sporting more hip and shoulder room than the Dodge Durango. Compared to the 2002 Explorer, the TrailBlazer has nearly identical leg and shoulder room in back, but one-ups the Ford in the head and hip room department.
The second leg of our journey found us behind the wheel of GMC's Envoy, the "professional grade" alternative of the group. GMC uses this marketing campaign to appeal to customers who want more than just the average SUV. To that end, the Envoy comes only in two well-appointed trim levels, the SLE and the SLT. Base SLE versions can be likened to mid-level TrailBlazers, with a deluxe cloth interior, dual-zone A/C, the OnStar communications system, and a six-speaker AM/FM CD stereo rounding out the feature highlights. SLT models carry all the bells and whistles available to the Envoy model including a driver information center, automatic climate control, leather seating, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with satellite radio and climate controls just to name a few.
The most notable difference in feature content between the Envoy and the TrailBlazer is the Envoy's optional Electronically Controlled Air Suspension (ECAS). The system replaces the coil springs in the rear suspension with air-filled rubber bladders for increased cabin isolation and load leveling capabilities. A frame-mounted compressor/electronic control unit uses individual sensors to monitor inflation levels in each of the two bladders. Unlike some systems currently on the market, the Envoy's ECAS system can compensate for unequal load levels not only front to back, but side to side as well. As an added bonus, a 22-foot hose that can reach all four tires can be attached to the compressor unit to provide some extra lift should a tire go down.
Of course, the most notable overall difference between the TrailBlazer and the Envoy is the GMC's distinctive exterior design. Look for yourself to decide which one you like best, but we will tell you that the Envoy's interior gets a few noticeable highlights that we thought set it apart from both the TrailBlazer and the Bravada.
Sit in the driver's seat and the first thing you'll notice is the nickel-plated gauge surrounds that give the cluster a more defined look. That theme continues to the air vent bezels and shifter console that also wear the lustrous nickel plating. SLT-trimmed models add wood dash inserts that contrast nicely with the industrial-looking metallic accents to give the top-of-the-line Envoy a unique interior appearance.
Once you look past those Envoy-specific design cues, the GMC shares most of its interior design with its new GM brothers. Main climate and radio controls are straightforward and easily accessible, and the overhead console provides handy storage bins for sunglasses and garage door openers. Our test truck was endowed with the upgraded leather seating that we found quite comfortable throughout the longest leg of the trip. The power adjustable seats made finding a good seating position a snap, but the power lumbar adjuster could have used a greater range of adjustment.
Low rolling hills provided the opportunity to test the Envoy at speed through some moderately twisty sections of highway. The steering seemed a little tighter than the TrailBlazer's, although the spec sheet lists their components as identical. Body roll was noticeable, but not excessive for a vehicle of this type. Ride quality and overall chassis refinement was again impressive. The firm, planted feel of the Envoy through the turns didn't exactly have us dreaming of turning laps at the Nurburgring, but compared to past Envoy models, this GMC was confidence inspiring to say the least.
Although hardly noticeable on the relatively smooth highway road, the Envoy's ECAS system really soaked up the rough stuff on the off-road course. The system almost does its job too well, leaving the driver wondering if the rear axle is still attached at times. The air system isn't really intended for hardcore off-road duty, but our brief stint in the sandy washes of Baja proved to us that the ECAS will likely become a sought-after option for anyone who lives in an area with less than perfect pavement.
The final leg of our Baja ride route was run in Oldsmobile's new Bravada. Before going into the details, it should be noted that on December 12, the day of our test drive, GM announced that it would phase out the entire line of Oldsmobile vehicles. Declining market share and some serious belt-tightening throughout General Motors were to blame. Although not exactly a surprise to most of the journalists and GM staffers who heard the news, the final blow struck an unusually deep chord with the handful of Oldsmobile staff members in attendance. Not because they didn't see it coming, but because they were there to promote what is one of the best products to come out of Oldsmobile in a long time.
For consumers, Oldsmobile's unfortunate demise may provide a unique opportunity to get your hands on an exceptional product for a screaming good deal. There's no doubt that some buyers will simply ignore the Bravada as a lame-duck model in a soon-to-be-forgotten brand, but anyone with a little common sense should take a closer look and realize the potential value that exists.
The Bravada was developed to be the perfect complement for someone who already owns a touring sedan (preferably an Intrigue or Aurora), but wants the versatility and durability of a sport utility. With that in mind, the Bravada's design team envisioned the new sport utility as more of a luxury-touring vehicle for the highway than a serious off-road machine. The result is a sport-ute intended to coddle its passengers with upscale amenities, not brute force capabilities.
It comes in only one trim level, with nearly every available option offered in the TrailBlazer and Envoy as standard equipment. Major additional options include a full-time all-wheel-drive system exclusive to the Bravada, a Bose premium audio system, a power sunroof, and heated seats for the driver and passenger. The interior gets full leather seating and soft-touch materials on the door panels for a more refined overall look.
On the road, the Bravada's standard Electronically Controlled Air Suspension (ECAS) system delivers a supple ride yet doesn't make you feel like you're in a 20-foot Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Sharp curves are negotiated with admirable grace, but it's certainly no Aurora. Like the TrailBlazer and the Envoy, the Bravada benefits immensely from the gutsy new 4.2-liter engine that delivers the kind of smooth, linear power that one would expect from a touring vehicle. Fit-and-finish on our early production example wasn't perfect, with a few gaps larger than we would have liked to have seen, but there were no glaring lapses in workmanship. A short off-road excursion proved that although it may have been designed for the street, it still possesses the capability to get dirty should the need arise. And with its exclusive all-wheel-drive system, the Bravada might just be the best choice for anybody who lives in a continually unforgiving environment.
Anyone worried about buying a Bravada in terms of future vehicle maintenance and support needs only to realize that it shares almost all of its major componentry with its Chevrolet and GMC cousins. Should future problems arise, finding someone to take care of your Bravada will most likely mean a trip to your local Chevrolet or GMC truck dealership - not exactly a daunting prospect. Resale value is another concern, but it's not like you're going to be stuck trying to pawn off some unheard of make from Korea on somebody. Oldsmobile is the oldest automobile brand in the U.S., and it will be a long time before it fails to register with your average car buyer.
Deciding on which one of GM's new midsize SUVs you should buy is pretty much a matter of personal preference. Do you want the tough and rugged look of the TrailBlazer? Or is the more refined, slick-looking Envoy better suited to your tastes? Don't want to wade through endless options and trim level lists? The Bravada will take care of that chore.
Regardless of which one of these new SUVs appeals to you the most, rest assured that all three models offer class-leading power, an extremely capable suspension, spacious interiors, and enough options to measure up against just about any other SUV on the market.