First drive: 2013 Chevrolet Trailblazer 4×4 in the UAE
So if you thought that every car manufacturer was going the ‘Ford Explorer’ way when it came to overhauling their existing midsize SUVs, you’d be wrong. There are a few manufacturers who decided to try the opposite route, taking a step backwards by choosing to transform a commercial pick-up into a four-wheel-drive wagon in a half-hearted bid to create a viable replacement for their already-cancelled midsize SUV. So what was essentially competing with the refined Toyota Prado, now tries to go after the simplistic Toyota Fortuner. That new wagon is none other than the all-new Thailand-built 2013 Chevrolet Trailblazer.
Sourced from a rental agency due to our ongoing tussle with General Motors, our test vehicle is an entry-level four-wheel-drive model. Based on the new Chevrolet Colorado pick-up, which itself is a rebadged Isuzu D-Max pick-up, the Trailblazer really is just the same thing with a wagon body, third-row seats, V6 drivetrain and a different rear suspension. Our car had about 10,000 km on the clock, still new but nicely broken-in.
The Trailblazer comes only in two trims, both being offered in either four-wheel-drive and two-wheel-drive configurations. Our base trim features power windows, manual a/c with rear vents, a couple of airbags, a cheap audio system USB/AUX ports with Bluetooth phone but not Bluetooth music streaming, and a trip computer that also shows digital readings for battery voltage and transmission oil temperature.
Once you clamour up inside, you’re greeted with a fully hard-plastic cabin, as is customary in pickup-converted SUVs. There’s bits of cloth inserts in the doors, and everything seems to be tightly put-together, thanks to its Isuzu roots.
Space is ample for both the front and second-row passengers. The third-row seating is spacious enough to seat two average-sized adults in a squeeze. If you don’t need that last row, it can fold down ‘over’ the floor, thus creating a raised platform and wasting boot space. The somewhat-hard seats are mildly-bolstered, making them airy but slightly uncomfortable on long drives.
There is a fair bit of road and wind noise getting into the cabin beyond 100 kph, but it still felt slightly quieter than the Fortuner. The engine noise isn’t too noticeable at cruising speeds, but gives out an unrefined grunt when pushed, noisy enough to interrupt your conversation with fellow passengers. The manual a/c barely kept up with the hot afternoon weather during our July test, struggling to cool down the cabin even while running in full blast and blowing loads of air onto our faces. To make things worse, a blip of the throttle causes the a/c compressor to cut-off randomly, not helping the cooling process, which is something we did not appreciate later while tackling the dunes.
Interestingly, we had rented an original American-built Trailblazer just a month earlier as a back-up car for a desert run, so we were aware of how dramatically the new Trailblazer had changed focus. The major difference was the ride comfort, and it was apparent right from the moment we drove off the rental lot. While the old Trailblazer happened to have a fairly good ride, the new one fails in hiding its humble work-truck origins. The 2013 Trailblazer rides pretty firmly, even with its four-wheel-independent suspension. Its rivals, the Fortuner and the Pajero Sport both feature a live rear-axle, and still rides the same, if not slightly smoother. There are also noticeably-bouncy suspension rebounds while driving over moderate bumps on the road. Off the tarmac, however, the suspension seemed to do a better job with good wheel articulation, but more on that later.
Handling is what can be expected from a tall, narrow SUV. The steering offers mild feedback, but feels vague. The brake pedal feels mushy, and needs to be pushed far in to get the vehicle stopping quickly. Get a little adventurous in the corners, and the tyres squeal early, before the rear starts to slide out a bit. Sudden steering inputs unsettle it, with the rear tending to lose traction. Body roll at the limit borders on the excessive. Ironically, the Toyota Fortuner fares better even though it has a cheaper suspension setup.
The new Trailblazer has part-time four-wheel-drive like its predecessor, but without the useful “all-wheel-drive” mode. Armed with a powerful 3.6-litre V6 “VVT” engine mated to an occasionally-confused 6-speed tiptronic transmission, it is a very capable off-roader, at least in the hands of an expert, though somewhat let down by tall gear ratios in the first and second gears. Nevertheless, the engine is this car’s strongest feature. Cranking out a respectable 236 hp and 329 Nm of torque, it is a competitive motor tuned for offroad duty. It has very good low-end power, with peak torque at just 3200 rpm. During our multiple acceleration runs in the summer heat, the Trailblazer consistently clocked 0-100 kph in a respectable 9.7 seconds, while the fuel efficiency recorded by the trip computer was 12.8 litres/100 km, including an exhausting off-road run.
We ventured into the desert, braving the summer heat during Ramadan, but without a back-up vehicle as the Trailblazer showed a lot of promise and we planned not to stray deep into the desert. So after deflating the tyres, off we went into the sands near Maleha, negotiating mild, moderate and some high dunes with ease. We had to drive mostly in the first gear despite having a strong engine, thanks to a seriously-tall second gear, shifting to which will result in a considerable drop in revs and subsequent loss of momentum. Either way, the Trailblazer never felt underpowered at any point. With good approach and departure angles, and decent ground clearance, all very similar to the Toyota Fortuner, the Trailblazer was indeed turning out to be a better off-road package than its predecessor.
All was well until suddenly our excursion had went awry in the most random possible way. We were almost done with our off-road tests, and while turning back, we decided to do some side-sloping as a last hurrah. Though the slope appeared to be firm enough, it was actually way too soft, and our Trailblazer just sank into it sideways, at an awkward yaw angle. No problem, we figured, and promptly shifted the transfer-case knob to low-range, and decided to slide down the slope by spinning the wheels, just as we’d done a million times before with other cars. Things were going our way initially, until we decided to give the transmission a cool-down period and shifted to Neutral. While attempting to shift back into Reverse, we realised that the gear-shifter got jammed in the Neutral position. We tried moving the shifter by depressing the shift-lock button with no luck, as the gear wouldn’t engage into Drive or Reverse modes, and just remained in Neutral.
Following a series of Bollywood-grade events involving a lot of buddies and local cops showing up to help, somewhere along our seemingly-endless recovery saga, the gear-shifter suddenly decided to “fall” into Reverse gear as it got tugged out by our buddy’s older Toyota Land Cruiser.
We don’t know what went wrong with the gear shifter, but we assume some sort of improper transmission-fluid circulation, caused due to the manner in which the vehicle got stuck initially. We’ve never come across anything like this in any other 4×4, so we don’t really know. Still, it was a good reminder of why the first rule of offroading is to never venture out alone.
So in the end, do we hate the new Trailblazer as much as GM hates us? Not really. Assuming our little big incident was a one-off, we feel it is a capable off-roader that boasts a strong and efficient engine, seats seven and is well-priced, even if everything else about it screams “work truck” to us. Judging by the success of the Toyota Fortuner, most buyers won’t care about the latter, but then again, the Trailblazer hasn’t proven itself yet.