2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer
    MSRP
    $24,430 - $28,965
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    2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer Expert Review:Autoblog

    Recently, much fuss has been made of "media bias", so let's start off this review of the 2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS with our prejudices as they pertain to the subject matter. First, most of us at Autoblog Towers don't consider ourselves to be huge fans of midsize sport-utility vehicles, prefering instead to grab a like-sized sedan or wagon for general grocery-getting, or select a minivan if there's serious people-hauling that must be performed. Second, we believe firmly that historical monikers - such as Super Sport - need to be treated with respect, and not hung on a mundane product in cynical attempts to cash-in on hard-earned brand equity. Third, we're all suckers for a well-engineered powertrain. Lastly, we're big believers in the "sleeper" or "Q-ship" school of design, as there's much to be said for a wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to crossing large distances in a short amount of time.

    And so with that established, we rolled the TrailBlazer SS into Day One of our Autoblog Garage. A muscular SUV that's packing Corvette power under the hood, and some serious parts to get all of it to the road. Keep reading for a bit of history behind this hot-rod SUV, and we'll also take a walk around the outside of our Silverstone Metallic tester.

     (Click through to the jump for a dozen photos and more of Day 1!)

    The Super Sport name and its SS abbreviation traces its origins back to a 1957 entry of a Corvette in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Four years later, the '61 Impala became the first production Chevrolet to wear a SS trim package, and in the years that followed, the two letters could be found following the name of several Chevy coupes.

    A mini-controversy of sorts erupted in 1994, when the Impala SS became the first sedan to be called a Super Sport (had car guys discovered the Internet at that time, a much larger stir would've likely resulted). This model earned a reputation that frankly was based more upon its stunning styling than on the merits of its performance, as the exact same powertrain could be found in the garden-variety Caprice on which it was based. Fast-forward to current day, and we now find the SS badge hanging off any number of vehicles, including an economy car, a station wagon, a half-ton pickup truck - and the subject of this review, a midsize sport-utility vehicle.

    Lest anyone forget, this is not the first high-performance SUV to come from General Motors. The GMC Typhoon was a spin-off of the Syclone; both vehicles mated turbocharging technology from Buick's Grand National program to the truck division's 4.3L V6, and then shoved the 280 HP motor in front of an all-wheel-drive system borrowed from the Astro minivan. The results were significantly better than the sum of the parts, and these vehicles built a tiny but dedicated following based not just on straight-line performance, but also somewhat surprising handling. Said another way, Chevrolet would do well to live up to the Typhoon's performance legacy.

    While the history lesson may strike as superfluous, it's important to establish the background for what appears to be such a strange concept. After all, it's quite logical to question the reasoning behind a top-heavy 4600 lb. vehicle with handling that was tuned on the famed Nurburgring.

    A quick glance at the exterior of the TrailBlazer SS may not immediately reveal all the subtle differences that set this vehicle apart from its garden-variety siblings, but even the casual observer can note the overall effect of the changes.

    Up front, the TrailBlazer SS wears a redesigned fascia consisting of a new bumper skin and a redesigned grille. Gone is the chrome "power bar" that's been a Chevrolet trademark for the past five years.  In its place is a monochrome treatment and a number of new openings, each with a purpose. Note the two small xenon fog lamps that are mounted inboard of the brake cooling ducts.

    Sleekly-shaped body color rocker panels adorn the sides of the SS. The ZQ8 sport suspension package drops this version of the TrailBlazer by approximately one inch, but the visual impact is magnified by the SS' larger rolling stock.

    20x8" six-spoke wheels are wrapped in 255/50R20 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. With an outer diameter of 30", the combination adequately fills the wheelwells and results in a much sportier appearance.

    Out back, similar measures have been taken to clean up the somewhat busy lines of the TrailBlazer.

    For starters, the roofrack that is optional on other TrailBlazer models is nowhere to be found on the SS. The "shark fin" satellite antenna may have looked strange a few years ago, but nowadays should simply be regarded as a sign of the times.

    The new rear valance extends down to better hide the built-in trailer hitch and muffler. A single 3" stainless steel exhaust tip provides visual and audible confirmation of this vehicle's status, and the center step has been removed in the pursuit of cleaner aesthetics.

    The sizeable exterior mirrors not only provide a view of what's behind, but also serve as a platform on which to hang what GM calls "perimeter lighting". This includes curbside illumination upon opening the door, and also provides yet another location for turn signals.

    As is typical for recent SS models, exterior badging is minimal and tasteful. There's only two gold Bowties to be found on the outside (not including the center caps), and three SS badges subtly request that one takes note of this vehicle's stature before issuing any challenges. Those willing to raise their profile will be best served by selecting a different vehicle.

    The body-colored door handles are large enough to be opening without removing one's gloves - an important feature this time of the year. Our understanding is that this type of handle is not popular among those brandishing long fingernails, though.

    We'll conclude this first look at the 2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS by running through the window sticker.

    Actually, for pricing, we're going to rely not on the provided sticker, but instead on up-to-date information from Chevrolet's website. We start at the Build and Price page by selecting a 2006 Trailblazer with the standard wheelbase (select "Base" from the "Style" drop-down), and of course inputing the local zip code - follow along at home if you wish.

    If you prefer to put the power down to the ground via only two tires, you can save $2250, but we'd wait until Day Five of the Autoblog Garage before making that particular call. We'll go ahead and select the "4x4" option for this build.

    While there are four trim levels available for the TrailBlazer, only two can be built as a SS. Interested parties will want to select either the LS 1SB ($28,235) or the LT 1SE ($30,610). The SS package then adds another $5,270 to the sticker, and in addition to the aforementioned exterior features, clicking this box brings with it the famed LS2 V8 with 395 HP and 400 lb-ft of torque, a heavy-duty version of the 4-speed 4L60E transmission (equipped here with a variety of beefed-up parts and a higher-stall torque converter), a TMPS (tire pressure monitoring system), and some interior trim we'll discuss in the coming days. There are also significant changes to the running gear that will also be discussed later, as the TrailBlazer's AutoTrac part-time transfer case is swapped out for a full-time AWD system. A huge 14-bolt 9.5" rear axle, loaded with 4.10 gears, resides out back and takes the brunt of the LS2's abuse.

    After paint selection, Windows shoppers will note that the SS package also requires the $895 "LT Package 2". The sticker now stands at $34,970, and is only a few select clicks away from crossing the $40K mark.

    Stay tuned, for in upcoming days we'll peek inside this vehicle to see what Chevrolet has done to keep the occupants comfortable, safe, entertained and informed. We're also going to get underneath the truck to see what's hiding down below, and then we'll hit the road to see if the TrailBlazer can indeed live up to the Super Sport moniker.

     

     

    In our previous installment of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS review, we took you for a walk around the exterior of the vehicle. Now it's time to open the hatches and see if the interior can live up to the sheetmetal's understated good looks.

    Our sample arrived with an Ebony interior, which we generally prefer over the Light Gray alternative. For year-'round usage in the Salt Belt region, we want something dark, and suspect that those who transport children on a regular basis will feel the same. On the other hand, our readers who reside in sunnier regions may wish to select the lighter color, and GM is kind enough to match either interior color choice with all of the available exterior color selections.

    Stepping into the TrailBlazer SS, we find that the subtle exterior styling philosophy finds its way into the interior. There is still liberal use of hard plastic, but it's a serious improvement over what we've seen before from the General.

    A steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather and capped with a metal SS logo is one of the first things a driver will set his hands upon, and we found it to be perfectly sized in terms of diameter and rim thickness. Four rocker switches are provided on the upper two spokes, with an additional four push buttons on the lower spokes.

    The tilt column, unfortunately, is still of the detent style, and we found that our preferred wheel positions usually fell between two of the five widely-spaced available positions. The friction-style tilt column found in some other vehicles offers an infinite number of positions and therefore is much more accommodating to picky drivers.

    The 8-way power seats (fore/aft, height, tilt, recline, inflatable lumbar) don't get the perforated treatment for some reason, but instead are covered in smooth, soft leather. The lack of lateral support is partially compensated for by the suede-like center panels. We'd rather see substantial bolsters, but to give credit where it's due, the rougher leather is quite good at keeping driver and passenger firmly planted where he belongs. The embroidered SS logo is a classy touch, as well.

    We found the lower cushion to be far too long for the vertically challenged among us, but taller occupants who tried out the seats welcomed the additional support. Oddly enough, the passenger's side seat rides higher than the driver's, so sticking someone taller than 6' or so in the right front may result in some headroom issues.

    Optional adjustable pedals were fitted to our tester. We don't often notice an advantage to this feature, but shorter drivers can use such a system to maintain proper spacing from the airbag, and those with odd proportions will undoubtedly find such an option to be helpful. For safety's sake, the pedals can only be adjusted when the vehicle is in Park.

    The foot wells offered plenty of room for this journalist's size 11 stompers. Since there's nothing for the driver's left foot to do, a dead pedal is provided to give it a place to hang out while the right foot has all the fun.

    Moving our attention upwards, we find an instrument panel that's cleanly designed and offers a complete set of gauges. The speedometer can be a bit difficult to read due to the coarse markings and a needle that seems about 10mm too short; otherwise, the status of critical parameters is easy to ascertain with a quick glance. We'll touch on the gas mileage another day, but one may find himself humming the chorus of Sugar's "Needle Hits E" as the miles roll along.

    The multifunction display is located just under the speedometer and is capable of providing a variety of information, such as the trip odometer (there's actually two), fuel economy, and tire pressure for each of the four corners. It also allows for the programming of some vehicle configuration options, such as the key-off headlight timer. All of this is controlled by using the aforementioned pushbuttons on the steering wheel's lower two spokes to navigate through three menus (one per button; the fourth provides the "select/enter" function). The system is rather easy to navigate after only a few minutes of familiarization.

    The GM fans among our readership may actually be pleased to see that the multifunction wiper stalk remains; buyers coming from other brands will likely be confused by this device, which attempts to encapsulate more functionality than a Swiss Army knife. We like the way this device implements the cruise control functions, but the small ring that must be rotated to operate the wipers is a bit difficult to operate, especially when wearing gloves. And the rear wiper control is located about two feet away, on the center stack.

    There is no tap-up/tap-down selection of gears, but the seven-position shifter allows the driver to manually select the lower ranges if desired. Unfortunately, the shifter is located just a bit too far to the rear for this to be practical during performance driving, and dropping the stick down into D1 results in a conflict with whatever beverage container happens to be occupying the most rearward of the center console's three cupholders. The console also fails to provide sufficient support to the shifter, and the result is a bit more compliance than we'd like to feel from this driver control. We'd rather see the center console redesigned with only two cupholders, and then maybe GM could find a place for us to put our cell phones, PDAs, and whatnot.

    The shift knob is covered in high-quality leather, but the satin chrome trim "mohawk" doesn't match any other component in this interior. Then there's the shift boot, which just didn't fit correctly, felt cheap and generally looked to be an afterthought.

    Drift slightly south of the knob button, and the driver's thumb will find a switch for the StabiliTrack system. A quick tap of this switch defeats the traction control but leaves the stability control activated, where as holding down the switch for five seconds or so will turn off almost all of the electronic nannies. Some "torque management" remains, which we suspect is required to save the drivetrain from driver stupidity, such as trying to powerbrake an AWD vehicle. But it's not like we'd know anything about that.

    Our tester was equipped with the Bose premium sound system, XM satellite radio, and the navigation radio system. The system is operated using the minimalist row of buttons to the left of the display, inputs made via "soft buttons" on the touch screen, and controls located on the upper spokes of the steering wheel. We familiarized ourselves with the unit in the manner of most consumers, ignoring the vehicle's user manual and diving right in. As far as such systems go it's fairly intuitive, but we'd suggest reserving a few minutes in the driveway for orientation before hitting the open road.

    Sound quality was generally good, with a stereo image that presented itself at dashboard level. Upper-frequency performance was a bit too bright and some songs would reveal slightly muddy midbass response, but overall the system performed very well for a factory install.

    The navigation system was easy to program but, for the most part, does not offer a 3-D view of the road. When intersections are near, the screen will split and usually offer a zoomed-in bird's-eye view, although on occasion a 3-D image of a particular intersection or exit ramp would appear. Our biggest gripe is that there was no indication of upcoming turns if the system was being used to display sound system information. We leave it up to the individual buyer to determine whether this system is worth two Gs, or if a standalone aftermarket nav system provides more value and an inherently easier upgrade path.

    Located below the large nav/radio head are the HVAC controls, which presented no challenges or difficulty. The dual-zone temperature control will strengthen relationships and improve marriages.

    The final bit of driver controls are located over on the door panel. Here we find the controls for the seat/mirror memory system, and below that is a button to activate the "Easy Exit" feature (this moves the seat back to its most rearward position). Auto-down is offered on the front windows, but there is no express-up function. The rearmost control is for the heated seats, which was put to good use during our time with the vehicle. It was possible to accidentally activate the seat heaters, however, and, as noted by a friend, the High setting is hot enough to lower the sperm count of even the most viralent males.

    It's time to move around to the rear seating position, where we find a 35/65 split folding bench. The rear passengers have access to their own HVAC system and audio controls. Legroom back here is plentiful; with the front seats moved to the full rearward position it's possible that adults may find themselves a bit cramped, but unless the person in the front seat works for the Detroit Pistons, there should be few issues.

    The optional Panasonic DVD player and drop-down video screen should prove popular with rear-seat passengers, who also get a multifunction remote control and IR wireless headphones. A set of RCA jacks is provided to allow the use of external A/V sources, but there's no A/C power source for video-game consoles or the like.

    Putting the "utility" in "SUV" is the rear cargo hold of the TrailBlazer SS. It can be accessed via two means - flipping up the rear glass or opening the entire liftgate. While the first method may be useful in confined areas, we found the rear-over height to be a bit excessive, and preferred simply to sling open the hatch. The keyless entry remote offers no ability to pop the hatch, so you'll need to free up a hand.

    There are a variety of storage locations available in the rear of the TrailBlazer, such as this shallow pocket in the floor. We don't know how often we'd use this compartment on a day-to-day basis, but it looks like a good area to store tools and other supplies for roadside emergencies. The air hose and pressure gauge are provided for use with the vehicle's on-board air compressor, which also serves another function that we'll explore tomorrow.

    When serious cargo hauling is required, it's possible to expand the cargo area by about 50% through the process of folding the seats. Since the seat cushions must be flipped up before dropping the seatbacks, there are two steps per side, and the load floor doesn't end up perfectly flat. To be honest, we think that the system used in the old GM B-body station wagons was preferable, as it required only one step and yielded a dead-flat load surface. Regardless, it's possible to fit a lot of Home Depot's inventory in the vehicle.

    With a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 6001 lbs and a vehicle weight of approximately 4600 lbs, it's possible to load up with about 1400 lbs of people, snacks and luggage. Additionally, our AWD test sample is rated to tow 6600 lbs. While that's not going to make the TrailBlazer SS a hero at campgrounds, it will definitely allow for transporting a decent-sized boat or for towing a racecar in style.

    Hopefully, we've drawn a picture of a quality interior that is comfortable, ergonomically friendly, and loaded with features, because that's what we found inside the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS. It's possible to nitpick a few trim details, but the interior was free of squeaks and rattles, the switchgear felt fine and we encountered little that would keep us from enjoying this vehicle on a daily basis.

    Hopefully without spoiling the conclusion of this review, please let us make something crystal clear - the soul of this vehicle resides under the hood. Come on, it's a frickin' Corvette motor - in a SUV. How cool is that? Quite cool, in fact; at least to those of us with 20W50 motor oil running through our veins. The right answer is always "more power", and if it's not, then the correct question isn't being asked.

    But 395 HP and 400 lb-ft of torque is useless unless it can be delivered to the pavement, and that's where a bit of sophistication on the behalf of GM's powertrain and chassis engineering teams come into play. Sure, some out there will roll their eyes at this claim, but we respectfully request that the reader put his or her preconceived notions on hold until the conclusion of this review. In the meantime, let's literally pull this thing into the Autoblog Garage and take a look underneath to explore the hardware that has been charged with maintaining the integrity of the Super Sport name.

    We've expended quite a few electrons discussing the GenIV LS2 V8, so we'll keep things brief. Simply stated, this engine is compact, light, simple, and reliable. Any doubts about this engine should be answered by a quick glance at its dyno chart, where one should quickly draw the conclusion that it makes a boatload of power just about anywhere in the rev range. By 1000 RPM, it's making 300 lb-ft of torque, and never again drops below that number. Peak power occurs at 6000 RPM - who said anything about pushrod engines being "low-revving"? Want to get into a torque-vs.-horsepower argument? Forget it - this engine's ability to pull hard regardless of the tach needle position should lay waste to such useless banter.

    Unfortunately, removing the plastic engine cover does little to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Instead of the 4bbl carb and single-plane intakes of yore, we see a barrel-type manifold adapted from the lesser TrailBlazer's 5.3 L; ironically enough, the Corvette's manifold is said not to fit under the cowl of this truck. This supposedly is the main reason for the 5 HP loss incurred during the transplant into the TrailBlazer, but we doubt that the only time it'll be missed is during heavy bench-racing sessions. To be honest, our gut says that the mechanical fan is a more likely suspect for the lower rating, but its superior cooling abilities will be welcome during worst-case towing situations. Interestingly enough, the manifold lowers the torque peak by 400 RPM without affecting the location of the horsepower peak, so it's possible that it results in an ever-so-slight increase in the much-desired "area under the curve".

    The lump is fed via an airbox that sits behind the passenger's-side headlamp, and a small duct is provided to feed cold air to the intake tract. Is it effective? That's debatable, but real-world considerations and OEM standards that prevent problems such as water and debris intrusion make it very difficult to implement a true cold-air intake. Regardless, we appreciate the attempt.

    Let's now venture into the Autoblog Garage's pit, which is a scary place indeed (especially this time of the year, when slight flooding can be expected).

    Up front, the same short-long-arm (SLA) system that is used on other TrailBlazers is retained. However, the vehicle is lowered, significantly stiffer springs are fitted, and a 37mm sway bar is affixed to the lower control arms via a pair of beefy aluminum links. Likely having the biggest impact, though, are the Bilstein dampers that are installed at all four corners of the vehicle. Never, ever, underestimate the impact that a good set of shock absorbers can have on a vehicle.

    We also see here the fairly large 12.8" brakes and two-pot brake calipers, but the system looks a bit tiny relative to the 20" wheels.

    Those big brakes are cooled via vents in the front fascia and a set of ducts that direct the air towards the caliper and rotor. Those of us that engage in backroad thrashing, autocrosses, and open-track days with heavy vehicles really appreciate such touches, and they go a long way towards establishing this vehicle's high-performance credentials.

    As we've already mentioned, the TrailBlazer SS routes its power to each set of wheels via a single-range full-time transfer case. The magic is achieved via the use of a Torsen T-3 limited-slip differential, which uses a series of gears to smoothly bias drivetrain torque. In this case, 67% of the available torque is routed to the rear wheels, but that can be limited to 55% or increased to 75%, depending on available traction. Oversteer fans will find that enjoying their craft isn't totally ruled-out by this AWD system.

    The twin downpipes and catalytic converters merge via a Y-pipe into a single exhaust system. Two mufflers - one located before the axle, and one located after - attempt to silence the powerplant. Let's just say that they wage a valiant fight, but are overwhelmed in the end. The exhaust system allows the escape of maybe the nastiest exhaust note we've heard from a Detroit product since the era of the muscle car. It's tame at idle but quickly draws attention as the throttle is opened, eventually getting loud enough at WOT to attract dirty looks from bystanders. Since we think that the baritone roar of a V8 one of the finest sounds that a motor vehicle can emit, we were left wishing only that every vehicle could sound this good.

    Out back, we find a solid axle; in this case, the beefy 9.5" 14-bolt unit that's usually employed in 3/4-ton trucks. An Eaton Posi, loaded with the company's 400-lb preload spring pack, keeps the torque flowing to both wheels. A 24mm sway bar keeps roll under control. Fore-aft location is managed via a set of upper and lower trailing links (4 total), which is a system that has proven very effective at preventing axle hop and provides the ability to tune in anti-squat and anti-dive. Lateral location is a weakness of such a system, so a Panhard bar is employed to keep the axle where it should be during hard cornering.

    Unfortunately, that Panhard bar does pinch the exhaust a bit. We'd expect the aftermarket to come up with a solution for this issue.

    Apparently, it was deemed necessary to use an auto-leveling air system out back in order to combine the vehicle's impressive towing capability with its low ride height, and so air springs are used in lieu of the coils that are normally employed. Because of an air spring's rising-rate characteristic, they often can cause a harsh and bouncy ride, but this system is transparent with regards to ride quality or handling. Once again, we give credit to the Bilstein shocks. OK, admittedly, we also like the bit of eye candy that the bright-yellow tubes provide.

    Think your job is tough? Trying being a rear brake that's caught between the traction control system and a vehicle with nearly 400 HP. A few runs up and down an icy gravel road to test the effectiveness of the AWD system left the rear brakes that lovely bluish-purple sheen that comes only through intense heat.

    So, how well does all this hardware work? Stay tuned for Days 4 and 5 of our experience with the TrailBlazer SS, where we'll wrap things up with the impressions that we've formed after a week of thoroughly thrashing this vehicle in a variety of driving situations.

    Our time with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS is about to come to an end. With a thorough static examination of the vehicle completed (see Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3), it's time to get into this vehicle, wring it out in a variety of driving conditions, and find out if it's worthy of the Super Sport badge.

    Based on the comments that have been left in the first three posts of this review, it appears that a significant number of our readers are willing to pass judgment on this vehicle without putting rubber to the road. That's too bad, because this vehicle's best attributes are certainly not assessed while sitting still.

     

    The days of single-dimensional performance are over, but the TrailBlazer SS makes no apologies for the fact that its roots lie solidly in the muscle car era. Tip into the first 10-percent or so of its electronically-controlled throttle, and one finds enough speed to keep up with nearly any traffic situation. There's very little in the way of exhaust rumblings or mechanical noise to indicate what's going on, just a steady clockwise sweep of the speedometer's needle. If the safety weenies of the world had their way, this amount of performance would be all we'd ever be allowed to experience. The next portion of travel - up to the halfway point or thereabouts, will leave 95-percent of your fellow drivers gratifyingly sucking spent gasses. The transmission doesn't readily offer up downshifts, but frankly it's generally not necessary to grab a lower gear. The big single exhaust system starts to assert itself at this point, and heads will turn.

    Venture past half-throttle, and the TrailBlazer SS leaps forward with a ferocity that defies most anyone's perception of what SUVs are capable of. The slushbox will finally snap down a gear or two, and the horizon suddenly becomes an immediate concern. Hitting gaps in traffic that would be unsafe (or downright impossible) in most vehicles becomes easy in the TBSS, and the deep roar of the exhaust alerts everyone in a three-block radius as to the siesmic activity occurring in the LS2's combustion chambers. As the tach jumps towards redline, upshifts are quick and smooth (although probably not snappy enough to be appealing to the TransGo customer base).  

    Dip into the loud pedal for too long, however, and there is a high likelihood of needing to drop anchor. That's where the TrailBlazer's big binders come in handy. While pedal feel is not among the best we've experienced and the level of power assist is a bit too high, the sheer effectiveness of the four disc setup is admirable. The ABS system holds off on doing its thing until the last possible moment, and doesn't result in exaggerated stopping distances when engaged.

    When speaking of this TrailBlazer's handling prowess, it's hardly necessary to use the "..for a SUV" disclaimer. The steering feel is just a bit on the numb side, but any movement of the wheel results in a corresponding change in direction. Even more importantly for building driver confidence is the SS' minimal body roll, which puts to rest any concerns about an excessively high center of gravity. Once one's self-preservation instincts are satisfied that a rollover isn't an imminent possibility, a benign understeer manifests itself at the limit. Spend enough time sawing the wheel back and forth, and the vehicle reveals itself as a competent handler that deserves to be placed in the same class as any number of sport sedans or pony cars.

    Despite having suspension tuning that's stiff enough to keep the door handles from dragging, the ride is quite tolerable - especially for something that rides on dubs. Even with the 20" wheels, there's still enough sidewall to keep the ride from becoming brutal, and the Bilstein shocks can be felt doing their thing over what passes for pavement in the Midwest. The GMT360 platform is not among the stiffest out there, especially when compared to the TrailBlazer's unibody "soft-roader" competition, but only over the nastiest of rutted dirt roads did the structure issue an objectionable amount of flex.

    What's most impressive, however, is not how each of these performance attributes work by themselves, but rather how they combine to move this vehicle exactly where the driver intends to go. We were able to test our SS in a wide variety of weather and road conditions, and found it nearly impossible to make a mistake. The defining moment of our test came on a deserted backcountry dirt road, where we turned off the traction and stability control, placed the right tires on ice, the left tires on gravel, and applied full throttle. Do the same in the average 400 HP sports car, and the local towing service had best be on one's mobile phone's speed dial. In the TrailBlazer SS, it simply lauched forward with more ferocity than most vehicles are capable of on dry pavement. It's the sort of performance that leaves the driver totally unconcerned with the quality of interior materials.

    Feel the need to go WOT in the middle of a tight right-hand turn? Go ahead. Thinking about doing something dumb like chopping the throttle because a corner was entered too fast? Precious little drama results. Want to get as much as a chirp from the tires during acceleration? Good luck. It's apparent this vehicle's drivetrain and suspension do virtually everything right when it comes to maximizing the vehicle's available traction. As such, the TrailBlazer SS is easier to drive than virtually any other SUV with comparable amounts of power. Turn off the electronic babysitters, and little of this changes - the hardware does all the right things without the intervention of any computerized trickery. When the traction and stability control systems do engage, we found them to be relatively unobtrusive (considering the circumstances - if the driver finds themselves turning over control to the vehicle's computers, it's likely that something is quite wrong).

    As might be expected, severe off-roading was not in the cards for this review. Take one glance at the SS' front valance and decidedly street-oriented tires, and there should be no question why we didn't explore anything nastier than a two-track.

    There's a price to be paid for all of this performance, though. Ever hear the expression "it passes everything but a gas pump"? Combine the TrailBlazer's usable fuel capacity of approximately 20 gallons with our observed highway fuel economy of just a tick over 15 MPG, and even those with peanut-sized bladders will find nature making calls less frequently than the gas gauge. Take advantage of all that power and traction in stop-and-go situations, and it's possible to drop fuel economy perilously close to single digits. It's the one way in which the vehicle fails to transcend its SUV roots, and remained highly annoying throughout the test.

    So... how does the subject of this review stack up to the competition? First, it's important to establish its position in the marketplace. Most will view this vehicle going head-to-head against the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 in a field of two $40K SUVs that have mutated into muscle cars, but it's possible to envision cross-shopping this with sportier soft-roaders like Nissan's Murano. We also think that more than a few potential TrailBlazer SS customers might contemplate a spin around the block in the Hemi-powered versions of Dodge's Charger or Magnum before unfurling their checkbooks. None of these vehicles offer anything ground-breaking in terms of interior quality or fit-and-finish (although admittedly they all fare better). But more importantly, none offer the same blend of performance and practicality that one finds with the TrailBlazer SS.

    The stiffest competition for the TrailBlazer SS, however, may indeed come from vehicles that are no longer available in new-car showrooms. For the faithful Bowtie fans that would seem likely to make up the majority of hot-rod 'Blazer sales, it'll be important that this vehicle has earned the right to carry Super Sport badges.

    Compared to modern interpretations of the SS theme, we think that the TrailBlazer SS may very well represent the most dramatic transformation when compared to the base model. Certainly, the "tri-9" Impala SS didn't receive a power infusion of this magnitude, the Silverado SS lacked street presence, and sticking a 303 HP V8 into a front-wheel-drive sedan leaves most all of us shaking our heads. From a historical standpoint, a souped-up SUV may seem like a slap in the face to GM's muscle car heritage, but the concept of sticking a wild motor and improved suspension components into a garden-variety vehicle is what muscle cars are all about. Besides, what's more "garden variety" than a mid-sized SUV these days? Ignore the two-box form factor, and this is arguably among the most well-rounded sports sedans that Chevrolet has ever produced.

    Highly competent truck-based SUV.

    Introduction

    The Chevy TrailBlazer is among the best of the truck-based midsize SUVs. It's capable of hauling heavy loads and negotiating rugged off-road terrain. Yet it's also smooth, comfortable and civilized. These are benefits of its rigid chassis, sophisticated suspension, and powerful brakes. Curtain-style side-impact airbags with a rollover sensing system are available for increased head protection. 

    For 2006, GM's excellent StabiliTrak electronic stability control system comes standard across the TrailBlazer lineup. StabiliTrak helps drivers maintain control by reducing or eliminating skidding in emergency handling situations. 2006 TrailBlazer models have been upgraded with a revised brake system designed for improved responsiveness along with sound-deadening measures designed to reduce noise. 

    The TrailBlazer is stable and maneuverable. It handles washboard surfaces well, a nice benefit on unpaved roads. The TrailBlazer is also quite capable off road when equipped with its sophisticated four-wheel-drive system and optional skid plates. 

    The extended-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT adds substantial cargo space and seven-passenger seating, but it's longer than a Tahoe, and we prefer the standard TrailBlazer for its superior handling and stability. 

    TrailBlazer comes standard with a superbly smooth and modern Vortec 4200 inline six-cylinder engine, which has been upgraded for 2006, and it's our first choice unless towing is a big part of the picture. The Vortec 5400 V8, with its Displacement on Demand technology promising improved fuel economy is available as an option on all 2006 TrailBlazer models. Equipped with the V8, a 2WD TrailBlazer EXT can tow up to 7,000 pounds. 

    A new TrailBlazer SS has joined the line-up for 2006, featuring the 395-horsepower, 6.0-liter LS2 V8 derived from the Chevy Corvette, along with a sport-tuned suspension and competition brakes. The SS gets unique exterior and interior trim and is available with all-wheel drive. 

    Lineup

    Chevy TrailBlazer comes in two trim levels, LS ($26,700) and LT ($29,115). Each is available in regular and EXT extended wheelbase lengths. The long-wheelbase EXT LS ($28,320) and LT ($30,520) are stretched 16 inches between the front and rear wheels to provide a third row of seats for seven-passenger capacity and more cargo room. Four-wheel drive is available on all models ($2,250). 

    The base engine for all TrailBlazers is the 291-horsepower Vortec 4200, a 4.2-liter inline-6. The Vortec 5300 5.3-liter overhead-valve V8, rated 300 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque, is now available as an option ($1500) on both the standard and EXT models. All come standard with a four-speed automatic transmission. 

    The TrailBlazer SS ($32,890) comes with GM's LS2 6.0-liter V8 engine, which produces 395 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. Chevy claims the SS can go from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. The SS is equipped with a heavy-duty version of GM's four-speed Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, the 4L70E, and is available with two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. 

    For added safety, GM's StabiliTrack electronic stability control system is now standard on all TrailBlazer models. This system uses a full range of motion and control sensors, coupled to actuators on the throttle and individual wheel brakes to sense and mitigate any unintended changes in vehicle direction. Other safety features include dual-stage driver and passenger airbags, which inflate with less intensity in slower crashes. An enhanced passenger safety belt reminder is standard as are pretensioners on the outboard front-seat belts, that tighten to take up slack when the air bags deploy. Side-impact head-curtain airbags are optional ($495). The optional OnStar system includes GM's Automatic Crash Notification System to transmit crash scene data automatically to participating 911 emergency systems. 

    LS models are nicely equipped with dual-zone air conditioning, CD player, reclining bucket seats and floor console, power windows and programmable door locks, tilt steering, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 16-inch aluminum wheels, luggage rack roof rails, and three power outlets. An optional package ($1,185) adds remote keyless entry, content-theft alarm, heated foldaway mirrors, a rear window defogger, color-keyed carpeted floor mats, crossbars for the luggage rack, and Charcoal-colored body-side moldings. 

    LT adds fog lamps, an overhead console with HomeLink transmitter and Travelnote digital recorder, body-color grille and door handles, eight-way power for the driver's seat, a trailer wiring harness and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Two-tone leather seating surfaces, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and dual front eight-way power reclining bucket seats with adjustable lumbar support are available as a package ($1,180). The front and rear fascias, grille, headlamps, rocker panels and body side moldings on the LT have been revised for 2006 to give the upscale model a more distinctive appearance. 

    TrailBlazer EXT LS and TrailBlazer EXT LT are equipped similarly to their standard-wheelbase counterparts, but add third-row seating plus separate rear-seat heating and air conditioning controls. EXT LS models come standard with a HomeLink transmitter, fog lamps, 17-inch wheels, and other upgrades. 

    Options include a new Sun, Sound, and Entertainment Package ($1,165), which includes the sunroof, ETR audio system with six Bose speakers, 6CD changer, XM Satellite Radio, and DVD rear-seat entertainment system. Cruise control ($275), a tilt-and-slide sunroof ($950), and OnStar ($695), are available separately, but OnStar and cruise control can be ordered as a package ($700). Adjustable pedals ($150) and navigation ($1,995) are offered on the LT only. XM Satellite Radio ($325) is optional on all models, and an MP3 player is offered on LS ($135). DVD entertainment ($1,295) is available on all models. Various axle ratios (3.42, 3.73, and 4.10:1) and a lockin. 

    Walkaround

    TrailBlazer's styling helped blaze the trail for the latest Chevy Truck design. It's an aggressive look with bold headlamps and a split grille. The horizontal bar that splits the grille, headlamps and turn signals is chromed on the LS, body-colored on the LT, and black on the SS. The front bumper features a large opening with two vertical slats, and the optional foglights are mounted down low. The front end of the TrailBlazer makes it look like a scaled-down Suburban or Silverado. 

    Overall, TrailBlazer looks neat and sturdy, with confident lines that express utility. The pillars and window lines are graceful, while the big fender flares are visually bold. At the rear is a convenient step in the center of the bumper. 

    The seven-seat TrailBlazer EXT is 16 inches longer between the front and rear wheels than the standard five-seat TrailBlazer and looks disproportionately long and narrow. The easiest way to tell the TrailBlazer from the TrailBlazer EXT is to look at the rear passenger doors; they're full-size doors on the EXT but the rear wheel wells cut into them on the standard-length model. 

    For 2006, the antennas for the optional OnStar assistance system and XM Satellite Radio are combined in a single unit. 

    Interior

    The Chevy TrailBlazer's cabin is comfortable and convenient. Seats on the LS are manually adjustable. Eight-way power operation with memory and seat heaters is available on LT models. Power adjustable pedals on the LT allow shorter drivers to move the brake and accelerator pedals up to three inches closer for better positioning and comfort without having to move too close to the airbag-equipped steering wheel. It's a good safety feature and popular among women. 

    The TrailBlazer seats five, the TrailBlazer EXT seats seven. 

    Second-row space is nearly identical between TrailBlazer and TrailBlazer EXT. First and second row hip and leg room is comparable to the Ford Explorer, though the TrailBlazer does offer an inch more headroom throughout the cabin. 

    Cargo space in the EXT is generous. Fold the second- and third-row seats and TrailBlazer EXT offers 107 cubic feet of packing room, more than the TrailBlazer (80), Ford Explorer (86), and comparable to the full-size Chevy Tahoe (105). The cargo floor isn't as flat as we'd like, though, and a gap between the two third-row seats makes it less dog-friendly. 

    Space in the EXT third-row seats, is a bit cramped, as it is with most third rows. The Explorer has more third-row legroom. Also, we put some an adult and a teenager back there and they complained about tunnel vision. 

    Up front, the driver gets complete and clean instrumentation. Heating and air conditioning can be controlled separately by the driver and front-seat passenger. EXT models add separate climate controls for rear-seat passengers as well. Interior lights abound, including reading lights. Optional on the four-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel are handy buttons for climate, audio, cruise control, and the driver information center. 

    The center console includes an open storage bin, an enclosed compartment and two cup holders forward of the gear lever plus two cup holders for the rear passengers. There are pockets in the front doors and behind the front seats, though none in the rear doors. Behind the rear seat is a small hidden compartment under the floor. A cargo net, a scrolling tonneau cover, and power outlets are available. An overhead console on the LT includes a sunglasses holder plus Travelnote digital recorder. 

    For 2006, Chevy TrailBlazers get an enhanced sound-mitigation system, including an acoustic windshield to minimize wind noise, and additional sound insulation within areas of the body that can transmit engine and road noise. 

    Safety is improved from the available head-curtain side-impact airbags, which unfold from the roof rail between the A-pillar and side window header. When the bag deploys in a moderate-to-severe side impact, it is angled somewhat toward the window to help provide protection for front and rear outboard passengers. The 2006 system replaces the previous seat-mounted system, which protected the driver and front-seat passenger only. TrailBlazers equipped with head-curtain airbags also feature a new rollover sensing system that triggers both the side-curtain airbags and safety belt pretensioners. The rollover-sensing module uses a complex algorithm based on lateral and vertical accelerations, roll rate and vehicle speed to determine whether to deploy the safety systems. GM's Passenger Sensing System (PSS) is standard on the TrailBlazer, which deactivates the front-passenger airbag if it senses an unoccupied front passenger seat or the presence of a smaller occupant. A status indicator on the instrument panel alerts occupants that the passenger airbag is on or off. Even with this system, however, we strongly recommend carrying under-age passengers in an appropriate child seat placed in the second or third row of the vehicle. 

    We found the premium 275-watt Bose system offered outstanding sound quality and adjustment versatility. Most of the available audio systems include RDS (Radio Data Systems) technology, allowing the listener to search for stations. 

    Driving Impression

    TrailBlazer's six-cylinder 4.2 liter engine, called the Vortec 4200 is smooth and quiet. The faster it goes, the smoother it seems to get. It's an inline-6, a design that's inherently better balanced than a V6. It idles so smoothly that Chevy Truck added a device that prevents the starter from grinding if the key is turned when the engine is already running. 

    The six-cylinder engine features dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and variable phasing of the exhaust cam. It's been upgraded for 2006 to produce 291 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. (Torque is that force that thrusts you off the line and up steep hills.) Ninety percent of the peak torque is available at just 1600 rpm and it's still there at 5600 rpm. The engine is still striding, not screaming, when the full-throttle upshift comes at 6000 rpm. That torque gave us confident power when attempting passes on steep uphill two-lanes. It offers strong acceleration without forcing the transmission to downshift. The four-speed automatic transmission is programmed well and makes a good companion for the engine. Shifts are smooth. 

    Towing was a high priority in the TrailBlazer's engineering. Six-cylinder models are rated to tow 6300 pounds with 2WD, 6100 with 4WD. Even the EXT powered by the six-cylinder engine can haul 5800 pounds with 4WD. The six-cylinder engine is designed to run cool while towing, thanks in part to a big seven-quart oil pan. 

    Big ventilated disc brakes provide stopping power, and four-wheel ABS is standard. Under hard braking, the nose didn't dive, keeping the TrailBlazer remarkably level and stable. Braking capability has been improved for 2006 with a new low-drag caliper system with a more responsive brake booster and larger master cylinder for improved pedal feel, a system first introduced on SS models. 

    We found the ride excellent, very smooth without being too soft. The TrailBlazer was designed to lean a maximum of only 5 degrees in corners. It features a wide track and low engine position, which drops the center of gravity. A vehicle with a low center of gravity is generally less likely to roll over than a vehicle with a high center of gravity. TrailBlazer has a very tight turning circle of 36.4 feet, because the suspension and engine design allow for large steering angles, a real plus in crowded parking lots. 

    The chassis and suspension are highly developed with design features normally associated with sports cars: rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel vented disc brakes with twin-piston calipers in front, independent front suspension with short/long control arms, live rear axle using five-link location with Bilstein gas-charged shock absorbers and coil springs, and thick antiroll bars front and rear. The chassis rails are shaped by hydroforming, which makes them stronger and lighter. No less than eight crossmembers contribute to TrailBlazer's torsional rigidity, and there are 12 tuned body mounts that use rubber pads and hydraulics to dampen vibrations. 

    We found the TrailBlazer impressively stable on washboard surfaces. It bottomed on dips, however, signaling that the optional skid plates are necessary for off-road driving. When equipped with the 17-inch on/off-road tires and skid plates, the TrailBlazer easily chugged along at 5 mph through soft sand in Auto4WD. 

    Four-wheel-drive TrailBlazers feature GM's Autotrac system, which offers four settings: 2WD, Auto4WD, 4HI and 4LO. Switching in and out of 4WD can be done on the fly with a flip of a switch. The transmission must be in neutral to engage or disengage 4LO. In Auto4WD, power is shifted to all four wheels as conditions require. The TrailBlazer can be towed in the Auto mode without having to disconnect the driveshaft, a convenient feature. Traction control is available for 2WD TrailBlazers. 

    As impressed as we are with the TrailBlazer, we don't have the same feelings for the TrailBlazer EXT. The long-wheelbase EXT. 

    Summary

    Chevy TrailBlazer sports a nice design and a well-executed interior. Smooth, stable, and powerful, TrailBlazer works well around town, on the open highway, and in the back country. Almost none of that applies to the long-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT, however, which surrenders much of the standard model's ride and handling for extra cargo space but barely adequate third-row seating capacity. 

    NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles. 

    Model Lineup

    Chevy TrailBlazer LS 2WD ($26,700); LS 4WD ($28,950); LT 2WD ($29,115); LT 4WD ($31,365); LS EXT 2WD ($28,320); LS EXT 4WD ($30,570); LT EXT 2WD ($30,520); LT EXT 4WD ($32,770). 

    Assembled In

    Moraine, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

    Options As Tested

    side-impact head-curtain airbags ($495); Preferred Equipment Group 2 ($1180) includes leather seating surfaces, dual eight-way power reclining bucket seats with lumbar support; OnStar Package ($700) includes OnStar and cruise control; Bose audio ($495), Rainsense wipers ($70); skid plates ($130). 

    Model Tested

    Chevy TrailBlazer 4WD LT ($31,365). 

    *The data and content on this web site is subject to change without notice. Neither AOL nor any of its data or content providers shall be liable for errors in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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