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Driven: Chev's big SUV blazes into SA

By: Jason Woosey

Rugged, roomy and capable of towing big caravans and boats, the bakkie-based SUV - for want of a better phrase - fits the South African lifestyle like a glove.

While Ford and Mitsubishi have tried to compete here, the Toyota Fortuner has the entire segment in a headlock.

Now Chevrolet thinks it has the moves to break this stranglehold and its fighter is the all-new Trailblazer. Is this going to be the Chuck Norris of SUVs? Only time will tell, but the Trailblazer's swanky American styling is certainly a breath of fresh air in a segment that's always been more about utility than style.

Perhaps it's not entirely apt to compare this Chevy to Chuck. Besides the fact that it can't answer a missed call, slam a revolving door or make the sun flinch by staring at it, the Trailblazer is not 100 percent American. What you see on the outside may be unique, but beneath the skin you'll find the architecture of the next-generation Isuzu KB, which is due in SA next year.

Yet the Trailblazer's biggest aim in life is still to give the Toyota Fortuner a good roundhouse kick and Chevrolet has positioned and priced it bullishly close to its Japanese arch-enemy.

THE TRAILBLAZER RANGE:

2.5 Diesel LT 4X2 - R364 000

2.8 Diesel LTZ 4X2 AT - R423 500

2.8 Diesel LTZ 4X4 - R454 500

2.8 Diesel LTZ 4X4 AT - R469 900

3.6 V6 LTZ 4X4 AT - R479 500

As with the Fortuner, Trailblazer customers can choose between rear-wheel drive and part-time four-wheel drive and, depending on which configuration is selected, there is a choice between two turbodiesel engines and one V6 petrol. They're more powerful than the engines you'll find in the Fortuner and the diesels also have more torque.

The 2.5-litre oil-burner pushes 110kW at 3300rpm and 350Nm at 2000rpm and the 2.8-litre turbodiesel is credited with 132kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm at 2000. For those that own oil refineries, Chevrolet also offers a 3.6-litre V6 petrol, which dishes out 176kW at 6600rpm and 329Nm at 3200.

The diesels are very much the way to go here and although neither of them feel terribly powerful, they do deliver adequate punch on the open road. In fact that 2.5 doesn't feel like it's much less powerful than the 2.8.

All of them have impressive towing capacities, with GM claiming 2500kg in the case of the 2.5 and 3.6 V6 and 2950kg for the 2.8 diesel.

Both diesel engines are mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, although the 2.8 can also be had with a six-speed automatic box, which is standard on the V6 petrol.

A PROPER 4X4

4x4 versions, of course, have a low-range gear ratio, but one thing that will probably upset hardcore off-roaders is that no diff lock is fitted. Chevrolet says that the fitment of a limited-slip differential and a whole entourage of electronic aids makes a diff lock unnecessary.

The semi-challenging off-road course that we tackled on the Trailblazer's local launch in the southern Cape was not gruelling enough to require a diff lock, so I can't tell you how it'll behave when you get one wheel in the air, but I can tell you that it does everything you'd expect when steep inclines and descents are thrown into its path.

The ride quality, both off and on the beaten track, is not exactly plush but it is acceptable for a bakkie-based SUV, and still somewhat better than that you'd get in a bakkie. It owes this to its modern five-link rear suspension set-up.

Moving inside, the dashboard has a pleasantly modern and uncluttered design, but the plastics are hard and the one unit I drove had a loose electric window panel.

ROOMY CABIN, SEVEN SEATS

All models have seven seats, with the middle and back rows being able to fold flat quite easily. Good thing, because the boot is miniscule when all the seats are in place. Interior space is generous though. There's plenty of stretching space in the middle row and the seatbacks also recline for those wanting to snooze on longer journeys. I found the back row seats to be tolerable in terms of comfort and space, but there won't be enough headroom for taller adults.

All models come with roof-mounted air conditioning vents for the rear passengers. The base LT model also packs a six-speaker CD/MP3/Aux/USB audio system, multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, power windows and front airbags (as well as curtain bags for all three seating rows).

Strangely, though, they've covered the seats in a two-tone cloth upholstery with the main section in a light colour that's likely to get dirty fairly quickly. Not a good idea in a vehicle designed around families.

Opt for one of the LTZ models and you'll be able to boast about leather seats (six-way power-adjustable for the driver), as well as an eight-speaker sound system, automatic climate control and a multi information display.

The LTZ also gets all the nice visual kit, ditching the LT's 16-inch alloy wheels for an 18-inch set and gaining roof rails and side-mounted running boards.

REFRESHING ALTERNATIVE

Regardless of which one you choose, the Trailblazer is a refreshing alternative to the Fortuner and although it's unlikely to challenge it for outright sales dominance anytime soon, the Trailblazer's unique styling and wide range are sure to make it the closest challenger yet.

And if things get too tough in the ring, this Chevy is backed up by a five-year or 120 000km warranty and also comes with a five-year or 90 000km service plan.

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