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ROAD TEST: Chevrolet Trailblazer 2.5 LT 4x2
Toyota literally hit pay dirt when its Fortuner hit the market back in early 2006. It clearly satisfied a craving that South Africans had for a (semi) affordable, yet rugged, SUV from a trusted manufacturer.
It's quite a simple formula really - put a wagon body onto a bakkie chassis, replace the rear leaf springs with a more sophisticated axle and Bob's your uncle.
Ford and Mitsubishi have tried to compete on this turf, but with limited success, and now Chevrolet has managed to source a vehicle (based on the new Isuzu KB chassis) that competes head-on with the formidable Fortuner.
At face value, at least, it does add some much-needed excitement to the segment. Let's face it, the Fortuner has about as much chance of standing out as a two-tone shirt at an agricultural show.
The Trailblazer might follow a similar overall design formula, yet the details are more striking and that large 'dual-port' grille gives it that tough 'American truck' look. Just bear in mind that the heel spurs and cowboy hat are not standard features, nor is a gun rack.
The only real styling turn-off are those 16-inch alloys on the 2.5 LT base model - they really look lost in the arches.
The interior has a pleasant design that's easy on the eye and with a few distinctive Chevrolet motifs thrown in, like those square instrument surrounds.
Nicely theorized, yet the execution is left wanting. The good news is that nothing fell off during the test period, but it did feel like a close call at times.
The panels that make up the instrument binnacle were not aligned nicely, the door trim panel felt loose, the central storage bin felt cheap and flimsy and the handbrake wasn't working properly. I also remember a loose electric window switch housing on another vehicle that I drove on the launch. Quite frankly, I've come to expect better build quality from the world's second biggest car company.
What's more, the seat material - a soft two-tone velour with the main inserts in beige - don't appear to be crying out for a long life of abuse.
ROOMY AS A RANCH
The Chev gets top marks for space and practicality though - it'll comfortably seat seven adults. In fact, there's acres of leg-stretching space for second-row occupants and I wouldn't declare you an enemy if you put me in the back row for a few hundred kays. As it usually is with seven-seaters, the boot is not very big but the third-row is split 50:50 and can fold flat.
Despite its base model status, the LT is feature rich, with a six-speaker CD/MP3/iPod audio system, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel and a powerful aircon with ventilation outlets for the rear occupants via a roof-mounted tunnel.
On the safety front, you get curtain airbags that cover all three rows, but of concern is that there's no form of traction control fitted to the LT and a large rear-wheel drive vehicle with raised suspension is not exactly gravity's best friend by its very nature.
I never tested that theory to its max, and it felt stable enough in everyday driving conditions, but under semi-hard cornering there was notable body roll.
The ride quality is reasonable but the Trailblazer's bakkie-based roots are still noticeable in the overall driving experience.
That goes for the engine too, but it's here that the base Trailblazer gets marked up because its 2.5-litre turbodiesel motor - which produces 110 kW at 3300rpm and 350Nm at 2000 - actually feels rather strong and torquey for its size.
The Trailblazer has its strong points - like style, space, features and performance, but it's let down by its lack of on-road refinement and interior quality. If GM addressed the latter aspect, then it could be a very desirable SUV.
It's not cheap either, the base model selling for R364 000, versus the (albeit lesser-equipped) Fortuner 2.5 D-4D at R345 700.
If you want a big off-roader and want to stand apart from the Fortuner crowd then the Trailblazer 2.8 LTZ 4x4 (at R454 500) is clearly the way to go but if you're not venturing too far off the beaten track - and you wouldn't in a 4x2 - then why not just opt for the more sophisticated and car-like Captiva?