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THE SUBURBAN'S BABY BROTHER

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Thu, Mar 17, 2005

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

THE SUBURBAN'S BABY BROTHER By CHRISTOPHER HUDDLESTON

With the bewildering number of entries in all the various sport-utility vehicle segments, it's quite surprising to find a manufacturer that has managed to carve out any sort of positive niche for itself in the highly competitive field of SUVs. What is that positive niche? In this case, combining the cargo-capacity of a full-size SUV with seven-passenger seating capacity on a mid-size SUV platform. A recent weekend in San Francisco found us behind the wheel of the 2005 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT LS 4WD (whew...it seems fitting that a vehicle with a wheelbase as long as this behemoth has a name to match.) The EXT version of the Trailblazer is Chevrolet's answer to the seven-passenger craze hitting the mid-size SUV segment. It seems like everyone is getting in on the act of offering this more rugged, and many say, stylish, alternative to the "soccer-mom" minivans.

It wasn't a piece of cake to develop, however. Chevrolet's problem was that the solid axle underpinning the rear of its mid-sized SUVs (Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, and Buick Rainier) did not leave enough room to package the third-row seat. GM's solution? A 16-inch stretch to the wheelbase leaving enough room for not only the third row seat, but also a cavernous 107.4 cubic-feet of cargo room (with all seats folded.) To put this impressive bit of nip/tuck in context, the EXT's wheelbase stretches 13 inches longer than the Chevrolet Tahoe and only one-inch shy of a Suburban! Furthermore, you'll be able to carry almost three cubic-feet more cargo than the aforementioned Tahoe. There is a downside to all this packaging magic, however. The modifications that turn a pedestrian Trailblazer into an EXT add about 360 pounds to the curb weight, bringing the total to almost 5,000 pounds. Now, 360 pounds might not seem like much, but it really seemed to tax the pulling power of the standard 4.2 litre inline-six engine. Producing 275 horsepower and 275 lb. ft. of torque, the Vortec inline-six produces healthy power for its size. Much of this is thanks to its modern, DOHC, 24-valve design. And, in major props to GM, it's wonderfully smooth, eager to spin to the redline, and quiet, at that. The General did a bang-up job developing this engine, and all their hard work shows. Even when charging to the redline, the engine showcases its hearty inline-6 snarl, but never assaults the ears like some previous GM truck engines have (the Vortec 4.3 V6 comes to mind.) Car and Driver magazine timed a long-term test EXT from 0-60 in a languid 9.3 seconds. (That vehicle was a '03 model with a slightly less powerful, 270 horsepower version of the 4.2.) When you compare that figure to the 0-60 run of 7.9 seconds they made with a previous, short-wheelbase Trailblazer, it's obvious a lot of the inherent spunk of this engine is muted by the extra mass.

Additionally, it's really hard to escape the bus-like feel one gets when piloting the EXT. The steering, while not overly light, offers minimal feel. In addition, the long wheelbase hampers in-town maneuvers. Finally, the soft suspension settings that help give this Trailblazer its Suburban like waft down the freeway, also allow it to bob and wallow over dips and bumps in the road. A Ford Explorer with the optional third-row seat is much more tied down at speed and definitely more responsive to the helm and throttle. One area where GM trucks continually receive criticism is the interior quality and finish. As far as fit goes, this Trailblazer was one of the most screwed-together GM products we've gotten into lately. Fits were tight, and knobs and switches moved with reassuring heft and precision. The quality of the materials, however, was another matter. It seems like the EXT didn't fully escape GM's committee-think way of design. What do I mean by "committee-think?" Well, if you examine the graining and quality of the plastics and trim throughout the interior, it seems as if one committee designed the door panels, another committee designed the dashboard, and yet another committee designed the center console and not a single one of them talked to each other during the development process. For example, the center console doesn't even attempt to line up with the bottom of the center stack and the miss-match is atrocious. That being said, the dash-top was a soft-touch "elephant-grain" vinyl that's of a higher quality than you'll find in GM's bigger SUVs and trucks. However, once again, it didn't even come close to matching the vinyl trim on the door panels or console. While GM is working on the EXT's replacement, I hope they put in an order for a third-row seat that stows away in a much cleaner fashion than the current seat. The current third-row requires too many steps to fold, and even then, doesn't provide a totally uniform and flat load space. Modern minivans from Dodge, Toyota, and Honda have already paved the way, now GM just has to adapt a classier, more efficient system.

There's no denial from here that this truck does offer up a ton of cargo space and multiple seating arrangements. For those qualities alone, the EXT deserves a look. Additionally, the optional 5.3-liter V8, offering up 25 more horsepower (a nice, round 300) and, more importantly, a substantial 55 more lb/ft of torque (a grunty 330 lb/ft) really helps to alleviate the sluggish forward motion present in the 6-cylinder version. Finally, our test truck, a very lightly optioned LS 4WD version, stickered for around $32,000. This represents a serious value in the mid-sized SUV segment. Realize, however, that once you add features like the V8, leather, moonroof, and a Bose sound system, the MSRP will ascend accordingly. As accomplished as the Trailblazer EXT is at hauling people and cargo, the enthusiast driver shopping in this general price-range will do well to look past the EXT's sheer utility and probably enjoy one of the more efficiently sized mid-size seven-seater SUVs such as the new Dodge Durango and Nissan Pathfinder, or the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer twins. Good News: Extremely generous cargo room, silky-smooth and quiet inline 6-cylinder engine, Suburban-like ride. Bad News: Long wheelbase limits maneuverability, inline 6-cylinder, although smooth and quiet, is overburdened by the EXT's weight, Suburban-like handling. Verdict: Lots of SUV for the money and a good value. However, most other mid-size entries sacrifice a bit of cargo room and third-seat comfort for a more enjoyable driving experience.

For more Chevrolet information, please go to www.chevrolet.com. SPECIFICATIONS Price: Base $28,770, as-tested $32,095 Engine Type: Vortec, 4.2-liter, inline 6-cylinder with variable-valve timing, double-overhead cams, 24-valves, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection. Horsepower: 275 @ 6,000 rpm Torque: 275 lb./ft. @ 3,600 rpm. 90% available from 1,600 to 5,600 rpm. Drive Configuration: Front engine/Rear-wheel drive with four/all-wheel drive transfer case. Transmission Type: Electronically-controlled Hydra-Matic 4-speed automatic w/overdrive. Suspension: Front: Independent Rear: Five-link with coil springs Wheels and tires: Front: 17-inch Sport aluminum with P245/65R-17 on-/off road blackwall Rear: 17-inch Sport aluminum with P245/65R-17 on-/off road blackwall Brakes: 4-Wheel Anti-Lock braking system Front: 12-inch disc Rear: 12.8-inch disc Dimensions: Overall length: 207.8 inches Overall width: 74.7 inches Overall height: 75.5 inches Curb weight: 4,954 lbs EPA mileage estimates City/Highway: 14/18

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