The original sport-utility vehicle, the Second World War Jeep, was designed to operate off the road. The civilian sport-utes that followed also were built to go where the roads weren't -- and were purchased by people who wanted to go there. Gradually, however, the sport-ute has been co-opted by suburbanites who could care less about off-road prowess. What they want from the ute is "on-road" traction, big wagon roominess, car-like comfort and operation, a rugged image and social cachet. And that's what the automakers have given them -- often at the expense of off-road athleticism. The modern sport-ute is typically lower, larger and heavier than it used to be. Those attributes maximize on-road convenience and comfort -- but do violence to off-road effectiveness. Because fewer than 10 percent of sport-ute owners ever take their machomobiles beyond the macadam, the big, comfortable ute makes perfect sense. But building a machine for that 5 percent to 10 percent of the market that does go off road makes sense, too. After all, a 5 percent to 10 percent slice of the million-vehicle ute pie is something approaching 100,000 sales, and that's a mouthwatering number in the brutally competitive auto industry. And that's why Chevrolet offers a marvelous off-roader called the Blazer ZR2. The ZR2 is a two-door, four-wheel-drive Blazer that has been equipped with a special, $1,850 off-road package. And when you put all that serious off-road hardware on a muscular four-wheeler that's pretty good to begin with, you wind up with one heck of a rock hopper. The ZR2 package is available only on the two-door because this model is better suited to off-road use than the four-door Blazer. Being 6.5 inches shorter than the four-door means it is more maneuverable in tight off-road situations. Being 172 pounds lighter makes it less likely to bog down in the muck. The package starts with a special frame that is stronger and wider than the standard one. This heavy-duty structure is less vulnerable to damage and allows a 4-inch-wider track, which makes the vehicle less likely to tip over in hairy settings. (The wider track also necessitates the use of fender flares.) The ZR2 hardware also includes stiffer springs and shock absorbers for better off-road control, skid plates to protect the drivetrain and other vulnerable components from rock damage, and mammoth, all-terrain tires for superior traction and greater ground clearance. Most sport-utes are equipped with conventional all-season radials because they are quiet and nice riding. But those tires don't afford nearly as much traction as the on/off-road rubber on the ZR2. And because these all-terrains are so huge (31X10.5/15LT), they raise the vehicle's ground clearance several inches, making it less likely to bottom out on the trail. Given all this special equipment, I wasn't surprised by the Blazer's considerable off-road talents. What did surprise me was the way the vehicle behaved on the road. Tire noise wasn't bad, and the stiffened suspension, while firm, was hardly uncomfortable. The ZR2, like the rest of the Blazer lineup, has been restyled inside and out for 1998. A fresh front end treatment has given the Blazer a bolder look. The flanks and back of the vehicle have been spruced up with redesigned side body moldings and a new integral rear step bumper. The interior also received an extensive makeover, including a redesigned instrument panel and front buckets. Not all the Blazer's revisions have been pure sizzle. Chevy also has been grilling some substantial safety steaks. These include installing a passenger-side air bag and making four-wheel disc brakes standard on all models. (Antilock braking is already a standard Blazer feature.) Powered by a 4.3-liter, 190-horsepower V-6, the Blazer ZR2 is, finally, a powerful, comfortable and competent machine that has the right stuff both on ro and off. It's also a good value. The base price of the well-equipped tester, including the ZR2 package, was $25,501. SPECS
Base vehicle: Part-time four-wheel-drive, 4.3-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission, power steering, power disc brakes, antilock braking system, 15-inch alloy wheels, 31X10.5/15LT all-terrain tires, special frame, heavy-duty springs and shock absorbers, skid plates, front air bags, daytime running lights, air conditioning, stereo, step bumper. Test model: Locking differential, outside spare, cargo cover, stereo with CD, speed control, power windows, door locks and outside roof rack, keyless entry, power driver's seat. Base price: $25,501 Test model: $28,686 (inc. shipping) EPA city rating: 14 Test mileage: 16 Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, roadside service, courtesy transportation for warranty work.
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