A nip and a tuck.

Sometimes that’s all it takes. A few minor tweaks to convert dull to delightful.

The 2001 Chevrolet Tracker is a prime example.

By now you’re familiar with the fact Tracker is one of those joint-venture vehicles in the GM stable, an offshoot first of the Suzuki Sidekick, just like Chevy Prizm is an offshoot of the Toyota Corolla.

Tracker plodded along in virtual obscurity after arriving in the 1989 model year with a Geo prefix (dropped in 1998) to advise it was an import and not U.S. made.

For 1999 Suzuki redesigned and re-engineered Sidekick and renamed it Vitara and continued supplying Chevy with a Tracker version.

The ’99 remake transformed Tracker from a tin can on wheels that shimmied when you closed the door into a more solid and civil machine.

But in giving Chevy an updated sport-utility vehicle, Suzuki left a key ingredient out of the recipe, providing it with only the 2-liter, 127-horsepower 4-cylinder in Vitara, not the 2.5-liter, 155-h.p. V-6 under the hood of its Grand Vitara.

For 2001 the wrong has been righted and Tracker now offers the same V-6 that powers the Grand Vitara, though some will argue, with justification, that the V-6 underpowers Tracker and Grand Vitara.

Chevy changed transmission shift points in first and second gear, and added a larger, less restrictive exhaust and advanced engine spark timing to coax some more energy out of the V-6, but don’t expect a rocket. The V-6 could use a few more horses for hauling a cabin full of people and their possessions or traveling over steep, hilly roads.

The V-6 was a much-needed nip for Tracker, but Chevy provided its own tuck by adding two new models for 2001, an upscale four-door LT with two- or four-wheel-drive and a sporty four-door ZR2 for off-roading with 4WD only. LT and ZR2 are the only Trackers offering the V-6–and only with 4-speed automatic.

We tested the 2001 Tracker LT, or what some may refer to as a cute-ute in that it comes with running boards like many of the giant SUVs plying the roads today.

Running boards on a subcompact sport-ute?

Big deal. Like adding one more cupholder, don’t you think?

The running boards are a big deal, cute little steps that complement the thick plastic lower-body cladding designed to prevent road debris from leaving pock marks on the sheet metal.

Those steps aren’t needed to help anyone other than a toddler get into or out of this four-door sport-ute because it’s low slung even with 4WD hardware.

But those steps (Suzuki doesn’t get them) are an attractive and eye-catching touch to a machine that for too long has been known for its size and not its style. Suddenly, the invisible Tracker stands out in the growing crowd of small SUVs.

Oh, and can’t forget one other nip–or is it a tuck? The front end has been redesigned to more closely resemble a Chevy truck, not a Suzuki hand-out. T hick chrome strips surround headlamps and grille, to which the Chevy bow-tie logo is bolted. With that simple styling change, Tracker will now be included in Chevy “like a rock” commercials for the first time.

Visually Tracker is a far more pleasant package, but it still tends to behave like a small sport-ute. Even with extra insulation, some engine and tire noise filters into the cabin, though the tires tend to quiet after warming up.

But the 15-inch all-season radials provide good lateral grip, as we found in a panic braking/quick-steering avoidance maneuver when a car ventured from a side road into our path. When not trying to avoid kissing a coupe at 45 m.p.h., you may notice some body lean in tight corners that you otherwise wouldn’t. But thanks to Tracker’s low center of gravity, there’s none of that more unsettling wobble.

Tracker is a machine for those who want 4WD for the Snow Belt without assuming $30,000 to $50,000 in debt. And the y want a vehicle that fits in the garage or between the lines in the parking lot with room left over.

Before the ’99 redesign, Tracker sales were about 25,000 units annually. After the redesign sales swelled to about 40,000 units. With the addition of the LT and ZR2 four-doors, sales are expected to top 50,000 annually, said Phil Carlisle, assistant brand manager for Tracker.

“The small SUV segment has ignited in recent years. Five years ago it was estimated small SUVs would account for sales of 400,000 units by 2000, yet they account for sales of 500,000 units now and are estimated to go to 1 million units by 2005,” he said.

“Tracker is important to us because it attracts younger buyers and because most Tracker buyers aspire to eventually move up to a Blazer,” he added.

Contrary to popular opinion, the reason consumers buy small SUVs is not to enjoy better mileage than in a big SUV, Carlisle said.

“The No. 1 reason they give for buying is to have 4WD for inclement weather. Price is the No. 2 reason given and while mileage is considered, it’s in the back of buyers’ minds,” Carlisle said.

Saturn has announced it will add a small sport-ute for the 2002 model year, and Pontiac will add a small SUV hybrid for 2003 called Vibe, giving Tracker some competition from its own GM family.

“We have different customers than Saturn. They go for import buyers, we go for the 18- to 34-year-old domestic buyers. And the Pontiac is more of a car-based hybrid while we are truck based, so we’ll both have a different look. But better to rob sales from among ourselves than to lose a sale to the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V,” Carlisle said.

There’s a rumor that although Tracker is still in GM’s product plan through at least 2003, it will be phased out or replaced as GM redoes its small-vehicle lineup over the next four years. No comment from Carlisle.

As for the new Tracker LT, it comes with a rear swing-out door with enclosed spare tire mounted on it. Chevy was going to leave the tire without a cover, but common sense prevailed.

When opened, the door exposes a soft vinyl cargo cover rather than a hard cover to hide contents below. Chevy says a hard cover is difficult to store when not in use, akin to trying to place the proverbial square peg in a round hole. The soft cover folds up like a towel when not needed. Still, the cover looks and feels cheap.

On the plus side, you can increase cargo capacity by flipping the rear seat back and bottom over against front seat back to create a flat floor inside. Plenty of storage room.

As for rear cabin people room, there’s ample space for arms and heads, but adults in back probably will find knees touching the backs of the front seats.

It would be nice if the rear doors opened wider to prevent contact with the dirt and snow sure to be trapped along the wheel wells that partially block movement in or out.

And while dual sunvisors block glare front and side, a nicer touch would have been to copy what Saturn did on its new midsize sedan and surround the glass around the rearview mirror with a black dot matrix to keep the sun from popping through there.

The 2001 Tracker LT starts at $21,230. Standard equipment includes air conditioning and AM/FM with cassette (standard in all Trackers for 2001); accessory power plug; huge outside power mirrors (but not breakaways as on the Grand Vitara, though Chevy said the breakaways whistle in the wind); luggage rack (use the running boards to load it); rear window washer/wiper/defroster; power windows/locks; and remote keyless entry.

Anti-lock brakes and leather seats are the only LT options, both at $595. No sunroof, unless you opt for a dealer-installed.

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