Does Chevrolet really need a bigger Blazer?

Perhaps, you should ask, does Chevy need a longer, wider, roomier, more comfortable Blazer with a more powerful, yet quieter V-6, and one that rides less harshly and handles more precisely–without loss of fuel economy?

Be hard-pressed to answer no, especially since for years consumers have been asking Chevy for a longer, wider, roomier, more powerful Blazer with less truck-like ride and handling.

Chevy responded to its customers by expanding its lineup to include a bigger SUV with the Blazer name, the 2002 Chevy TrailBlazer that arrives in showrooms in March.

TrailBlazer will be joined in weeks by the midsize 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada and GMC Envoy. All are four-door models. No midsize two doors will be offered.

With the arrival of the midsize sport-utes, the compact Olds Bravada and GMC Jimmy four-doors will be phased out. As noted, Chevy still will keep the compact size Blazer in two- and four-door versions as price leaders for budget-minded consumers and youth through 2003, though probably not after.

We tested the 2002 midsize TrailBlazer, which like Envoy and Bravada, is about 5 1/2 inches taller, 4 inches wider and 6 1/2 inches longer than the compact Blazer. Its wheelbase also is 6 inches longer than Blazer’s.

Those dimensions mean those who complained about being cramped in a Blazer can now boast about leg, head, knee and arm room and the ability to stretch in the cabin rather than sit sardine style.

And while four inches of added width does wonders for wiggle room for your body, it does even more to prevent wiggle or jiggle in the TrailBlazer body from its wider stance on the road. So not only do you enjoy more freedom in the cabin, you enjoy smoother ride, more sure-footed handling and the ability to sit flatter in turns and corners without pronounced lean or sway–of your body or TrailBlazer’s. You feel more in control of the machine.

The longer wheelbase and length also contribute to a roomier cabin as well as cargo space while helping smooth out the ride and handling from a larger footprint on the road.

TrailBlazer also sports a new 4.2-liter, inline 6-cylinder engine boasting 270 horsepower, up from 190 h.p. with the 4.3-liter V-6 in the compact Blazer. Acceleration off the line or down the merger ramp is much livelier and with less groan than from the 4.3-liter V-6.

Yet, Chevy boasts, the fuel-economy rating of the more potent 4.2-liter in-line 6 is the same as with the less powerful 4.3-liter–16 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway. Would have enjoyed the 4.2-liter even more if it got a couple more miles per gallon in city and highway driving.

But as Tony DiSalle, GMC Envoy brand manager, told us when providing a peek of the 2002 GMC Envoy a few months back, there was another motive in enlarging the GM compact SUVs to midsize dimensions–an attempt to counter consumer resistance t o SUVs if gas prices should skyrocket.

“The thinking was that a larger midsize model with a more fuel efficient in-line 6-cylinder engine might be a way to hedge if big SUVs with V-8s are hit with higher fuel prices,” he said. “It’s not that we anticipate fuel problems, but we wanted a plan in place in case it did.”

So, while TrailBlazer mileage might not remind you of that in, say, a subcompact Chevy Tracker, it will not haunt you like that of a full-size Tahoe or Suburban.

With TrailBlazer, Chevy is adopting a full-range SUV strategy, offering the subcompact Tracker, compact Blazer, midsize TrailBlazer and full-size Tahoe and Suburban.

Chevy also will add a longer version of TrailBlazer late this year or early next, a stretch to allow it to offer a third seat. GMC will get a longer version as well. Olds won’t. Ford will offer an optional third seat in its new larger, midsize 2002 Explorer sport-ute, one reason GM is doing so in its new midsize erings.

The compact Blazer is built on a 107-inch wheelbase and is 183.3 inches long. The stretch to midsize brings TrailBlazer to a 113-inch wheelbase and 191-inch overall length. The full-size Chevy Tahoe, by comparison, is built on a 116-inch wheelbase and is 198.8 inches long overall.

With the stretch coming to allow TrailBlazer to handle a third seat, it should be close enough in size to the Tahoe to raise the question of why keep Tahoe when whittling offerings is at the top of GM’s priority list.

Still to be determined is whether the stretched, three-seat SUV will be called TrailBlazer or get a different name.

TrailBlazer is offered in LS, LT and top-of-the-line LTZ versions in a choice of two-wheel- or four-wheel-drive with dial-up activation.

We tested the LTZ in 2WD form. While the 4WD version is the vehicle of choice for the Snow Belt, at least Chevy offers traction control as an option ($195) on all 2WD models–and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS as standard on all 2WD or 4WD models.

Noteworthy items on the TrailBlazer LTZ include three cupholders and two power plugs for front-seat occupants, two cupholders and one power plug for rear-seat occupants and two power plugs but no cupholders in the cargo hold.

The cargo hold gets a pair of hidden storage compartments in the sidewalls as well as another in the floor, plus a pullout shade to hide contents in the cargo hold–and the fact there are no cupholders back there.

The cargo hold is generous, but if you need even more room, the rear seat bottom cushions flip forward and the backs fold flat to increase stowage capacity. And when folding the seat backs, the headrests automatically flip out of the way so the seat fits snugly against the back of the front seat. Nice touch.

Other nice touches include dual-stage air bags front and side whose deployment speed is determined by speed of impact, and the answer to Blazer owners’ prayers–elimination of that infernal catalytic converter hump in the floor on the front passenger side so feet couldn’t be laid flat but could be melted by the converter underneath.

Other nice touches include turn signals under both outside mirrors as an added notice to motorists that you intend to change directions, and OnStar, GM’s emergency communications system that can be used to send for medical or mechanical help and which employs global positioning satellites to pinpoint your location.

One gripe: the hatchback window is fixed and doesn’t open separately to store small items in the cargo hold.

Another gripe: The LTZ comes with leather seats whose backs are rather flat and not well curved, which means minimal side bolster support.

Base price of the 2WD LTZ is $31,505 ($33,730 with 4WD). It comes with so much standard equipment–and for $31,505 it should–that about the only option needed is traction control. The LS starts at $25,155 with 2WD, $27 ,380 with 4WD; the LT at $28,515 with 2WD, $30,740 with 4WD. Add $600 freight on all models.

Standard equipment on the LTZ includes air conditioning; power locks/windows/mirrors/driver seat; tilt wheel; cruise control; fog lamps; AM/FM stereo with CD player, auto-search cassette and speed-sensitive volume control; 17-inch, all-season, radial tires (16 on LS and LT); tinted windows; rain-sensing wipers; remote keyless entry; 6,400-pound trailer-towing capacity (6,200 pounds with 4WD); and 18-gallon gas tank.

One item not on the test vehicle was optional power sunroof at $800, which we would get for two reasons–it helps circulate the air without having to open windows or turn on the climate control, and it eliminates the overhead eyeglass/garage-door opener containers in the roof that, while helpful, are just too darn big.

Anyone who needs that big of a case to hold the eyeglasses is probably legally blind and should be taking public transportation tobg n with, and anybody with that big of a garage would have a dozen gas pumps out front and certainly not need an opener.