EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

The Ford Explorer and the Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee have pretty much had the sport-utility vehicle market to themselves for the past two years.

Chevy was late to the market with a four-door version of the Blazer. And when it did arrive, it sported boxy styling and a utilitarian interior that looked like it came from the 1960s instead of the ’90s.

Buyers turned away.

As parent company General Motors emerges from one of the worst financial performances in American industrial history, Chevy – the company’s high-profit, high-volume division – is in a rebuilding mode.

Starting this summer with the 1995 Lumina, Monte Carlo and the 1994 Impala SS, Chevy is overhauling just about every vehicle in its lineup.

Along with a new Geo Metro and Cavalier, an all-new Blazer is making its first appearance for 1995.

And Ford and Chrysler now have a very credible third competitor to worry about.

In terms of price, performance, equipment and styling, the new Blazer is right on the money when compared with Ford and Jeep products.

Note: Chevy is no longer using the S prefix for its compact Blazer, this week’s test vehicle. It’s just Blazer. Also, Chevy’s full-size K-Blazer has been renamed the Tahoe.

PERFORMANCE

Chevy engineers did some fine tuning on the Blazer’s 4.3-liter V-6. This year, horsepower is up to a robust 195 from a 165 horsepower. In comparison, the Explorer has a 160-horsepower V-6 and the Jeep has a 190-horsepower straight six.

Touching the accelerator provokes instant response from the smooth-running V-6. Our test vehicle, which came with GM’s superb new 4L60-E computerized automatic transmission, delivered delightful performance in city and highway driving.

It can bolt to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, which is excellent for a 3,800-pound sport-utility vehicle.

Another big improvement is the refinement of the drivetrain. Gone is the howling noise from the radiator fan as the engine winds up. Gone is the sometimes abrupt shifts under heavy throttle.

Our test vehicle, a two-door model with four-wheel drive, proved to be a real workhorse. I took it off-road and drove it through thick sand, and found that it will take a lot more than mud, soft sand and steep hills to stop this vehicle. A shifter on the floor lets you engage the four-wheel-drive system by reaching slightly forward and pulling back on a shifter.

With the engine driving all four wheels, performance drops slightly and you hear a bit of gear noise from the transfer case, but the Blazer takes on a different attitude.

HANDLING

Our two-door test Blazer had excellent road manners, but I imagine the four-door version with its seven-inch-longer wheelbase rides and handles even better.

The welded steel frame makes a solid foundation for the front independent and rear leaf-spring suspension. Most average-size bumps – on road and off – are tamed without the body rocking and rolling.

The power-assisted steering has a smooth, firm feel and offers good response. There is little play in the system, and when you are driving off-road you don’t feel bumps and vibrations through the steering column.

I’m not sure about the brakes. All Blazers are equipped with four-wheel anti-lock front disc/rear drum brakes. They stop the vehicle quickly – until the anti-lock system engages.

Anti-lock brakes are not designed to make the vehicle stop faster. Rather, they prevent the wheels from locking up, and allows the driver to steer the vehicle under full-braking conditions.

The ABS system in our test vehicle seemed to engage too soon – seeming to lengthen by a wide margin the distance it took for the Blazer to come to a complete stop. Most vehicles I’ve tested with ABS, allow the brakes to grab a bit harder before the system engages.

FIT AND FINISH

The best part of the new Blazer is not the drivetrain or its excellent handling a ility.

It’s the interior, the area where last year’s model really showed how out of date and out of touch Chevy’s compact sport-utility had become.

Chevy’s interior designers may not have broken any new ground in styling the Blazer’s user-friendly interior, but they have put Chevy’s compact sport-utility vehicle on a level playing field with the competition.

Some of the things that make the new Blazer better than the old include a superb set of well-padded and nicely styled cloth bucket seats, lighted switches for the windows, mirrors and door locks, a powerful new Delco radio with big, well-marked switches and a newly designed dash that places all controls within easy reach.

There’s also a driver’s side air bag.

The old switch and lever controls for the air conditioner have been replaced with easy-to-use rotary knobs. The Blazer’s analog gauges are typical Chevy – white numbers on a black background with orange needles. They are simple and effective.

Average-sized rear seat passengers will find that the Blazer offers decent head room and shoulder room, but foot room might be a bit tight if the driver and passenger adjust their seats very far back on the track.

The four-door Blazer, with its longer wheelbase, might be the vehicle to opt for if you will be transporting more than one passenger, because it has more room for rear passengers.

The spare tire is mounted on a swing-away holder outside the rear tailgate. Chevy has made opening the tailgate a fairly painless process – all you do is pull a trigger-like device near the spare tire and swing it away from the body. But the spare tire not only is unsightly, it is mounted so high that it blocks rear vision. This isn’t a problem on the four-door model, because the spare is mounted underneath the vehicle.

If you’ve thought about a sport-utility vehicle, the new Blazer is one that should definitely be added to your test-drive list.

It is a solid, nicely designed, well-built and attractive vehicle that delivers excellent value for the money.

Specifications:

1995 Chevy Blazer two-door Base price: $20,390 EPA rating: 17 mpg city/22 highway Price as tested: $23,599 Incentives: None

Truett’s tip: The all-new Blazer puts Chevy right back in the fast lane along with the Ford Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Blazer is a good-looking, powerful and comfortable sport-utility vehicle.

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