Orlando Sentinel's view

General Motors had a lot riding on the new-for-2002 midsized sport utility vehicle models, and by all accounts, the company is pleased with the results.

It had better be. What began its product cycle as the five-passenger, six-cylinder Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada has expanded from those triplets. Dramatically. And the expansion continues.

First came extended versions of the TrailBlazer and Envoy, capable of seating seven. Then they received a V-8 option, starring the corporate 5.3-liter engine from the full-sized pickup line. Then Isuzu got a version called the Ascender, to replace its flagship Trooper.

Chevrolet has just begun production of the SSR, a sport roadster/pickup truck combination based on the TrailBlazer platform. Next comes the Envoy XUV, which has an innovative rear roof that actually retracts, allowing for pickup like room in the back. And for 2004, we’ll see the Buick Rainier, which will be Buick’s first genuine SUV. There’s even more in the future product mix.

The top seller throughout all this has been the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, – appropriately named, given the product trails it blazed.

The test model is a pretty basic example, powered by the 4.2-liter six-cylinder engine. This is a remarkably well-designed, well-conceived power plant, with one drawback: It isn’t a V-8. Though it pumps out a whopping 275 horsepower, customers had to be convinced that it could match the Ford Explorer’s 4.6-liter V-8, though it has only 239 horsepower, and the Dodge Durango’s 4.7-liter V-8, which has just 235 horsepower.

GM took a chance with the TrailBlazer’s engine design, which is an inline six-cylinder instead of a V-6, meaning all six cylinders are in a straight line, rather than three on one side, three on the other. Not many companies build inline six-cylinder gasoline engines anymore, but one that does: BMW. And you don’t hear many complaints about BMW engines.

Even so, you can get the 5.3-liter V-8 in the extended TrailBlazer, though it’s only 20 more horsepower than the six-cylinder. Unless you plan to tow more than 5,000 pounds regularly, or just have to have a V-8, save your money. In the case of the TrailBlazer EXT, that’s $1,500 and a drop in EPA-rated fuel mileage from 16 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway, to 15 and 19. With either engine, you get a four-speed automatic transmission.

The test TrailBlazer was the base LS model, though options rose it to the level, and almost to the price, of the mid-range LT. The LTZ is the top of the line. Even so, our LS was no stripper, with full power accessories, air conditioning, antilock disc brakes, a stereo with a CD player and alloy wheels. Options included a trailer hitch and wiring harness, remote entry with an alarm, cruise control and several other features. Those, plus $650 in shipping, raised the $26,895 base price to $28,782. That’s comparable to the Durango and Explorer with similar equipment.

If you need that third seat, though, you’ll pay for it, as the extended TrailBlazer starts at $29,995. I am not a particular fan of the extended model – the added length affects handling, giving the vehicle a slight tail-heavy feel. Some of my colleagues disagree, but I’ve driven several extended models, all of which felt tail-heavy.

The regular-length TrailBlazer, like the test model, doesn’t. Handling is pretty good, though the soft suspension allows more body lean than I like, and the ride feels a little floaty on the highway. The sensation isn’t unpleasant or dangerous, but the ride isn’t as good as the Explorer, which benefits considerably from its newer independent rear suspension. I like the TrailBlazer’s engines, and the Explorer’s chassis. To me, it’s a wash.

Inside, there’s little to fault on the TrailBlazer. Instruments and controls are well-placed. The cloth-covered front seats are comfortable even on extended drives. Rear seat room is good for two adults, acceptable for three.

If you want four-wheel-drive on the TrailBlazer LS, add $2,250, and subtract a little more from the EPA-rated fuel mileage. It’s a good system, though, operated at the twist of a dial. Electronic traction control is available on all the rear-wheel-drive TrailBlazers except for the LS model. It’s worth the money.

Though neither fancy nor flashy, the TrailBlazer LS feels substantial, more of a silent companion than a four-wheeled diversion. Given the GM models the TrailBlazer is spawning, it’s obvious they’re built on a solid foundation.

Base price: $26,895.

Price as tested: $28,782.

EPA rating: 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway.

Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive SUV with a 4.2-liter, 275-horsepower six-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission

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