With gasoline prices hovering at $3 a gallon, this may not be the best time for Chevrolet to cram a big 6.0-liter V-8 engine into its midsize sport ute, but there's no denying that the TrailBlazer SS makes the trip from gas station to gas station pretty entertaining. We averaged 13.2 mpg. In a word: ouch.

Introduced in 2002, the TrailBlazer first was offered with a 4.2-liter six-cylinder, then a 5.3-liter V-8, and finally this 6.0-liter V-8, not that much different from the engine found in the Chevrolet Corvette and Pontiac GTO. It's mated to the beefy 4L70-E automatic transmission, which is just a four-speed, but with the kind of power this engine makes, the number of gears is academic.

The engine isn't all with the SS: You also get a lowered, sport-tuned suspension, big 20-inch tires and wheels, and interior and exterior trim that set it apart from the other, lesser TrailBlazers.

The SS is the regular-length TrailBlazer, rather than the extended version with three rows of seats. That's fine, because that version of the TrailBlazer is not a personal favorite. If you really need three rows of seats, the new Tahoe is a better choice.

But if five passengers is plenty, the SS is a competent, albeit thirsty, carpooler on weekdays. Also, it is more than willing to make a trip to the drag strip on weekends. Inside, the leather upholstery is nicely executed, and as in all TrailBlazers, the instruments and controls are well-placed. Despite the sports suspension, the SS rides smoothly, even on rough roads, and handling is excellent for an SUV.

Outside, the SS trim is subtle enough to keep from embarrassing drivers of a certain age but still advertises, quietly, that this is something special. The SS is offered only in white, black, silver or blue, and the black test model looked as though it meant business.

Which it does. The pushrod 6.0-liter V-8 may not be as sophisticated as some newer-design V-8s, but it is a superb engine -- smooth and fast, with linear power that just feels right. The TrailBlazer isn't quite as exciting as its central competition, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, but it's close, and it's cheaper.

It isn't, however, cheap. Base price of a rear-wheel-drive TrailBlazer LT (the SS is offered in four-wheel drive, but our tester was rear-drive) is $26,715. Add the SS package ($5,270) and a few other options, and the bottom line is $36,605, which -- given the capability -- isn't bad. Stability control and anti-lock brakes are standard; side-curtain air bags are an option.

General Motors sells this same basic SUV as the GMC Envoy, Buick Rendezvous, Saab 9-7X and Isuzu Ascender, but if you want the hot-rod version, you have to get the TrailBlazer.

Selected video versions of Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith's road tests can be viewed online at OrlandoSentinel.com/classified/automotive.

Base price: $26,715.

Price as tested: $36,605.

EPA rating: 15 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.

Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive SUV with a 6.0-liter, 395-horsepower V-8, and a 4-speed, automatic transmission