Our view: 1999 Chevrolet Tracker

In the automobile business, the term “redesigned” is often an exercise in dramatic hyperbole. It can mean reheated leftovers just as easily as fresh ingredients.

In the case of the redesigned 1999 Chevrolet Tracker, we aren’t talking about warmed-up turkey a la king. We are talking about fresh ingredients — and substantial product improvement.

The new Tracker is a markedly more refined and athletic small sport-utility vehicle. This means it has moved closer to the civility and driving feel of a car-derived minisport-ute such as the Honda CR-V, while retaining the superior off-road attributes of a truck-based ute. To a significant degree, it has achieved the best of both worlds in miniutedom.

The new four-door, four-wheel-drive model I tested was quieter and better-riding than the vehicle it replaced, and a good deal more powerful. The handling and steering were also noticeably improved.

The new Tracker’s cornering benefits from a 2.4-inch increase in its track, which provides a wider, more stable stance. Cornering stability is also augmented by a new rear-suspension design that features a lateral locating link. This link minimizes scuff change, which is the lateral movement of the body in relation to the suspension.

The replacement of the old recirculating ball steering gear with a rack-and-pinion mechanism has meant a welcome increase in steering feel.

The most dramatic performance improvement resides under the hood of the four-door model, where a new 2-liter, four-cylinder engine replaces the old 1.6-liter four-banger. The 127-horsepower, 2-liter engine is now standard in the four-door hardtop model and optional in the smaller, two-door clothtop. The 1.6-liter, 97-horse four is standard in the two-door.

The Tracker is a collaboration with Suzuki, which sells a very similar vehicle called the Vitara. Both the two- and four-door Trackers are offered with either two-or four-wheel drive.

The two-door, 2wd Tracker starts at $13,635. Adding 4wd to that vehicle tacks a mere $1,100 on the sticker ($14,735). The larger, more powerful four-door opens at $14,835 with 2wd, and also raises the ante $1,100 if you want 4wd ($15,935). You can spend more than $20,000 on a Tracker if you want to load up the four-door as heavily as the test vehicle.

The Chevy designers took a bigger role in styling this new Tracker, and that’s why the entry-level member of the Chevy ute clan bears a stronger family resemblance this time around. That Chevy styling is evident in the vehicle’s sculpted flanks, lower roof line and sporty contoured edges.

Speaking of exterior change, the new Tracker has a low-mounted outside spare to improve visibility, and a two-piece convertible top that lets you remove the whole top or just the rear section.

The interior of the new vehicle has been improved in a number of ways. First of all, the wider body that goes with that wider track means more hip room . (Chevy says you can now get three people in the back of the four-door, but that strikes me as something of a squeeze.)

I found the four-door a surprisingly pleasant driver. The new engine didn’t seem as harsh as the older one, the optional four-speed automatic transmission was reasonably smooth, the body was tight and quiet, and wind noise wasn’t pronounced enough to be annoying.

The four-door is a wonderful urban car for the same reason it’s an off-road ace: Because its mere 160-inch length makes it highly maneuverable.

Because its chief competitors — the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester — are also pretty stubby customers, the Tracker doesn’t have much of an off-road maneuverability edge on them. But it is a much better off-roader by virtue of its more rugged, truck-type ladder frame, and the fact that it has a low-range gear for really tough going.

The tester was even better suited for off-road use because it was fitted with protective id plates beneath the rock-vulnerable front differential and transfer case. For anyone going off-road, those plates are $75 well spent.

Base vehicle: Part-time four-wheel-drive with new shift-on-fly feature, 2-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission, power steering, disc/drum brakes, 15-inch steel wheels, P205/75R15 all-season radials, front air bags, daytime running lights, console, rear-seat heat ducts, passenger vanity mirror, stereo, clock, tachometer, intermittent wipers, stainless steel exhaust system, outside spare with cover, battery rundown protection, floor mats, child security locks, split-folding rear seat, rear-window defogger.

Test model: Four-speed automatic transmission, antilock braking system, rear window wiper/washer, cruise control, skid plates, tilt steering, upgraded stereo with cassette and CD players, roof rack, power windows, power mirrors, power door locks with keyless entry, air conditioning, alloy wheels.

Base price: $15,935.

Test model: $20,886 (inc. shipping).

EPA city rating: 23

Test mileage: 22

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, roadside assistance.

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