F. Scott Fitzgerald was right on the money when it came to money. The very rich, he said, are different from you and me.

They’ll pay $36,060 for a ride in a weekend toy, a suburban jaunt to the shopping mall or a giant misnomer. The all-new 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer is all three. And that’s not a cheap shot.

Before we dissect what is good and bad about America’s newest SUV, let’s understand this: Anyone who wants a TrailBlazer, buys a TrailBlazer or can afford a TrailBlazer probably won’t do much trail blazing. It’s too cushy, too cozy and just too posh. It’s hardly the bouncy suspension, cramped interior or old-world engine that we used to loathe about GM’s midsize Blazer.

This is whole new level for a midsize sport-ute that could hardly see over the competition’s steering wheel. This is a whole new trail to blaze. This is a Blazer that’s close to 40 grand!

And that’s rich.

Geared for a whole new market and a brand-new set of buyers, the new TrailBlazer does a lot of things right by doing what the old could never dream of. Fully redesigned for ’02, the new TrailBlazer sports a longer, wider and noticeably stiffer chassis, a fresh-out-the-box engine, and a more refined suspension that will have you handling the road instead of falling off it.

Apparently, competition is good.

Long an after-thought when it came to Explorer comparisons, the high-end TrailBlazer LTZ 4×4 moves light years ahead in the battle for the all-mighty SUV dollar, a greenback that’s being stretched farther than Rubbermaid. And it’s not a bad first attempt.

The TrailBlazer won’t give you seating for seven with a third row bench seat (although a long-wheelbase, seven-passenger version is coming next year as an ’03), but it will give you an impressive in-line six-cylinder engine, sharp styling and decent fuel economy. It won’t give you the smoothest ride over rough pavement, but it will give you more creature comforts.

Starting from the outside-in, it’s obvious the path is a new one.

Available in three trim levels – LS, LT and LTZ – but only in four doors, all TrailBlazers come wellequipped and with standard equipment that’s ready to compete. What’s standard underneath is even better. Like the new GMC Envoy and Olds Bravada, the TrailBlazer is about 5 1/2 inches taller, 4 inches wider, 6 1/2 inches longer and 6 inches stretched in its wheelbase than its predecessor. What that means is more head, leg and shoulder room and less chance for overcrowding.

A technical note: The revised suspension consists of dual A-arms with coilover shocks in front and a solid axle five-link system in the back.

In layman’s terms: A better ride – kind of. Generally, those kind of improvements mean less sway in corners and a tighter ride with a flatter stance. But the TrailBlazer is still top-heavy around tight bends and you’ve got to fight the urge to fight the wheel around a corner. It’s also hampered by that solid rear axl e, which means you feel every bump in the road because the back wheels can’t adjust on their own. But it’s better. Wind and road noise are a little higher than you’d expect, but cruising comfort is top-notch.

And you will cruise. The newly introduced, all-aluminum 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder replaces that old 4.3-liter V-6 and gushes out 270 horsepower and 275 foot-pounds of torque, up from 190 horses – not to mention more power now than most V-8s – and a respectable towing ability of 6,400 pounds. And that’s a standard engine that gives Chevy a whole new standard in highway merging and lane changes.

What’s also an improvement is the interior room. A longer and wider chassis means more space, which means more stuff room. Five people can sit comfortably in the TrailBlazer and, though it’s still not a threerow seven-seater like the high-end Explorer ($670 option), it does have more rear-cargo room for luggage, groceries, shopping bags, whatever. Remember, those third-row ats eat up room.

Inside, although things are comfortable, they’re also not flashy or unique. What GM does with its interior still needs an upgrade. The controls, display and interior design is redesigned but still rather vanilla. Sure, the leather seats and heated seat backs are a welcome option, as are the rear audio/climate controls and a steering wheel that controlled everything from the fan to the radio. It just wasn’t overly dynamic.

Functional, yes. Unique? no. I got the sense I could be sitting in any Chevy, instead of an eye-catching head-turner.

On the outside, it’s a different story. The angular sheetmetal and body touch-ups are a sight for sore eyes. This is a dashing, eyebrowarching ride that draws as much attention as any Chevy on the road.

On fuel economy, the TrailBlazer was a pleasant surprise, especially with the more fuel-efficient inline six. It’s not as good as the subcompact Tracker, but it’s also not a Tahoe. Over 385 miles, it averaged 17.5 miles per gallon in the city and better than 20 on the highway.

A couple of nice touches: Cupholders and power plugs (nine of them in all), turn signals under both outside mirrors to alert other drivers of a direction change and hidden compartments in the cargo area.

A couple of knocks: Front seats are tough to adjust and get comfortable in, and the hatchback window doesn’t open on its own.

But maybe price was our biggest knock. Although only about $2,000 more than a 2002 Explorer XLT 4×4 and $3,000 more than a Durango, it didn’t seem right that the TrailBlazer asked for that kind of coin.

Yes, there is class-leading power, plenty of room for five and an offroad worthy suspension. But the steering is still too loose – even with a new rack-and-pinion setup that replaces the old reciprocating ball setup – and the generic interior was (dare we say?) boring.

Then there’s the whole issue of paying 36k for a TrailBlazer, then not TrailBlazing. People who buy trucks that start at $31,470 usually are found off-roading to the mall, not a mountain. And with most of the creature comforts associated with this one, the only mountain might be a pile of snow on some winter night.

Is it worth it? It’s your trail to blaze.

Jason Stein’s column appears every Monday in Business. Each review is based on a one-week test of a vehicle supplied directly from the manufacturer. Jason can be reached by e-mail at jstein@jg.net.


Rating: 3

High Gear: Not the Blazer you remember, the new TrailBlazer scorches a trail that includes more cargo room, a more refined engine, upgraded styling and safety that will have you forgetting the previous models.

Low Gear: The step up in style means a hike in price – about 36k in the highest trim level. Also, soft steering and an interior that still could use a spruce are noticeable drawbacks.

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel-drive, front engine, four-door, five-passenger midsize sport-utility vehicle.

Standard equipment (LS): Four-speed automatic transmission; power disc brakes; antilock braking system; power steering; air bags; daytime running lights; climate control; stereo/CD audio system; front tow hooks; leather seats; power front seats; slpit/fold rear seat; theft-deterrent system; power doors; keyless entry; power windows, mirrors.

Competition: Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Toyota 4Runner

Engine: 270 horsepower, 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder

Torque: 275 foot-lbs. @ 3,600 rpm

Wheelbase: 113 inches

Length: 191.8 inches

MPG rating: 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway

Manufactured: Moraine, Ohio

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles and roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price (LS, 2WD): $25,155

Price as tested (LTZ model, including options, destination an e ivery): $36,060