Our neighbors recently took delivery of a new 2002 Ford Explorer. Its maiden voyage was a family vacation to northern Michigan. He was thrilled with the Explorer’s ride, saying the sensation was like “traveling in your living room.” She likes the new SUV, but criticized its cloth upholstery – which attracts lots of lint and requires lots of vacuuming.

We were grateful for their informal driveway input that July night because we were in the midst of pitting Ford’s best-seller against a formidable foe – the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer, a new mid-size SUV that goes head-to-head with the redesigned Explorer.

Both of us had been in and out of these popular sport-utes since November. This was our first chance to evaluate them at the same time on our home turf and pick a winner.

Both vehicles are top-of-the-line versions of what consumers generally regard as bread-and-butter SUVs – family vehicles that do everything from school carpool duty to weekend off-roading.

Facing off were a 2002 TrailBlazer LTZ 4×4 with a sticker price of $36,060 and a 2002 Explorer XLT 4×4 that cost $34,255. Even though they’re in the same segment, you can’t get identically equipped versions of the two. The Explorer seats up to seven with an optional $670 third row, while the TrailBlazer only seats five. The Explorer also has an optional V-8 engine, something you can’t get in a TrailBlazer. But we came to discover that is not a critical distinction.

We found only a few areas that were a virtual draw: Both have four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, air conditioning and standard audio systems with CD players. But the list of differences is striking, including items like styling, fuel economy, suspension, ride and handling, and engine power. We won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The upstart TrailBlazer beat out the popular Explorer in our home-style test. Here’s why:

Styling

TrailBlazer is the clear winner in the styling category.

Anita described it as having a “more expressive face with a bit of the ‘evil eyebrows’ or slightly angled headlights that we’ve come to associate with the new macho Chevrolet Avalanche.” The squared-off wheel arches on the TrailBlazer seem to emphasize its truck heritage and the body sides have some interesting lines. Ditto the Chevy’s bug-eye taillights, which look similar to those on the new Jeep Liberty.

In contrast, the Explorer seems somewhat timid, like designers copied the old version out of fear of turning off longtime buyers. Paul said the new Explorer “looks deliberately conservative, like an overgrown Escape,” the smaller sibling in the Ford SUV lineup. We both thought the rounded wheel arches on the Explorer looked too much like the ones you’d find on a minivan, but we liked the squared-off, chunky door handles and would pay the extra $395 for the substantial and practical running boards. The new Explorer’s body sides are disappointing-looking slabs with no character.

Creature comforts

The upscale TrailBlazer’s cabin won out on creature comforts, too.

Standard equipment on the LTZ model included leather-trimmed seats, along with audio and climate controls for the rear-seat passengers. The steering wheel on the TrailBlazer is loaded up with controls for everything from the fan and temperature to the radio. At first it seemed like sensory overload, but it becomes second nature pretty quickly and helps you keep your eyes on the road. We were impressed with the $250 heated front seats, which also warmed the seat back.

The Explorer had no rear audio controls and came with nubby cloth seats. The cabin had a more Spartan look and feel compared with the TrailBlazer. Paul complained about the workmanship in the Explorer’s cabin, noting “sloppy trim around the steering wheel and console.”

Both had easy-to-use four-wheel-drive systems. The Explorer had a push-button system, while the TrailBlazer had a rotary dial to engage th ur-wheel-drive.

Safety

A bit of a tough call, but we gave it to the Chevy on the basis of its standard safety features, including side air bags and one-year standard On-Star service on the LTZ model which links you with a human in case of an emergency. The Explorer does have some terrific safety-related options, including adjustable pedals, a $255 reverse-sensing system and $495 side curtain air bags.

Engine

At a glance, you might give the edge to the Explorer, with its optional 4.6-liter single-overhead-cam V-8 that adds another $695 to the price. It is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The V-8 makes 240 horsepower and 280 pounds feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

But Chevy provides the TrailBlazer with an impressive new inline six-cylinder engine that makes 270 horsepower and 275 pounds feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. It was a solid performer, especially when merging or making lane changes at highway speeds. And you won’t have to pay extra for that power – it’s standard equipment. The TrailBlazer’s I-6 is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

Fuel economy

The TrailBlazer wins by a hair in this category. It gets 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 on the highway. The Explorer V-8 gets 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 miles per gallon on the highway.

Ride and handling

As our neighbor suggested, the Explorer is a great cruising vehicle, especially with its new independent rear suspension. We gave it the edge in this category, especially on rough pavement where you really notice the difference in ride comfort.

The TrailBlazer is hampered by a solid rear axle, which means the rear tires do not move independently and therefore you tend to feel every bump in the road. The standard all-terrain 17-inch wheels and tires on the LTZ model don’t tend to help with the bouncy ride. And we both noted lots of wind and road noise with the TrailBlazer. The Explorer has standard 16-inch tires.

Seating/cargo capacity

We realize that if you have a large family or must haul lots of passengers, the Explorer is your only real choice. But also keep in mind that optional third-row seat eats up a lot of cargo area. TrailBlazer has more room in the rear for groceries, shopping bags, luggage or whatever you need to haul.

To sum up: Both the SUVs we tested are valiant performers. But if you’re a longtime Ford buyer, you might want to take a look at TrailBlazer. It’s one impressive new competitor.

TrailBlazer vs. Explorer

* Styling: TrailBlazer

* Creature Comforts: TrailBlazer

* Engine Power: TrailBlazer

* Fuel Economy: TrailBlazer

* Ride & Handling: Explorer

* Safety: TrailBlazer

* Seating Capacity: Explorer

* Cargo Capacity: TrailBlazer