EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Longtime lovers of the Chevrolet Blazer will notice that 1998 continues a trend that began several years ago; the Blazer is becoming softer and more car-like with each generation. That’s good, especially when lots of the competition cuddles you with heated seats, CD players and the like. However, the redesigned Blazer we drove seems to have forgotten its roots as a solid, well-screwed-together value package. Or do we just have a black cloud hovering over our heads?

He: Say the words “sport-utility” to most people, and I’ll bet they think immediately of the Ford Explorer or the Jeep Grand Cherokee. And yet the Blazer was one of the pioneers in the modern sport-ute field, dating back to 1983. The 1998 edition has been extensively reworked inside and out, and there are some dramatic improvements that make this Blazer one of the best and most desirable ever. I guess that’s why I feel so disappointed at the shoddy assembly quality of the vehicle we drove. This is the second new General Motors vehicle we’ve tested in the past few months that had some serious flaws with interior trim.

She: Before we tell you about those flaws, let me say the heart of this problem is one of expectation. We’ve owned a Blazer. And our expectation, when we bought it, was that it was going to be solidly constructed, mechanically sound and a super value. We didn’t expect lots of extras or amenities. It’s like when I bought my Kenmore sewing machine. I paid $150 for it two years ago, and I knew it would sew in a straight line and do basic button holes. I wasn’t expecting it to act like a $2,000 Bernina that customizes a button hole when you hold the button up to a special panel. Likewise, I expected the new Blazer to be screwed down tight – and it wasn’t.

He: I might add that your expectations increase along with the sticker price. I wouldn’t be so critical of a $15,000 economy car as I am with a new Blazer whose bottom line is $30,497. Our test vehicle performed well in nearly every way, and it was absolutely loaded with creature comforts. But when we pulled the wrong way on the door handle, the entire top panel with all the electrical controls came right off in our hands – on both front doors! To compound the situation, the plastic trim panel along the bottom of the driver’s seat had pulled several inches away from the frame and the seat controls. That’s the sort of lousy workmanship – or poor engineering – you just don’t expect to see on a General Motors product, especially not one that costs 30 grand.

She: Before I rhapsodize about all the good things on the Blazer, I have a real dilemma. And that is, what kind of advice to give consumers who are reading this column and thinking about buying a Blazer.

He: I think the Romans called it “caveat emptor.”

She: You can trust the Blazer mechanically. It’s a thoughtfully designed vehicle. But with this – and most other vehicles I’d consider buying – I’d be checking and tugging on stuff like Sherlock Holmes before I agreed to take possession of it at the dealership. And I don’t care who I would embarrass. Because if they’re not going to be checking for you at the plant, you have to do it yourself.

He: Now we’re talking basic philosophy, and the difference between General Motors and Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda. If we were reviewing a 4Runner or a CR-V, would the subject of bad trim fits even come up? Would we be advising readers to tug on the panels because they didn’t trust the factory? I don’t think so. And I know that still hurts GM to have to say that about their products.

She: OK, let’s get past the problems and talk about the good things. The Blazer was very easy to use, and very easy to jump in and out of every day. I liked features such as the simple shift from two- to four-wheel drive. And I really liked the fact that it’s becoming more car-like, compared to the old Blazer we owned. For all I knew, I could have been in a Mercuy aineer or a Mercedes-Benz ML320.

He: In a lot of respects, the materials and features in the Blazer seemed superior to those in the Mercedes. And the fully loaded Blazer LT we tested cost $10,000 less than the ML320 we sampled last month.

She: And looked less like a minivan. When Chevy redesigned the Blazer for 1998, it made it look less like a Tonka truck by softening the front and rear ends. The front seats have been redesigned and have lots of back and leg support. The middle seat still feels like it could use a touch more padding. The new instrument panel now has a front passenger air bag. I love the fact that air conditioning is standard. And you can get heated leather seats for an extra $225. But I didn’t like the way they located the heating controls on the side of the seat, because you immediately think that’s a seat location adjustment.

He: The Blazer comes with one of the best standard engines in the class – a big 4.3-liter V-6 that makes 190 horsepower and returns up to 18 miles a gallon on the highway. For 1998, the Blazer also gets standard four-wheel power disc brakes with anti-lock, which is a tremendous safety feature. One other new item that’s a big favorite in our house is battery rundown protection, which automatically shuts off any lights you leave on. No more AAA road service for this puppy! And we haven’t even mentioned all the family-friendly details, such as lots of cupholders, two power outlets, Scotchguard fabric protection and a very practical overhead console.

She: This is a trust issue. We’re fans of Chevrolet products, which for the most part have been very reliable and generally represent a good value in an affordable package. It makes you feel good to buy a Chevrolet because you feel like you aren’t wasting money. So why are we giving the new Blazer such low marks?

He: Because Chevy – and General Motors – let us down.

1998 Chevrolet Blazer LT

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $25,176; as tested, $30,497 (inc. $515 destination charge).

What’s new for ’98: Redesigned grille, bumper, air dam, headlights; revised seats, console and instrumentation; four-wheel disc brakes; passenger front air bag; daytime running lamps.

Standard equipment: Air conditioning, tilt steering column, cruise control, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, smooth-ride suspension, alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, power driver’s seat, overhead console, luggage carrier, fog lamps, rear compartment shade, rear defogger, rear washer/wiper, electrochromic rear-view mirror.

Safety features Dual front air bags, antilock brakes, daytime running lamps, child-proof rear door locks.

Options on test vehicle: Equipment group 1SD, inc. leather upholstery ($4,129); locking differential ($252); heated driver’s seat ($225); AM-FM stereo cassette with CD player ($200).

EPA fuel economy: 14 mpg city/18 mpg highway.

Engine: 4.3-liter V-6; 190-hp at 4400 rpm; 250 lb-ft torque at 2800 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Competitors: GMC Jimmy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Ford Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Honda Passport, Isuzu Rodeo, Nissan Pathfinder, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Land Rover Discovery.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 107 inches; overall length, 183.3 inches; curb weight, 4046 pounds; legroom, 42.4 inches front/36.3 inches rear; headroom, 39.6 inches front/38.2 inches rear; shoulder room, 57.2 inches front/57.2 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,179.

Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is age 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Moraine, Ohio

What we liked: Plenty of power for passing; easy to operate; standard four-wheel disc brakes with antilock; lots of standard features with the LT package; thoughtful, family-friendly details, including lots of cupholders, two power outlets and overhead console; battery rundown protection.

What we didn’t like: Plastic panels and trim kept coming loose in our hands; roadside assistance costs extra; switch for heated front seats is poorly located.

Paul’s Rating: acceptable

Anita’s Rating: subpar

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