When it comes to bread-and-butter sport-utility vehicles, many domestic buyers put the Ford Explorer and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer at the top of their lists. Until recently, Explorer trumped TrailBlazer in sheer passenger-hauling capability. The Ford SUV comes with an optional third-row seat and can accommodate up to seven.

But the all-new 2002 TrailBlazer EXT — essentially a stretched version of the regular TrailBlazer — changes that with a much bigger package that is closer in size to Explorer’s full-size sibling, the Expedition. The seven-passenger TrailBlazer EXT has a longer wheelbase, a roomier cabin and a standard third-row seat — a decent one that doesn’t make you feel like you’re sitting on a kid-sized picnic bench. We tested a $35,450 TrailBlazer EXT with such goodies as an $800 sunroof and a $495 Bose sound system.

She: There’s something about a big SUV like the TrailBlazer EXT that makes me want to drive immediately to a mall and fill up all those vast empty spaces that are crying out for packages. You know what they say. Shoppers abhor a vacuum.

He: So do men. Dust rags, too.

She: So that’s exactly what I did on my first outing in the TrailBlazer EXT. Shopped. That new Chevy holds a lot of stuff. Maybe because this long-wheelbase model is closer in size to a Suburban than a Ford Explorer. In fact, even though I spent a lot of your money, all those packages looked inconsequential in the back of the EXT. Wow. What an engineering marvel.

He: Thank you, Albert Einstein. Actually, the basic platform under the TrailBlazer is really sturdy and flexible. It’s used for the GMC Envoy and the long-wheelbase Envoy XL, for the Oldsmobile Bravada and, in 2003, for the new Isuzu Ascender and the Buick Rainier.

She: You’re such a product geek.

He: Dynamically, the TrailBlazer EXT is one of the best of the big utes. The ride is quite comfortable — no surprise considering the wheelbase is 129 inches long — yet the EXT doesn’t feel like a big truck. It handles like a smaller vehicle, and it’s deceptively easy to park. Best of the all, the standard twin-cam 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine is robust and torquey, and more than capable of propelling this 5,000-pound vehicle.

She: The TrailBlazer EXT is very impressive, until you start to dig a little deeper into the details. We stood in our driveway, scratching our heads over the design wisdom of the third row, especially when you want to flip the seats forward to load bigger, messier items, like flats of flowers. The third row doesn’t fold into the floor, like a Honda, and when the seat backs are down, they don’t fully cover the fancy leather seat cushions underneath. You’d have to haul around a tarp to protect your seats and carpeting in this vehicle.

He: I thought the whole mechanism for folding the third row seemed clumsy and poorly designed. And while the three-position rear parcel shelf is a clever idea, with little grocery-bag hooks on one side, it seemed unwieldy when you tried to change it around. I had bigger issues with the way some of the trim pieces are designed and assembled. We saw numerous flaws inside and out, mostly in the way the trim fits together — or doesn’t, as the case may be.

She: Here are the pluses for the EXT. Superior styling, especially for people who need the extra passenger space, but hate minivans. Great safety features, including standard antilock brakes and side air bags. A driver-pampering cockpit, with easy-to-read gauges, easy-to-use controls and lots of multifunction push-buttons on the steering wheel. Ease of operation, including a nice rotary switch for 4WD, seat belts that are integrated into the front seats and a cabin that’s easy to climb in and out of.

He: I noticed a problem with visibility. The thick center pillars and the rear headrests tend to obstruct your rearward vision.

She: We both really like the TrailBlazer EXT. But we felt that two major issues – an imperfect third-row seat and numerous trim flaws — keep it from world-class status. But it’s getting pretty close.

He: And, dollar for dollar, it’s still a better vehicle than the Explorer.

2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT

Anita’s rating: (Above average)

Paul’s rating: (Above average)

Likes: Bold and memorable styling. Adults can ride comfortably in the third row. Good safety features, including standard ABS and side air bags. Really comfortable ride. Decent power from inline six-cylinder. Clever 3-position rear parcel shelf with grocery hooks. Lots of multi-function pushbuttons on steering wheel.

Dislikes: Thick center pillars and rear headrests obstruct visibility. Numerous design and assembly flaws in trim fits. Third-row seat is poorly designed — does not fold flat and can’t be removed. Tailgate difficult to close. Rear parcel shelf is unwieldy. Hood does not stay up by itself.

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

Price: Base, $33,260; as tested, $35,450 (inc. $625 destination charge).

Engine: 4.2-liter I-6; 270-hp; 275 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway.

Insurance cost: 2-months, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,322 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Oklahoma City