Speed and weight generally don’t mix, which is why sports cars are usually low-slung and light. So, when an SUV runs similar laptimes around a race track as its smaller, lighter, dedicatedly sporty coupé sibling, you know they’ve reached the highest echelons of the hyper-SUV league. Convincing such a tall, heavy vehicle to change direction and slow down takes some serious engineering and cutting-edge hardware, and when you add the vaguely irresponsible power propelling many of these things to the equation, those challenges grow exponentially larger.

To achieve such monstrous feats of engineering, the designers employ tricks such as air suspension and massive low-profile tyres to generate enough road grip to coax the heavyweight cars around corners, and smart traction control software enables a modicum of off-road ability (read: they can deal with most slightly muddy tracks) without resorting to low-range transfer cases and diff locks.

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But, by making modern SUVs perform such impressive tricks, the engineers have also made them far more car-like than before. Those wide tyres with their shallow sidewalls are vulnerable in off-road conditions, and sporty suspension generally doesn’t allow the wheel travel you need when the going gets tough. Indeed, the modern SUV is closer to a high-riding passenger car than they are to the go-anywhere brutes which created the segment a few decades ago. Call them luxurious and sometimes obscenely quick tall wagons, but don’t call them serious all-terrain vehicles. Impressive, certainly – but also more than a little bit pointless.

It thus gives me, as an off-road enthusiast, great pleasure to announce that the Chevrolet Trailblazer is nothing like the soft-roaders I just described. It’s an SUV from the old school, this, with a ladder-frame chassis, solid rear axle and genuine low-range transfer case. The only thing missing from its off-road credentials is a locking rear differential, but for the kind of medium-duty bundu bashing a Trailblazer is likely to encounter, the standard-fit traction control does a good enough job to deal with most obstacles.

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Even the styling stays true to the original SUV template. Forget about a coupé-like profile or a sloping tailgate, for the Trailblazer has none of that. It’s big and blocky, with a squared-off profile and a bluff, rather upright nose. It gets even more square around the back, where a flat roof meets the tailgate and rear window at almost right angles, all in the interest of practicality. Yes, the Trailblazer casts a big shadow, but at least that can be justified by its seat count (seven, housed in three rows) and space (cavernous almost everywhere). Its sheer size translates directly into cabin- and utility space, so while it doesn’t score very highly on the “S” (Sports) in SUV, it makes a strong comeback in the “U” (Utility) stakes.

The Trailblazer’s packaging only comes up short around the rearmost (third-row) seats – and in quite a literal sense, where either the passengers or the journey need to be abbreviated. While there’s adequate space for children or small adults, larger people will find both leg- and headroom to be at a premium, and luggage space is severely constrained at the same time – although this is really no different to any other three-row SUV. At least the Trailblazer’s split seats (including the middle row) all fold away with one-hand operations to create a flat, wide load floor of various lengths.

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Long distance travel is a much more enticing prospect for passengers in the middle row, though. There’s enough to space to keep squabbling siblings apart, and the rear doors open wide for the easy installation of ISOFIX child seats. The rear compartment is also treated to its own air-con system, with air outlets in the roof and a separate fan. All these outlets and fans, combined with the air-con’s industrial-grade cooling capacity, made light work of coping with the recent Gauteng heatwaves.

Comfort is further enhanced by the generously-sized, leather-covered seats (with electric adjustment for the driver) and generally low noise levels. The engine only intrudes somewhat when worked hard, and both tyre- and wind noise are well contained. The Trailblazer isn’t exactly laden with modern gadgets (forget about lane keeping assistance, radar-guided cruise control or even automatic headlights), but the basic necessities are all present: there’s a combination of parking sensors and a rear-view camera, and the touch-screen MyLink infotainment system is easy to operate. Safety is taken care of by the aforementioned traction- and stability control system along with 6 airbags. There’s nothing unusual in the spec sheet, but also nothing which stands out by its absence either.

So the Trailblazer scores big on cabin space, keeps everybody cool and can go quite far off road, but what about its driving experience? Well, it certainly drives more like a truck than it does like a car. This is quite understandable, seeing as it draws much of its chassis hardware from a range of commercial vehicles (including the beloved Isuzu KB). There might be coil springs above the Chevy’s live rear axle, but the ride quality is nowhere near as compliant as that of any car-based SUV, and the steering isn’t exactly what you’d call sharp in either response or feedback either.

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Add generous amounts of body lean through corners and tyres which relinquish their road grip without much of a fight, and it quickly becomes clear that the Trailblazer isn’t meant to be hustled along a mountain pass. Rather dial back the pace, marvel at the way it dismisses potholes and road imperfections with impunity, and relax in that spacious cabin – just like back in the days before German engineers started taking SUVs to race tracks.

Don’t think that this laid-back approach translates to sluggish progress, however. A 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel with 144 kW won’t exactly roll up the tarmac in a vehicle with a kerb weight of 2163 kg, but that power is coupled to a healthy torque output of 500 Nm, which makes for a pleasingly punchy power delivery on the road. There’s a fair bit of boost lag upon take-off, but once moving, the 6-speed automatic gearbox does a decent job of helping the four-banger do its best work. The quoted 0-100 km/h sprint time of 10.6 seconds seems entirely feasible, and overtaking is an easy task. It’s not even terribly thirsty either, recording an average consumption figure of 9.3 ℓ/100 km while on test, which is very close to Chevrolet’s official quoted average of 9.5 ℓ/100 km.

Judging by the continuous sales success of vehicles like the Trailblazer, Fortuner, Everest and Pajero Sport, there’s clearly strong demand for this kind of vehicle. The appeal of a rugged, body-on-frame SUV with seats for 7 people and some genuine off-road ability is easy to understand, especially given our outdoor- and adventure biased lifestyles, even though it’s a sad reality that most of these vehicles will never see any terrain more strenuous than the sidewalk at Cresta.

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Yet, if you want to while away your traffic-jam hours in a truck-based SUV, the Trailblazer is just about as good as a vehicle of this kind gets. You might never get around to that cross-country expedition you’ve been talking about for years, but it’s good to know that, one day, you just might: the Trailblazer (and its old-school classmates) keeps that dream alive, instead of selling (irrelevant) visions of lightning-quick track lap times. In the mean time, it’s really nice to have such a brutish weapon to fight the mall-parking wars…

Martin Pretorius

Chevrolet Trailblazer 2.8D LTZ 4×4 A/T
Price: R 591 500
Engine: 2776 cc, 4-cylinder, turbo diesel
Power/Torque: 144 kW @ 3600 r/min, 500 Nm @ 2000 r/min
Gearbox: 6-speed torque converter automatic
Drive: Selectable 4WD
Performance: 0-100 km/h in 10.6 seconds, 180 km/h maximum speed
Consumption: 9.5 ℓ/100 km (Claimed average)
Also consider: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Ford Everest, Toyota Fortuner