When one wears a black tuxedo, there are certain things that come with the said getup.

Like a black bowtie.

Or even better, a ride to match one's dapper outfit. Like a bowtie SUV in black.

The US car manufacturer w/ a bowtie for a logo (aka Chevrolet) is known for SUVs such as the Tahoe and Suburban. But its best-selling SUV in the Philippines is the Trailblazer. A relative latecomer in an arena where Mitsubishi Pajeros, Ford Expeditions/Explorers, Nissan Patrols, Isuzu Troopers and Toyota Land Cruisers/Land Cruiser Prados are commonplace, the Trailblazer is known as the bigger brother of the US-based 1999-2001 GMC Blazer and a near twin of the US/Middle East-market GMC Envoy.

A quick peek into the history of the Trailblazer shows that not so long ago if you wanted serious room for a family of six Caucasians (plus luggage) in a GM SUV you had to purchase a Tahoe or even a Suburban. The Blazer was very compact inside. Then Chevrolet introduced the Trailblazer in 2002 as an answer for more space.

Unlike its predecessor, the Trailblazer is not based on a pickup chassis. This frees it from the compromises forced by a shared platform: a compact size, poor chassis rigidity and a certain cheapness of construction.

Although GM Automobiles Philippines (GMAP) was not privy to releasing exact sales figures of the Trailblazer, they did say that the Trailblazer has a niche and a select number of clientele to boot. Exactly why the Trailblazer has gathered a small and loyal following in a crowded SUV market is the reason for this story.

Bowtie SUV styling

The Trailblazer is a vehicle that is both retro and futuristic in exterior design. As with all Chevrolet/GMC SUVs, the Trailblazer is very brawny looking, from the bulged fenders to the thick bar that crosses the front end. The said bar divides the headlights and allows Chevrolet's signature bowtie logo to stand out seamlessly. It also helps that the most common colors (such as this test unit, featured here in onyx black) suit the TrailBlazer's styling very well.

Although the Trailblazer still shows a boxlike appearance similar to its Blazer forebear, there is a slight Subaru (GM owns 20 percent of the company) Forester and 21 st century influence in the exterior design. Round edges at the Trailblazer's front end is a prominent example of the said influence. On the other hand, the rear end (especially the taillights) pays homage to the Chevrolet cars of the 50s and 60s, the ones with the fin-tailed rear corners and featuring rocket and missile shapes.

The Trailblazer EXT's third row window uses the same smallish opening but surrounds it with a large band of heavily blacked-out glass, such that the third window is visually continuous with the first and second row windows. It somewhat resembles the SUV-based stretch limos seen on MTV, except that this one comes straight from GM Automobiles Philippines and designed for families and politico bodyguards, not party rentals.

Bowtie SUV interior

The TrailBlazer's driving position is good, but could be better. The view from the eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat has cockpit instrumentation as comprehensive as an airplane. For example, the rightmost gauges (such as the oil pressure, temperature, battery power and fuel) are placed in such a way that you feel like enacting that scene in "Con Air", where Nicholas Cage had to check out the gauges of the plane constantly before landing in Las Vegas. But the fonts and icons all around the gauge clusters are easy to read, while the driver's seat delivered great comfort thanks to a power-assisted lumbar support that provides great help for frequent back spasm sufferers like the author.

The bad news about the driving position is the layout of the a/t transmission column and the parking brake. The central position of the a/t column makes it difficult to insert drinks in the cupholder areas around the said column, while the parking brake is a bit far for the driver to reach. It would far be better if the parking brake was turned into a footbrake (like in the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer) and Chevrolet revived its trademark "Three-on-the-Tree" a/t shift column.

The headliner position is a bit low and ungainly, thanks to a huge central "bump" that extends the full length of the cabin. The TrailBlazer's A-pillars (those flanking the windshield) are quite thick, or are at least turned so that an unusually wide pillar is presented to the driver. The onus here is that you feel like you are gazing through a tunnel.

A distinct trademark of American SUVs such as the Trailblazer is sofa-style seating for six to seven people. Playing a big factor in the SUV's sofa-style seating is its faux moquette seatcovers, the width of the SUV (1897 mm), great cushioning (although thigh support may be found wanting for some) and built-in seatbelt reels. And take note: When a US car manufacturer claims that a vehicle can seat six to seven people, they mean six to seven CAUCASIANS. With a long wheelbase (3277 mm), it is not surprising that space in the Trailblazer is very generous for all rows. 23 cubic feet of space (with all seats fully upright) is generous indeed; fold the second and third row seats flat and cargo occupancy grows to 107 cubic feet, enough to fit one's household needs for a quarter of a year and, literally, the kitchen sink.

Comfort in the third row is relative; in fact it's way better than in the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer, the current model Mitsubishi Pajero, the Isuzu Trooper and Nissan Patrol. Although comfort is great, it's still not equal to that in, say, a Chevrolet Venture. The good news is that getting to the third seat isn't too difficult. The rear doors are extra long, courtesy of that long wheelbase. Complimenting this is the fact that the second row seats tumble forward using a single lever, opening up a wide path.

Then there is the liftglass. It is nice to be able to open the rear glass without opening the entire tailgate if all you have to do is throw in a shopping bag or two. The problem is that SUVs tend to be so high off the ground that it's not always easy to throw something in through the glass. With the new Explorer, Ford has addressed this problem by having some of the door open with the glass, making it a door within a door. This reduces the liftover to a very manageable height. The Trailblazer has a conventional liftglass, so throwing things in through it will be difficult for shorter people.

Bowtie SUV performance

The Trailblazer features a 4.2-liter VORTEC inline six-cylinder engine that puts out 275 hp and 373 NMs of torque, all mated to a four speed a/t drivetrain. Though less compact than a V6, the inline six felt inherently smoother and more powerful that the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer's engine (a V-6), especially with the performance benefits of VORTEC - four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. The drivertain even manages to burn some rubber when floored coming out of a turn. But it feels slower to respond, and less energetic when it does respond. In short, it's no longer sporty. Maybe this is to be expected with such an extreme increase in wheelbase? It can chirp a tire here and there, but driving this long of a vehicle aggressively ranks up there with those people who put limousines sideways in action flicks.

As it stands, when the transmission shifts engine revolutions fall almost in half. The torque band of this engine is wide enough to deal with this, but performance would be significantly better with an extra gear. It also would not hurt if first gear were a bit steeper, to get the engine up into its powerband quicker.

But the automatic does a very good job; the four-speed a/t shifts very smoothly. Under casual driving, the new engine combines with GM's proven transmission to provide outstanding performance. Under moderate acceleration, they simply shine. The engines makes nice sounds, engine revolutions stay fairly low, and you just have the sense that if you ever need more power, it's just a tip of the throttle away.

Despite the presence of a solid rear axle, the Trailblazer rides a tad better than the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer. The standard monotube shocks probably deserve a good portion of the credit, along with 12 seismic hydraulic and rubber dampers placed throughout the chassis. While you can feel some road imperfections, especially at low speeds, the semi-harsh ride that can be felt in the Explorer is totally absent here. What's more, the TrailBlazer on fairly smooth roads has the fluid, precisely controlled motions of a luxury sedan. Aside from some humming from the roof rack in strong cross-winds, the ride is also quite quiet for an SUV.

Handling is quite good in the Trailblazer. The steering is light, excellent for sudden change-of-lane maneuvers on the SLEX, NLEX and Star Tollway. However its long wheelbase forces you to examine the road behind and ahead before executing parallel parking and change of direction maneuvers in certain streets (such as Pasong Tamo/Don Chino Roces Ave. in Makati). In a trip to and from the Philippine Daily Inquirer offices along Pasong Tamo, the author found out the hard way that the SUV's long wheelbase can be a detriment when he nearly nicked an oncoming jeep as he tried to back out of the Inquirer building. Also, the vehicle leans a bit more than the Ford Explorer in turns and the rear sways a little in aggressive maneuvers.

Amidst the quirks of the Trailblazer, aside from its eye-popping fuel consumption (5.71 kms/liter for five days city/hi-way driving combined) and price tag (Php 2.235M), it is no wonder that the SUV bagged the "Best Large SUV" awards in the Car of the Year (COTY) Awards Group Inc.'s inaugural awarding ceremonies. The combination of power on demand, cruise ship serenity and cruise ship hugeness make it a favorite, like a black bowtie on a black tuxedo.
  • Make: Chevrolet
  • Model: Trailblazer EXT LT
  • Engine: 4.2-liter Vortec inline-6
  • Max Power: 275hp@6000rpm
  • Max Torque: 275Nm@3600rpm
  • Transmission: 4-Speed A/T
  • Price as Tested: