During the new millennium America’s love affair with the Sport Utility Vehicle was in full bloom, with the mid-sized versions as the sales leaders. These vehicles were the replacements for the unloved minivans and station wagons of yesterday. General Motors was desperately trying to modernize their offerings while increasing production levels to keep the fat profit margins of the outgoing models. Was the cloning machine successful?
In the spring of 2001, General Motors introduced a totally new mid-sized sport utility vehicle (SUV) with an equally new 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine. This new SUV, called the Trailblazer, replaced the hoary old S-10 Blazer that was still being produced. It was selected as the 2002 North American Truck of the Year illustrating just how important such awards are. But remember this was the General Motors of the new millennium, so with this winner on its hands there would be not only a Chevrolet version, but soon there would be one for GMC, Oldsmobile, Buick, Isuzu, and even one with a Saab badge. If any single vehicle platform illustrated what was wrong with the GM product development system and its reliance on badge-engineering to satisfy the cravings from its dealers among its overlapping brands, it was the Trailblazer and its five clones. In the aftermath of GM’s bankruptcy, let’s take a look at the Chevrolet Trailblzer and its mutant offspring.
Since its 2001 introduction as a 2002 model, the Chevrolet Trailblazer has been one of the most popular SUVs in America in terms of sales. Qualities like a smooth ride, a roomy cabin, plentiful features and a relatively inexpensive price made it so. However, the Trailblazer was decidedly mid-pack among its competitors. The handling dynamics are more state-of-the-past than state-of-the-art. The standard version’s unresponsive suspension and imprecise steering don’t inspire confidence on back road detours or during quick transitions on the expressway. In past years, traditional body-on-frame SUVs like the Trailblazer were never expected to handle well in these situations. But times have changed and virtually all of the domestic- and import-brand rivals offered superior road manners. Another major drawback was the Trailblazer’s cabin design. It looked out of date soon after this vehicle’s debut, and the quality of the materials and construction simply didn’t measure up to the class leaders. If you’re looking for a performance-oriented SUV you might want to take a look at the Trailblazer SS, a 390-horsepower V8-powered model with unique trim that was introduced in 2006 on the shorter wheelbase model. It’s probably the best of all the Trailblazers offered – a unique model with a clear focus addressing its shortcomings, especially in the area of handling.
Almost a year later the seven passenger Trailblazer EXT version debuted. The EXT received an extended wheelbase and a third-row seat that enabled it to accommodate up to seven passengers. It had a long list of standard features and a cushy (some would say nauseating) highway ride. Unfortunately, there was still the uninspired interior design mated to dull steering and handling response that became restive when the road got twisty. Worst of all, the EXT was ungainly morphing into a wallowing giant that was actually longer than the full-size Tahoe and saddled with an underpowered inline six as standard equipment. The optional 5.3-liter V8 improved acceleration times somewhat, but it still felt strained when compared to the full-sized Tahoe. The whole stretch made the relatively narrow Trailblazer look somewhat disproportionate in long wheelbase form.
As if this weren’t enough, GM soon sent in the clones. The GMC Envoy is essentially a Trailblazer with the same powertrain and chassis. It was marketed as an upscale version of the Trailblazer as was the practice for all GMC models compared with their Chevy counterparts, with more chrome trim and better interior furnishings especially when the Denali trim level was selected. Like the Trailblazer the short version and the extra-long XT version were offered. But to try to differentiate it from its Chevy counterpart the Envoy XUV was offered. This creation was built on the long wheelbase chassis but without the seven passenger capability. Instead of passengers, the XUV carried cargo in a washable cargo bay separated by GM’s novel Mid Gate that was pioneered in the Avalanche. And if you had to carry something tall, the roof slid forward so that the cargo could stand upright. The idea wasn’t exactly groundbreaking because it was essentially borrowed from Brooks Stevens who utilized this design 40 years earlier on the Studebaker Wagonaire. The XUV was introduced in 2004 and was discontinued after only two years due to low sales.
At the height of the SUV craze, the dealers at GM’s two near-luxury divisions had clamored for an SUV. Oldsmobile, then on its deathbed, got theirs first, the Bravada. It featured a revised front end with slightly different rear glass and tail lamp features. Under the skin, it was all Trailblazer. Oldsmobile only had the Bravada for two years until GM closed the division; however, all was not lost at the House of Cloning otherwise known as GM. You see, with new front sheet metal and a new grille, the Bravada came back from the dead as the Buick Rainier.
The Rainier was a little different than all the other SWB clones because you could order the Chevrolet 5.3-liter V8, while the others made do with the 4.2-liter Atlas inline six. In reality, this was of little consequence. Traditional Buick owners weren’t storming the dealerships looking for a mid-sized SUV. There were better places they could go; nevertheless, Buick’s dealers demanded it in spite of the fact that many Buick sales points were under the same roof as GMC which already had the Denali/Envoy. The Buick of Trailblazers debuted in 2004 and lasted only until 2007. With GM’s equally uncompetitive minivans, it was consigned to history along with the rest of the Trailblazer family. Together these two platforms – along with the Rendezvous – were ultimately replaced by much more appealing crossovers. In Buick’s case it would be the Enclave.
At one time Isuzu had ties with General Motors, and the Isuzu dealers in the US needed a new vehicle to supplement their tired product line, then consisting of the Isuzu Rodeo, the discontinued Trooper, and the oddly styled Axiom. Thanks to some magic reconstructive surgery, the Isuzu Ascender was born in 2003. Originally, Isuzu was only granted access to the seven passenger model to replace the Trooper but by 2005, they also received the smaller version. There were minor trim changes on the outside, and it received the same interior as the GMC Envoy with different identification. The extended version went out of production in 2006, while the standard version was discontinued in 2008, about the same time that Isuzu gave up on the US market for light trucks and cars.
If that weren’t enough, GM even made a Saab version of the Trailblazer and called it the 9-7x. It made its debut just in time for the 2005 model year. Because this was a Saab, the traditional GM interior had to be reworked. The instrument panel received Saab egg crate air vents, Saab-styled cup holders, and the rest of the interior seemingly used a better grade of plastic trim. The ignition key had to be relocated to the center console, in keeping with the one quirky Saab trait. The 9-7x offered both the 4.2-liter Atlas inline 6, and the 5.3-liter V8, making it the first Saab-badged vehicle to offer a V8. In 2008, the 6.0-liter V8 was offered, making this faux Swede one very fast SUV and a near clone of the Trailblazer SS.
Other than new front and rear fascias, different wheels, and nicer materials in the cabin, it was still a Trailblazer. It even received a nickname of “Trollblazer,” though no one will fess up to it. At the time, Saab also sold a rebadged Subaru Impreza as the Saab 9-2, and while it might have seemed like a good idea, it was as if GM had decided to totally neuter Saab of its Swedish heritage (its outdated passenger car line shared its platforms with Opel, but that’s another story) and in essence diluted the quirky appeal of the brand that had made it a success in years past.
The Envoy, the “Trollblazer,” and the rest of the family were recently euthanized when GM closed the Moraine Ohio assembly plant this past December as part of its initial restructuring effort. None of the Trailblazer clones ever excelled in any area; they were decidedly mid-pack when introduced and became increasingly uncompetitive as better competitors were introduced and as the market moved away from body-on-frame truck SUVs to lighter, more efficient car-based crossovers. In this regard, GM introduced competitive – and in some cases class-leading – crossovers but repeated its mistakes with the Trailbalzer by offering them across almost all its brands in an unsuccessful effort to placate its dealers. While the Trailblazer may have been an initial sales success, it and its many clones were never class leaders and were relatively inexpensive when new; they are now downright cheap as used vehicles having depreciated severely, especially as GM”s problems have accelerated.
Would I own one? In a word the answer is no. And I would be hard pressed to recommend one to anyone I know either. They really didn’t deserve to be built for as long as they were, in as many varieties as they were offered. It’s my opinion that the Trailblazer and its clones are the poster children for many of the problems that General Motors experienced prior to its bankruptcy and will need to overcome soon. Maybe with fewer brands to support, General Motors can concentrate on giving each of its divisions distinctive vehicles that will be competitive to succeed in the marketplace on their own merits. Read more of my Retrospective and Recently Deceased Articles at Automotive Traveler.