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For the price of a little car, some folks would rather have a little truck. Little trucks are often better for carrying big things. With their higher ground clearance, they can go places little cars can't, particularly if the little truck has four-wheel-drive. Little trucks make a bigger styling statement. A little truck tells the neighbors you relish adventure; a little car says you relish economical living.
Honda, Toyota, Ford, and Mazda know this, and they each offer a tall little car (CR-V, RAV4, Escape, and Tribute, respectively) with some of the characteristics of a little truck. And that suits most folks just fine. But the Chevrolet Tracker is a real, genuine, 100-percent truck, built on a rigid truck-type ladder frame, and offering truck-style part-time four-wheel-drive with a rock-crawling low range.
Yet Tracker also offers some of the best features of a little car, including maneuverability, reasonable fuel economy, and even a base price comparable to that of a well-equipped compact.
So the Tracker makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the base four-wheel-drive Tracker wagon is smooth and provides enough power to entertain when coupled with the five-speed manual transmission. With its relatively broad power band, the Tracker can pass with confidence on Interstates, and need not fear being run over when pulling away from busy intersections. The gearbox shifts smoothly, and a light clutch contributes to easy drivability. A four-speed automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.
Tracker LT four door with four-wheel drive performs much better. Its twin-cam 2.5-liter V6 engine has a lot of heart for 155 horsepower. It can make you believe that there are 165 or 170 horses under the hood.
The V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. It loves to be floored. At less than full throttle, there's nothing about it that gets your attention, but when you ask it to deliver, it responds eagerly and happily. Cruising uphill on a steep freeway at 65 mph and a mellow 2600 rpm, we hammered the throttle: The transmission kicked down once and the V6 ripped right up to 75 and beyond. No screaming, no hysterics, just a determined charge up the grade. The forward rush may not be earth-moving, but it makes you want to pat the little Tracker on the dash and tell it, "Nice job." Passing on two-lanes is a breeze.
The four-speed overdrive automatic transmission is equally pleasing. It never hunted for gears on the hills. It up-shifted smoothly at moderate speed, and impressively crisply at full throttle. It was always tight and responsive. And when it kicked down third-to-second for two-lane passing, the only thing that jerked was the tach needle.
The independent front suspension does a good job of damping out tar strips and other medium-sized bumps, and improves the Tracker's agility. Ride quality is not bad for a vehicle with a short wheelbase.
The Tracker's rack-and-pinion steering does provide a more precise feel and better responsiveness than the recirculating-ball gear used on other truck-based SUV's. Still, as in other SUVs, steering response is a little mushy on center.
The Uniroyal P205/75R15 tires that came with our four-cylinder 4X4 offer a good compromise between off-road traction and on-road grip. But they are still a compromise. They squeal easily, even when making a low-speed U-turn. Like many small SUVs, the Tracker lacks grip on wet pavement; the rear tires tend to spin when the front wheels are cocked and you are trying to accelerate briskly away from a stop sign. Shifting into four-wheel drive can cure this, but you'll need to shift back into two-wheel drive before attempting any tight maneuvers, or the front and rear tires will fight each other as the drivetrain binds.
The Goodyear P215/70R15 all-season radials on the V6 model didn't squeal like the skinnier Uniroyals on the four-cylinder model. And even when they did commence their warnings, at maybe eight-tenths cornering, the Tracker felt stable and under control.
Nine-tenths was another story, however; the Tracker does not like to be stretched that far. Nor does it like to have bumps thrown under the wheels at even eight-tenths. That makes the Tracker pretty nervous. But the nervousness in the chassis is well isolated from the seat, and very well isolated from the steering wheel.
Actually, the fit and firmness of the Tracker's seat does a lot to cover the limitations of the Tracker's chassis, masking much of the tippiness that is the bane of SUVs. You can definitely feel the Tracker wander in crosswinds, though.
Braking was a pleasant surprise. The Tracker stops with 11.3-inch discs in front, and 8.7-inch drums in back. We tried full panic stops on pavement from 55 mph and gravel from about 40, and the Tracker's direction remained so true we could have taken our hands off the steering wheel. The feel of the brake pedal is excellent; it's sufficiently solid to be acceptable on a sports car. It was easy to modulate the brakes: The pedal feel was
Chevy's Tracker would make an enjoyable economy car, even without its wagon-size cargo bay and off-road gear. But with its tall roof and 4X4 capability, the Tracker presents a strong case for an all-in-one vehicle that suits a wide range of needs.