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The Chevy TrailBlazer is among the best of the truck-based midsize SUVs. It's capable of hauling heavy loads and negotiating rugged off-road terrain. Yet it's also smooth, comfortable and civilized. These are benefits of its rigid chassis, sophisticated suspension, and powerful brakes. Curtain-style side-impact airbags with a rollover sensing system are available for increased head protection.
For 2006, GM's excellent StabiliTrak electronic stability control system comes standard across the TrailBlazer lineup. StabiliTrak helps drivers maintain control by reducing or eliminating skidding in emergency handling situations. 2006 TrailBlazer models have been upgraded with a revised brake system designed for improved responsiveness along with sound-deadening measures designed to reduce noise.
The TrailBlazer is stable and maneuverable. It handles washboard surfaces well, a nice benefit on unpaved roads. The TrailBlazer is also quite capable off road when equipped with its sophisticated four-wheel-drive system and optional skid plates.
The extended-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT adds substantial cargo space and seven-passenger seating, but it's longer than a Tahoe, and we prefer the standard TrailBlazer for its superior handling and stability.
TrailBlazer comes standard with a superbly smooth and modern Vortec 4200 inline six-cylinder engine, which has been upgraded for 2006, and it's our first choice unless towing is a big part of the picture. The Vortec 5400 V8, with its Displacement on Demand technology promising improved fuel economy is available as an option on all 2006 TrailBlazer models. Equipped with the V8, a 2WD TrailBlazer EXT can tow up to 7,000 pounds.
A new TrailBlazer SS has joined the line-up for 2006, featuring the 395-horsepower, 6.0-liter LS2 V8 derived from the Chevy Corvette, along with a sport-tuned suspension and competition brakes. The SS gets unique exterior and interior trim and is available with all-wheel drive.
TrailBlazer's six-cylinder 4.2 liter engine, called the Vortec 4200 is smooth and quiet. The faster it goes, the smoother it seems to get. It's an inline-6, a design that's inherently better balanced than a V6. It idles so smoothly that Chevy Truck added a device that prevents the starter from grinding if the key is turned when the engine is already running.
The six-cylinder engine features dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and variable phasing of the exhaust cam. It's been upgraded for 2006 to produce 291 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. (Torque is that force that thrusts you off the line and up steep hills.) Ninety percent of the peak torque is available at just 1600 rpm and it's still there at 5600 rpm. The engine is still striding, not screaming, when the full-throttle upshift comes at 6000 rpm. That torque gave us confident power when attempting passes on steep uphill two-lanes. It offers strong acceleration without forcing the transmission to downshift. The four-speed automatic transmission is programmed well and makes a good companion for the engine. Shifts are smooth.
Towing was a high priority in the TrailBlazer's engineering. Six-cylinder models are rated to tow 6300 pounds with 2WD, 6100 with 4WD. Even the EXT powered by the six-cylinder engine can haul 5800 pounds with 4WD. The six-cylinder engine is designed to run cool while towing, thanks in part to a big seven-quart oil pan.
Big ventilated disc brakes provide stopping power, and four-wheel ABS is standard. Under hard braking, the nose didn't dive, keeping the TrailBlazer remarkably level and stable. Braking capability has been improved for 2006 with a new low-drag caliper system with a more responsive brake booster and larger master cylinder for improved pedal feel, a system first introduced on SS models.
We found the ride excellent, very smooth without being too soft. The TrailBlazer was designed to lean a maximum of only 5 degrees in corners. It features a wide track and low engine position, which drops the center of gravity. A vehicle with a low center of gravity is generally less likely to roll over than a vehicle with a high center of gravity. TrailBlazer has a very tight turning circle of 36.4 feet, because the suspension and engine design allow for large steering angles, a real plus in crowded parking lots.
The chassis and suspension are highly developed with design features normally associated with sports cars: rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel vented disc brakes with twin-piston calipers in front, independent front suspension with short/long control arms, live rear axle using five-link location with Bilstein gas-charged shock absorbers and coil springs, and thick antiroll bars front and rear. The chassis rails are shaped by hydroforming, which makes them stronger and lighter. No less than eight crossmembers contribute to TrailBlazer's torsional rigidity, and there are 12 tuned body mounts that use rubber pads and hydraulics to dampen vibrations.
We found the TrailBlazer impressively stable on washboard surfaces. It bottomed on dips, however, signaling that the optional skid plates are necessary for off-road driving. When equipped with the 17-inch on/off-road tires and skid plates, the TrailBlazer easily chugged along at 5 mph through soft sand in Auto4WD.
Four-wheel-drive TrailBlazers feature GM's Autotrac system, which offers four settings: 2WD, Auto4WD, 4HI and 4LO. Switching in and out of 4WD can be done on the fly with a flip of a switch. The transmission must be in neutral to engage or disengage 4LO. In Auto4WD, power is shifted to all four wheels as conditions require. The TrailBlazer can be towed in the Auto mode without having to disconnect the driveshaft, a convenient feature. Traction control is available for 2WD TrailBlazers.
As impressed as we are with the TrailBlazer, we don't have the same feelings for the TrailBlazer EXT. The long-wheelbase EXT
Chevy TrailBlazer sports a nice design and a well-executed interior. Smooth, stable, and powerful, TrailBlazer works well around town, on the open highway, and in the back country. Almost none of that applies to the long-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT, however, which surrenders much of the standard model's ride and handling for extra cargo space but barely adequate third-row seating capacity.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.