The Trailblazer has garnered plenty of praise since its launch, but sales statistics suggest the Chevrolet has failed to capture the imagination of the South African leisure-vehicle buyer. We spent a month with the flagship LTZ model to figure out why this could be the case.
With fewer than a thousand sales in 2015, compared with the outgoing Toyota Fortuner’s 8 000+, General Motors South Africa must consider the South African market's acceptances (or lack thereof) of the Trailblazer with a large degree of frustration. It is certainly a somewhat baffling situation to us – we rate the Trailblazer highly, going so far as to nominate it as a Leisure Category semi-finalist in our inaugural Cars.co.za Consumer Awards.
The Trailblazer was conceived and developed with a very clear purpose – to be better than an established favourite (the Fortuner), and to reign supreme in the very popular bakkie-based SUV segment. And yet, this has not happened.
Now, in the face of increased competition not only from the imminent all-new Fortuner, but also the dramatically improved Ford Everest, is the Trailblazer doomed to remain an also-ran in a vital segment? To find out, we spent a few weeks with the range's flagship model, drove many kilometres on a variety of surfaces, and loaded the test unit to the roof with people as well as leisure gear.
Big… but not so bold
Trailblazer LTZ specification means extra chrome and 18-inch alloy wheels.
By now the Trailblazer is a familiar sight on South African roads and it remains a handsome vehicle that errs on the conservative side of the styling spectrum. This flagship LTZ model is fitted with 18-inch alloys wrapped in Bridgestone Dueler rubber. A full-sized spare wheel is mounted underneath the vehicle. Side steps are fitted, as are functional roof rails that can carry a load of up to 100 kg. Besides the odd bit of chrome here and there, there isn’t all that much to distinguish the LTZ from lesser Trailblazers. In fact, compared with the bold machismo of the new Ford Everest, as well as the instant recognition and status that come part and parcel with owning a Fortuner, the Trailblazer’s relative anonymity may be one of the reasons why the market has struggled to warm to it.
Note, however, that a facelift is on the way much later in 2016 that could address this in a rather dramatic fashion. Rumours abound that the Trailblazer will get the same face as the American-specification Colorado pick-up, which is a rather handsome beast as I’m sure you’ll agree (see the pic below).
The forthcoming Trailblazer update could see it adopt the face of the US-market Colorado pick-up.
Facia design shared with Isuzu, but finish is more upmarket following 2014 update. Build quality is very good.
Hop up into the cabin and the Trailblazer's facia will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever sat in an Isuzu KB, a vehicle with which the Chevrolet shares many genes. In 2014, the Trailblazer underwent a minor upgrade that moved the cabin upmarket in terms of colour coordination, as well as through the fitment of the MyLink infotainment system. The current combination of dark grey plastic, light grey leather upholstery and piano black detailing works relatively well, but some satin trim accents would have lifted the ambience to the next level. This may be addressed with the facelift.
Compared with some of the first Trailblazers, this latest version appears to be very impressively built – neither a rattle nor a squeak presented itself throughout my extended test term – and there were very rough gravel sections on the test route. So, although you’ll struggle to find soft-touch plastics and the facia serves up little in the way of surprise-and-delight features, I’d rate the Chevrolet as near the top of the class in terms of creating a perception of solidity.
Finding a comfy driving position should not present any problems, as the driver’s seat is fully electrically adjustable, but it is disappointing that the steering column doesn’t offer reach adjustment – that's a drawback of the latest Ford Everest as well. Nevertheless, I spent six stints of more than 400 km each behind the wheel of the Chevrolet and can’t complain about a lack of long-distance comfort. Note that the front passenger seat is also height-adjustable, albeit manually.
Those seated in the second row had no reasons to complain, either. The seats are mounted slightly higher, to afford their occupants a good view out of the vehicle. The seatbacks also offer a welcome reclining function and there are overhead ventilation outlets and even a separate ventilation speed control knob. Boosting the family/leisure capability of the vehicle, there are seatback pockets, a multitude of drinks holders and a 12V outlet for those in the second row.
Genuine seven-seater SUV
Neat lidded storage compartment mounted near the back of the load area.
As far as seven-seaters go, the Trailblazer affords a surprisingly generous amount of passenger space in its third row. Again, you sit higher, so taller passengers' heads will be in close proximity to the roof lining. Legroom is quite generous, and certainly sufficient for average-sized adults, but you sit very upright, which is not very comfortable. Again, overhead ventilation outlets and drinks holders are supplied. Access to the third row is quite convenient, too. In fact, the second row of seats tumble forward and out of the way in a one-handed operation.
Moving backwards to the luggage compartment, the large tailgate opens up to a height of 1,8m and reveals a high loading level, as well as a compromised luggage area when the third-row seats are in position. This, of course, is to be expected, especially when you consider the relatively spacious third-row seating. Those two rearmost seats can easily be folded forward, however, and when this is done the luggage area is suitably large for family holiday use. But the floor is high, so you have to hoist heavy stuff up quite some way before they can be slid onto the floor.
A very nice touch is a lidded compartment in the luggage area floor. It is spacious enough for wet shoes or other dirty leisure items, and can be easily unbolted from the boot floor, taken out, and cleaned. Very handy indeed…
If you need to transport (very) big items, especially long ones, you’d be pleased to know that the utility loading space is truly capacious when you fold the second row of seats forward. I could fit two mountain bikes in there (on top of each other) without needing to take off their wheels, handlebars or seats.
The features race
Hard buttons for MyLink infotainment system are not sensitive enough.
Being the top-spec model, you’d rightly expect the Trailblazer LTZ to come with heaps of toys. Unfortunately, it misses a few tricks, especially now that the Ford Everest, even in XLT specification, has set the bar so high.
Yes, the Trailblazer features a fairly comprehensive trip computer, but the display looks old fashioned compared with the slick set-up in the new Everest. The Trailblazer only offers single-zone climate control (compared with the Everest XLT’s dual-zone), and it lacks auto lights and rain-sensing wipers. Even the highly lauded MyLink infotainment system has dated (compared with Ford’s latest offering), and the “hard” buttons on the screen's plastic surround are not sensitive enough. Still, the system should be comprehensive enough for most needs and a rear-camera display is incorporated.
Also keep in mind that the Trailblazer does have an electrically adjustable driver seat (the Everest XLT's is manual) and the spare on the Everest is a 17-inch steel item (as opposed to a full-size alloy on the Chevrolet).
Other standard features on this Trailblazer include cruise control, electrically folding side mirrors, rear Isofix child seat anchorages, electronic stability control and six airbags.
On the road… and off
Trailblazer does a commendable job off-road, and ride/stability is very good on gravel.
Fire up the Trailblazer’s 2,8-litre Duramax turbodiesel motor and the initial clatter is quite agricultural. Thankfully, with speed, the engine become less vocal and cruising at the national speed limit is a calm, relaxing affair. The engine develops 144 kW and 500 Nm of torque, the latter figure from 2000 rpm. The power and torque figures are certainly competitive, and once it gets going, the Trailblazer certainly feels powerful enough. Off the mark, however, the engine and six-speed automatic transmission struggle to disguise the vehicle’s weight, so it can feel sluggish. We achieved an impressive fuel consumption figure of 9,4L/100km, which is actually slightly less than what Chevrolet claims (9,5L/100km). This translates to a range of over 800 km on a single 76-litre tank.
With a family of five and a boot full of luggage and holiday gear on board, the Trailblazer proved a very impressive kilometre muncher. The ride quality is certainly superior to the Fortuner’s and probably on par with the new Everest. What also impressed was the insulation of the cabin – there was little intrusion of wind and road noise, even at higher speeds and on coarser surfaces. The steering set-up is predictably light and devoid of feel, but pleasingly accurate. Around town the Trailblazer’s size and comfort-oriented set-up results in somewhat of a lumbering demeanour, especially when attempting to nip somewhere in town quickly, but out on the open road, there is precious little to fault.
We also headed onto gravel for long stints, and here the Trailblazer's good showing continued. The suspension (and tyres) iron out many of the thumps and bumps, but allow just enough through to the cabin, so that the driver knows exactly what the grip and traction levels are. The cabin also stayed impressively dust free in these conditions. If you want to head into the rougher stuff, the Trailblazer may not be the best in this segment, however. Yes, it offers an easily understandable off-road system (a rotary knob access 2/4H/4L modes) and hill-descent control, as well as a limited slip differential, but hardcore off-roaders will want a manually locking diff as well as more ground clearance. The LTZ Auto specification Trailblazer’s ground clearance is 218 mm, compared with the 239 mm of the LT-spec.
So, what’s the problem?
Would the Trailblazer have sold better if it was badged as an Isuzu in South Africa?
As you’ve just read, there’s not terribly much wrong with the Chevrolet Trailblazer. In fact, as a leisure/family vehicle, it must still rate as one of the most capable offerings on the market. Then why aren’t more of you buying it? I’ve given it a lot of thought, and think it’s due to a combination of the following;
- Given the market’s love for Toyota products in this country, the Trailblazer isn’t priced aggressively enough against the Fortuner, even though it might be the superior product. Of course, the Fortuner is produced in South Africa, whereas the Trailblazer is imported, so the pricing problem is understandable. Nevertheless, it’s an issue. Now add the run-out incentives and special editions that have been offered on the Fortuner for a good while now, and the appeal of the Toyota grows further. Our Ownership Satisfaction survey also appears to point to another potential issue: the Chevrolet sales process is not nearly as highly rated as Toyota's, particularly in areas such as product knowledge and trade-in price offered.
- The Trailblazer lacks a stand-out feature. The Fortuner’s “must-have” feature is that it is a Toyota Fortuner, and everything that implies and the Everest brings butch looks and loads of technology to the segment. The Trailblazer is good at many things, but it needs to blow our socks off, somehow… with something… Again, owners appear to agree: there is nothing particularly wrong with the Trailblazer. In fact, according to survey data it runs the Fortuner very close in terms of overall product satisfaction.
- The Trailblazer is not (badged as) an Isuzu. Back in the ‘90s, when the Camry was selling well and before the Fortuner was even born, Isuzu sold a vehicle called the Frontier in South Africa. It was very popular. Then, it disappeared from the market, creating a vacuum into which the Fortuner was born. Talk about dropping the ball… The Isuzu brand is still highly respected and loved in South Africa. Chevrolet, in this country at least, is not known (anymore) for tough bakkies and macho SUVs. The Trailblazer may have received a more hearty welcome had it been badged as a modern-day Isuzu Frontier.
- After-sales service – It has always been a perception that Toyota after-sales service was a very big reason for its sales success, and our survey proves it. Owners rate Toyota tops for after-sales service, out of the 12 brands with a big enough sample size. Chevrolet, on the other hand, is far from the top three...
As mentioned earlier in this report, a facelifted version of the Trailblazer will appear in the not too distant future, reportedly boasting the more aggressive look of the brand’s American pick-ups and SUVs, as well as LED-infused headlamps, new wheels, bumpers and an upgraded interior. As evidenced by this seemingly cosmetic-only update, there is not much wrong with the Trailblazer as an overall package. In fact, it is a first-rate family cum leisure vehicle. It really is up to General Motors to ignite this offering’s potential – sharpen the pencils on the pricing, offer better trade-in values and improve the after-sales service. All that said, if you’re in the market for a robust, capable seven-seat vehicle, then the Chevrolet Trailblazer should not be ignored - owners seem to be very happy with them.
Price and After-Sales Support
The Chevrolet Trailblazer 2,8D 4x4 LTZ automatic sells for R591 500 and comes back with a 5-years/120 000km warranty and 5-years/90 000km service plan. The service intervals are scheduled for every 15 000km.
We like: Spaciousness, fuel economy, solidity, cruising comfort
We don’t like: Lack of some features, price, sluggish off the mark
Also consider: Toyota Fortuner (wait for the new one), Ford Everest, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (wait for the new one)