Trailblazer LTZ: Rugged with more refinement

A new name, a change of look, more equipment – but is it a fresh start?


AWKWARD question, had to be asked.

“Er … look … our friends are thinking about buying a Trailblazer … and they …”

“ … want to drive it? Yeah, okay ....”

“Um, no, not exactly,” I hesitated for a moment, thinking it was too late now to get out of this. The conversation with Holden New Zealand’s press fleet controller and PR man HAD to be completed.

“Look, they want to sleep in it. Well, not sleep all night. Actually, not sleep at all.”

Wrong. Thing. To. Say. I knew that as soon as the words came out. So, hurriedly: “No, not THAT either. See, they want to go off-roading, and think the Trailblazer might be good for it, but they don’t want to go camping with a tent. So, they bought a camp mattress and want to know if it’ll fit in the back.”

After the laughter had subsided, another confirmation about the all-knowing abilities of this highly-regarded motor industry identity. He ALREADY knew the answer, having … get this … been there, done that.

Ed is a keen surfer. When he and his daughter went down to Port Waikato, with this very vehicle, they faced a similar situation, so came up with the same solution. Worked a treat. Just as it did when Kev and Helen also came around to run the same test.

So, another talent ticked up for the bigfoot wagon whose new name reinforces its primary role, as an especially robust, all-round work and fun-tuned off-road capable family-minded rig.

The name change away from Colorado 7 conforms to North American GM title trend, but does nothing to diminish the obvious design and construction link between this model and the Colorado one-tonne ute. Likewise, a ladder on frame chassis construction that places a body atop a sturdy chassis sets it apart from the new-gen SUVs that have abdicated to roadcar-equivalent monococque platforms.

Holden still cannot go there. GM does have big unitary body vehicles but none were engineered for right-hand-drive back in 2012, when the Seven appeared. The only option, then, was to create an SUV off its tough-as ute. The wagon was developed in parallel in Brazil and is also built in Thailand.

Naturally, they’ve a lot in common; the 147kW/500Nm 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel married to a six-speed automatic is a direct lift, body panels forward of the centre door pillar are interchangeable, as is the instrument console. Obviously, all the change out back. GM swaps the tray for a generously-dimensioned extended cabin holding a third row of seats, behind a second-row with a 60/40 split and three child-seat anchorage points on the seatback. It also replaces the ute’s leaf spring rear axle with a more sophisticated coil-sprung affair.

When the Seven came out, The sales aim was as big as the resultant truck. Holden hadn’t had a large SUV since the Jackaroo departed 10 years prior and the brand saw such strong demand for a brawny family-fit towing, mud-plugging machine it was confident on ticking up 150-170 sales a month.

And … no, it didn’t quite reach that pace. But it might stand better chance nowadays, for one because there’s been something of a shift back toward old-school types like this – not least among those big towing types who have found the new-style softies aren’t hard enough for their specific needs. Also, too, the Trailblazer introduces a lot of improvement over the original recipe. It’s not outright street suave, but has certainly tidied up in respect to refinement, driving quality and comfort. Think of it as the bush country roughneck who has decided that a big weekend in town deserves him making the effort to have a shower, shave and try out that new Rodd and Gunn sweater that came in Auntie Myrtle’s last Christmas care package.

Don’t think I’m dissing the big Holden by suggesting this. I’ve actually grown to appreciate the Trailblazer’s honesty; it’s very much a get-what-you-see product. Even though the drivetrain is a lot less shouty now, the ride has improved and the interior plastics are not as unremarkable as they once were, there’s simply no pretty boy pretence, here.

No silly pricetag, either. The top LTZ on test makes an even better case for selection now, having reduced in price to $62,990. That’s a $4000 drop for a rig that already sat rather comfortably as one of the better sensible seven-seater choices for those who intend to take their SUVs.

The three other ute-spawned choices - Ford’s Everest, Toyota’s Fortuner and  Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport – are all dearer, by as much as $25,000 more in the case of the Everest Titanium. For sure, the Ford has a lot of refinements – and some accident avoidance tech – that doesn’t figure in the GM war chest, and it is also presents a more premium feel. But I’m not sure that makes a jot of a difference to anything on the tow hook – which, incidentally, still accepts 3000kg braked trailers - let alone when you’re bouncing down a forestry track to that favourite hunting or fishing spot.

And those are the scenarios where the Trailblazer stands tall. My mates, for instance, put it on their shortlist because an impending priority is to tour the South Island high country. There are some great station-to-station treks for those who really want to get away from it all, but they demand ‘pukka’ four-wheel-drives.

So that’s something with a low ratio to abet the hill descent control, a limited slip differential, a decent ride height, hardy footwear, a strong engine. Something that’s stout, simple and reliable. That’s the Trailblazer. Being something that is also offers excellent visibility and has good occupant space, plus a boot that, while offering a mere 235 litres’ capacity with all the seats up, enlarges by four-fold when the back chairs are flipped down, also likely raises its status around the campfire.

But that’s not news. It’s always been good out the back of beyond. The changes that have come are all referencing its ability to settle into civilization. The original belief that customers would be those types who take four-wheel-driving seriously enough to not mind losing a certain degree of refinement for more ruggedness has not wholly altered. But there is acceptance that it needed more polish for driving the black top and working the streets.

For sure, it’s still not set to dance as nimbly as the really modern stuff – body-on-frame simply doesn’t allow this - yet it is better than before and certainly better than the ute, if just because of the advantages of its coil-sprung rear suspension compared with the Colorado’s load-lugging leaf springs.

How much hit home not only on test but also when I caught up with this same rig a few weeks after I’d driven it, this time as the lead vehicle on the media launch for the Equinox.

You’d think that, by being car-based, Holden’s new compact crossover would outshine the Trailblazer, but it wasn’t to be. Even sticking to the big T’s tail when traversing those twisting Taranaki backroads proved quite challenging … not only did the large fella corner more adroitly than I thought it might, but it also set an indecent pace for something so large.

Doubtless it was an uncomfortable ride for the poor passenger, who’d have needed a strong stomach to handle the sway, lean and pitch, but it was still a good demonstration nonetheless, confirming my own impression that it has a more confident, planted feel than before - for a separate chassis model – and delivers reasonable feel and an even weight balance.

I found (as, undoubtedly, so did the launch day driver) that the stability control is pretty good at letting you get on and discover deep reserves of grip from the Bridgestone Dueler rubber, whose full abilities are more apparent on on gravel than on seal. Holden cites improvements to the electric power-steering calibration having made the wheel feel much sharper than before. Well, to a point: There is also noticeably more feel –in that it is a bit more heavily weighted – but full sharpness still evades. All part of the territory, I guess. A certain degree of play provides good benefits for off-roading.

The engine delivers a solid heft, not enough to entirely offset the circa-2200kg kerb weight of course, but strong enough to allow the Trailblazer to pull off the line with confidence. It saves the full punch for higher up the rev range, which helps ensure that overtaking is not a terrifying experience. The real plus of the heft comes with towing: It made light work of being recruited to tow my trailered MX-5 racecar, and heft a bootload of bits, to a race meeting.

The greater advances with this engine are in respect to its refinement. It now has some: The old model was agricultural sounding and not a pleasant place to be, but sound-reducing measures for the cabin and engine bay have had a dramatic impact. You can still hear the rattle, but at least no longer need to shout to have a conversation with occupants sitting behind the front chairs.

Inside there are enough changes to make buyers happier than they would previously been, but nothing that will alienate the perceived customer base. So, while wew materials and controls abound, you will never mistakenly think you’ve now shifted into in a high-end luxury SUV.

The new 8.0-inch touchscreen helps make things look more modern inside and delivers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to all the other MyLink functions. The leather-appointed seats are fine – they still don’t look premium, although they would be much easier to clean than a cloth trim, but feel better than before. The driving position still suffers from GM’s inability to provide the steering column with fore-aft adjustment; those of limited stature might find themselves sitting closer to the wheel than they might prefer.

Trailblazer picks up more active safety gear than it provided as a Colorado 7. You get a forward collision warning – whose surveillance seems a touch over-zealous until you take time to reflect on how much distance it will require to haul up - lane departure and blind spot warnings, and rear cross traffic alert. All are useful in a vehicle of this size and design; the mirrors do not cover every angle, by any means.

A pushbutton start would be great to see – the ignition barrel is awkwardly located and, at this price, who uses old-style keys any more anyway – and it would also be great to see it update to an active cruise control.

Think of the Trailblazer as a Colorado 7 with better manners; the country-first character that loves a beer, but has learned to drink it from a glass rather than direct from the bottle.

Also, it appears to make a perfectly acceptable bedroom.