Hooniverse Parting Shot: The Chevy Trailblazer and its Five Clones.

The 2002 Trailblazer, with the required two tone paint treatment, in an outdoor setting.

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?

The 2003 Trailblazer EXT. Looks like a beached whale

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.
The Trailblazer SS. Actually, it's quite nice.

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.
The Envoy XUV. An idea done badly.

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.
The 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada. Meh…

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 2004 Buick Rainier. The Bravada with a Buick Grill!

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.
The 2007 Isuzu Ascender. Bet you didn't even know this was built!

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.
A 2008 Saab 9-7X. The Trollblazer!

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.
The Trollblazer Interior, with the ignition key in the center. Pointless!

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.

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  1. ptmeyer84 Avatar

    It's sad that GM didn't see what a great engine they had in the Atlas.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Always seemed like it would make a great car engine 275-291HP in a 4.2L DOHC I-6 with aluminum block. I've wondered what a light supercharger would do. I could see it being great for a Rat Rod Jaguar.

      1. Tomsk Avatar

        Or a pre-'55 Chevy, or a Nova, or a Land Cruiser, or…

    2. Tim Odell Avatar
      Tim Odell

      When I saw the stats on that thing, I was stoked: smallblock power, V6 (or less) weight in a way cooler inline package.

  2. soo΄pәr-bādd75 Avatar

    I'm on my second TrailBlazer, and I'm a fan. Sure, they have their shortcomings, but in general it's a nice SUV. It's comfortable, it rides good, it handles well enough for what it is (I didn't expect it to handle like a car, it's a damn truck!), and it is extremely durable. I've driven its competition, and like my truck better than most. It's the closest thing you can get to a modern BOF station wagon these days, and despite all the haters out there, it has also consistently been one of the best sellers in its segment (the TrailBlazer alone had a couple of years at #1 in its segment, not counting the rest of the GMT360s). So bash it all you want, but there are a lot of fans of the GMT360 out there. And we're all aware of the Fisher-Price interior, and are just fine with it, thank you very much.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      I couldn't agree with you more on the comparison to a BOF station wagon. My guess is that it can run circles around any of the old GM B-body wagons. I know it is faster and probably even handles better. We have actually used our to haul lots of stuff too, the inside is bigger than you would expect. If I had wanted a sports wagon I would have bought a used BMW E39 wagon.
      My only complaints are, for a $34k sticker price:
      -I don't want to use a hood prop.
      -Put a light under the hood.
      -This is the first GM vehicle that I have had in 20+ years of driving GMs that doesn't have a steering wheel lock.
      -Put the valve on the spare tire where you can check the air in it without dropping it down.

  3. P161911 Avatar

    When GM shut down production, the Trailblazer family was the last American vehicle available with a straight 6. No more Jeep 4.0L, no more Ford 4.9L.
    We actually have a 2004 Traiblazer, it is the wife's car and the "nice family car". We got it new, mainly because her Grandfather retired from GM and we got the employee discount and all the rebates before that was common. Also, in 2004 it was about the only GM product that was priced under $35k that I wanted. GTOs and Corvettes were out of our price range and Tahoes were a little too big. I will say that the Trailblazer is worlds better than my mother's 2002 Mercury Mountaineer. Overall the Trailblazer has been pretty good, only one repair in almost 85k miles, the water pump went out. As someone who likes RWD, body on frame vehicles I would recommend it over a FWD "Crossover". The built-in class III receiver hitch and decent tow rating is a plus.
    The 9-7x with the 6.0l is the 9-7x AERO.

    1. acarr260 Avatar

      Oh, you had to bring up the inline 6, didn't you?! I mourned the day that Jeep stopped producing the Cherokee (mine was a Sport model). That inline 6 was great straight out of the showroom and you could easily and relatively cheaply upgrade that engine to produce a reliable 300 hp. My first taste of the I6 was a farm truck growing up – an F250 with the I6 300 – you couldn't kill that engine and in granny gear it was better than my F250 (packing a 351W).

      1. P161911 Avatar

        Somehow I have ended up with an all inline 6 fleet at this point:
        2004 Trailblazer 4.2L
        1988 F-150 longbed, extended cab, 4.9L, 5MT
        1996 BMW Z3 with 3.2L S52 swap.

        1. acarr260 Avatar

          You're livin' the dream, my man.
          My current drivable fleet are two Chevy trucks – '87 Custom Deluxe with 5.0 V8 and '00 Silverado 2500 with the 6.0 Vortec.
          My storage fleet include a '74 Monte with the 6.6 (400 sbc) and a '56 (ish… can't recall off the top of my head) Jeep FC with a 4 cyl something (I've never driven it – it only has 3k original miles on the clock).
          /Subscribe to your newsletter, and all of that.

          1. P161911 Avatar

            My storage fleet is down to just a 77 Corvette with a 350 in need of some work. My latest armchair consideration for a re-engine for it is a junkyard 6.0 Vortec with a carb intake. ~400HP vs. the stock 180HP should show some improvement.

  4. muthalovin Avatar

    GM really, really got the most mileage out of this platform (pun intended), but I hope that New GM find a better way. The prostitution of nameplates really helped GM race into demise (oh, 2 for 2). However, if I was looking for an SUV currently, I would look long and hard for the Trollblazer. Quirky SAAB aesthetics with a 6.0L GM motor? Yes please.

  5. skitter Avatar

    I see an Ascender once in a while. The twitch you see comes from dogs grinding between my eyes and internal car database.

  6. M44Power Avatar

    While I have nothing against the Trailblazer, I do think the SAAB example is the epitome of what was wrong with GM. I have never understood how a few extra thousand captured sells from a rebadge ever outweighed the brand equity damage from doing something as insane as a SAAB-badged Chevy. Or a SAAB-badged Subaru.
    They still are doing this, only for brands with no equity left to mine. Buicks and Chevrolets can be reborn as Opels with tweaks with no damage to the brand. But SAAB went in, and came out, with a pretty loyal following.

  7. acarr260 Avatar

    Who loves body roll? This platform does!

  8. ClutchKick Avatar

    Having worked as a porter at a GM dealership in high school, I can only think of how hard those 7-passenger EXT models are to back in to a tight parking spot. Seriously… Tahoes, Avalanches, and full-size vans are easier to park.

  9. citroen67 Avatar

    HA! I actually did know about the Isuzu Ascender. Every time I see one, a shiver goes down my spine. It makes me wonder what kind of person actually went to a dealership and said to themselves:"I would love to buy a re-badged GM product that costs more than the actual GM product of the same design." I always thought it would be funny to find one out in the wild, buy it, and re-badge it as a GMC, but leave all the Isuzu badging on the interior, then put it back up for sale just to watch people's reactions when they stop to look at it…yes, I know, I have no life.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      If I remember correctly the Isuzu did come with a better warranty than the Chevys or GMCs. I know this was the case of the Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport.

    2. Impalamino Avatar

      The Ascender was MORE expensive? Hmm. I advised more than one person in the market for an S-10 to buy an Isuzu Hombre instead, since the different badge on the grill and the steering wheel essentially meant a price cut of at least $500 and probably more. 'Course, that was in the late 90s, before Isuzu just completely gave up.
      I have seen Ascenders in the wild, but I mainly remember them from that Jay-Leno-Headline-style dealer advertisement that referred to it as an "Assender".

    3. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

      I knew about the Ascender, but thought it was LWB-only, so technically Jim (UDMan) was right…
      I like that idea quite a bit. It goes along with my idea to create a four-door Mazda Navajo.

  10. LTDScott Avatar

    I actually liked the styling of the Trailblazer/Envoy in the short wheelbase versions. The LWB looked so silly.

    1. Nater Avatar

      The SS is a good looking SUV. The LWB version always reminded me of a ferret. A stinky, stinky ferret.

    2. P161911 Avatar

      The LWB versions looked like a poorly execute limo stretch to me.

  11. engineerd Avatar

    UDMan points out GM's very problem — they compete with themselves way too much. It's a business model that works alright when you control 50% of the market, but not when consumers are given plenty of other choices. By flooding the market with clones of nearly all their cars for all their brands, they devalue the vehicles and the brands. Saab is not the quirky Swedish automaker it was 20 years ago. GMC is no longer the work man's Chevy. Buick is near-luxury, but a step below most other near-luxury brands. So, you can point out how GM sales are so wonderful, but it's meaningless when all those sales are at a loss because GM Dealer A is competing with GM Dealer B down the street. I don't see this changing, either. Whitacre just shuffled the executive leadership in GM not because of profits but because of sales. They still seem fixated on market share and not on being profitable no matter what their market share. Until this attitude changes, and until GM realizes that brands need their own identity and consumers see through their badgeneering GM will be paying another visit to Capitol Hill begging for more of our money.
    To be fair, I'm getting increasingly frustrated with Ford's treatment of Mercury. They need to either give Mercury its own product that is related, but different from Ford, or shut it down.10 years ago Mercurys were upscale Fords with more bells and whistles. That's not even true any more. When shopping for a new Escape for my wife we looked at the Mariner and for the same options the Escape was a bit better value.

    1. AteUpWithMotor Avatar

      Mercury's role and purpose have been heavily debated within Ford for more than fifty years. The reason it parallels the Ford line so closely at this point is that its real purpose is not to be more upscale than Ford, but to keep Lincoln dealers alive between Town Car and Navigator sales. That's also probably the only reason Mercury is still alive.

  12. Deartháir Avatar

    I'm going to have to try and track down a Trollblazer. I don't mind these trucks — particularly in the SS trim — with the exception of the interiors. UDMan was very delicate in his description; I would have called them "recycled shit out of a mid-90s Pontiac Sunfire".
    I hope the Trollblazer interior is a little better, although I'm not too optimistic. I'll find one and take it for a spin.

    1. engineerd Avatar

      Trollblazers aren't too bad. They used the higher end trim and materials. Although, that made them average at best considering how god awful the base trim and materials were. The nice thing was the engine choice.
      The problem I always had with the Trollblazer is since when does Saab make an SUV?

  13. TurboBrick Avatar

    I have seen at least one 9-7 Aero in town. This is the one SUV I wouldn't mind having, and it's probably going to be one of the most collectible Saabs of the GM-era.

    1. Tomsk Avatar

      Definitely. That and the 9-3 Viggen.

  14. lilwillie Avatar

    152,000 and trucking in my '02 TrailBlazer. Loving every minute of it.

  15. KillerZomBee Avatar

    Dang! Late to the party again.
    This one I'm a little passionate about tho, so I gotta add my 2 cents. I've said it before, but the Trailblazer gets an undeserved bad rap.
    I'll preface myself by saying I'm primarily a Mopar man who tortures himself with British crap, and I've never really liked Chevys as a generalized rule. But I spent 15+ years traveling extensively as one of them "Can you hear me now" guys, and I have rented damn near everything Hertz has offered, from HHRs to Expeditions, economy sedans and Cadillacs, Hummers and Jeeps, with the occasional Miata, 350z or Shelby GTH thrown in for good measure. Between 20-and 30 cars a year for a week or two at a time. That's several hundred rentals over the last decade and a half.
    80% of these rentals are 4×4 SUVs due to the nature of the work, and I've taken them to the highest mountains and the lowest deserts, in snow, rain mud and blistering heat. Raging creeks, icy passes and deep sand. I've also had to drive them up and down every street in major metro areas and every cu-de-sac in the suburbs as fast as I safely can, lefts, rights and u-turns, over and over for 8-10 hours a day. Taxis and squad cars aren't pushed as hard.
    I can say unequivocally that the Trailblazer was hands down the best all round SUV out there, and one of the best vehicles PERIOD. I would ask for them by name when I could. Great mileage, perfect power band, great handling (I could drive test an entire neighborhood as fast in a Trailbalzer as I could a Miata) plenty of usable room, they went places the Fords, Jeeps Hummers and Dodges couldn't hack. The straight six was butter smooth and the Stabilitrack more than once kept me from becoming a news story in the storm of the century in addition to helping save an epic trek for a marriage proposal.
    If I lived in the mountains I would insist my wife drives a Trailblazer in the winter, and someday I plan on buying one for myself. WHAT? A CHEVY AT PETE'S HOUSE?!? Has the world gone crazy?!?
    Yes. But not just any Chevy. A Trailbalazer. Nothing else comes close, not even the clones. Highest praise I can muster.
    (P.S. A 2008 Explorer was the first vehicle that ever made me so physically angry, it caused me to take it back to trade for another model)

  16. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    Definitely a vehicle designed for the 90s vision of what an SUV should be, arriving 10 years too late. BOF, solid rear axle, stodgy styling, etc etc.
    Luckily, my family uses their SUVs in the 90s model: people-hauling, towing, snow and dirt duty, meaning this actually makes a lot of sense. This and the 4Runner are two of the only midsize SUVs worth considering for that duty.

  17. P161911 Avatar

    Has any other platform been sold under more names than this one? I can't think of one.

    1. TurboBrick Avatar

      GM sure is the master of that, Kadett C (T-body), perhaps? Opel, Daewoo, Vauxhall, Holden, Chevy and Isuzu all had their own versions of it,

      1. P161911 Avatar

        Yep that's the winner. GMC sold Chevettes in Argentina, who knew? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-body#Complete_list

  18. […] History of the Trailblazer – Okay, so maybe no one cares about the Trailblazer and it’s many cousins, but I sure enjoyed the read from the folks at Hooniverse. […]

  19. […] General Motors may have set a record in the early part of the decade when it rolled out not two or three, but six midsize SUVs that basically all offered the same thing. […]