2006 Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS: In the Autoblog Garage Day 4-5

Our time with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS is about to come to an end. With a thorough static examination of the vehicle completed (see Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3), it's time to get into this vehicle, wring it out in a variety of driving conditions, and find out if it's worthy of the Super Sport badge.

Based on the comments that have been left in the first three posts of this review, it appears that a significant number of our readers are willing to pass judgment on this vehicle without putting rubber to the road. That's too bad, because this vehicle's best attributes are certainly not assessed while sitting still.


The days of single-dimensional performance are over, but the TrailBlazer SS makes no apologies for the fact that its roots lie solidly in the muscle car era. Tip into the first 10-percent or so of its electronically-controlled throttle, and one finds enough speed to keep up with nearly any traffic situation. There's very little in the way of exhaust rumblings or mechanical noise to indicate what's going on, just a steady clockwise sweep of the speedometer's needle. If the safety weenies of the world had their way, this amount of performance would be all we'd ever be allowed to experience. The next portion of travel - up to the halfway point or thereabouts, will leave 95-percent of your fellow drivers gratifyingly sucking spent gasses. The transmission doesn't readily offer up downshifts, but frankly it's generally not necessary to grab a lower gear. The big single exhaust system starts to assert itself at this point, and heads will turn.

Venture past half-throttle, and the TrailBlazer SS leaps forward with a ferocity that defies most anyone's perception of what SUVs are capable of. The slushbox will finally snap down a gear or two, and the horizon suddenly becomes an immediate concern. Hitting gaps in traffic that would be unsafe (or downright impossible) in most vehicles becomes easy in the TBSS, and the deep roar of the exhaust alerts everyone in a three-block radius as to the siesmic activity occurring in the LS2's combustion chambers. As the tach jumps towards redline, upshifts are quick and smooth (although probably not snappy enough to be appealing to the TransGo customer base).  

Dip into the loud pedal for too long, however, and there is a high likelihood of needing to drop anchor. That's where the TrailBlazer's big binders come in handy. While pedal feel is not among the best we've experienced and the level of power assist is a bit too high, the sheer effectiveness of the four disc setup is admirable. The ABS system holds off on doing its thing until the last possible moment, and doesn't result in exaggerated stopping distances when engaged.

When speaking of this TrailBlazer's handling prowess, it's hardly necessary to use the "..for a SUV" disclaimer. The steering feel is just a bit on the numb side, but any movement of the wheel results in a corresponding change in direction. Even more importantly for building driver confidence is the SS' minimal body roll, which puts to rest any concerns about an excessively high center of gravity. Once one's self-preservation instincts are satisfied that a rollover isn't an imminent possibility, a benign understeer manifests itself at the limit. Spend enough time sawing the wheel back and forth, and the vehicle reveals itself as a competent handler that deserves to be placed in the same class as any number of sport sedans or pony cars.

Despite having suspension tuning that's stiff enough to keep the door handles from dragging, the ride is quite tolerable - especially for something that rides on dubs. Even with the 20" wheels, there's still enough sidewall to keep the ride from becoming brutal, and the Bilstein shocks can be felt doing their thing over what passes for pavement in the Midwest. The GMT360 platform is not among the stiffest out there, especially when compared to the TrailBlazer's unibody "soft-roader" competition, but only over the nastiest of rutted dirt roads did the structure issue an objectionable amount of flex.

What's most impressive, however, is not how each of these performance attributes work by themselves, but rather how they combine to move this vehicle exactly where the driver intends to go. We were able to test our SS in a wide variety of weather and road conditions, and found it nearly impossible to make a mistake. The defining moment of our test came on a deserted backcountry dirt road, where we turned off the traction and stability control, placed the right tires on ice, the left tires on gravel, and applied full throttle. Do the same in the average 400 HP sports car, and the local towing service had best be on one's mobile phone's speed dial. In the TrailBlazer SS, it simply lauched forward with more ferocity than most vehicles are capable of on dry pavement. It's the sort of performance that leaves the driver totally unconcerned with the quality of interior materials.

Feel the need to go WOT in the middle of a tight right-hand turn? Go ahead. Thinking about doing something dumb like chopping the throttle because a corner was entered too fast? Precious little drama results. Want to get as much as a chirp from the tires during acceleration? Good luck. It's apparent this vehicle's drivetrain and suspension do virtually everything right when it comes to maximizing the vehicle's available traction. As such, the TrailBlazer SS is easier to drive than virtually any other SUV with comparable amounts of power. Turn off the electronic babysitters, and little of this changes - the hardware does all the right things without the intervention of any computerized trickery. When the traction and stability control systems do engage, we found them to be relatively unobtrusive (considering the circumstances - if the driver finds themselves turning over control to the vehicle's computers, it's likely that something is quite wrong).

As might be expected, severe off-roading was not in the cards for this review. Take one glance at the SS' front valance and decidedly street-oriented tires, and there should be no question why we didn't explore anything nastier than a two-track.

There's a price to be paid for all of this performance, though. Ever hear the expression "it passes everything but a gas pump"? Combine the TrailBlazer's usable fuel capacity of approximately 20 gallons with our observed highway fuel economy of just a tick over 15 MPG, and even those with peanut-sized bladders will find nature making calls less frequently than the gas gauge. Take advantage of all that power and traction in stop-and-go situations, and it's possible to drop fuel economy perilously close to single digits. It's the one way in which the vehicle fails to transcend its SUV roots, and remained highly annoying throughout the test.

So... how does the subject of this review stack up to the competition? First, it's important to establish its position in the marketplace. Most will view this vehicle going head-to-head against the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 in a field of two $40K SUVs that have mutated into muscle cars, but it's possible to envision cross-shopping this with sportier soft-roaders like Nissan's Murano. We also think that more than a few potential TrailBlazer SS customers might contemplate a spin around the block in the Hemi-powered versions of Dodge's Charger or Magnum before unfurling their checkbooks. None of these vehicles offer anything ground-breaking in terms of interior quality or fit-and-finish (although admittedly they all fare better). But more importantly, none offer the same blend of performance and practicality that one finds with the TrailBlazer SS.

The stiffest competition for the TrailBlazer SS, however, may indeed come from vehicles that are no longer available in new-car showrooms. For the faithful Bowtie fans that would seem likely to make up the majority of hot-rod 'Blazer sales, it'll be important that this vehicle has earned the right to carry Super Sport badges.

Compared to modern interpretations of the SS theme, we think that the TrailBlazer SS may very well represent the most dramatic transformation when compared to the base model. Certainly, the "tri-9" Impala SS didn't receive a power infusion of this magnitude, the Silverado SS lacked street presence, and sticking a 303 HP V8 into a front-wheel-drive sedan leaves most all of us shaking our heads. From a historical standpoint, a souped-up SUV may seem like a slap in the face to GM's muscle car heritage, but the concept of sticking a wild motor and improved suspension components into a garden-variety vehicle is what muscle cars are all about. Besides, what's more "garden variety" than a mid-sized SUV these days? Ignore the two-box form factor, and this is arguably among the most well-rounded sports sedans that Chevrolet has ever produced.

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