WHENEVER WE HAVE a big bakkie-based SUV launch in South Africa the online forums go crazy. Why? Because as former voortrekkers, souties and bushmen, we like to travel – and not just to the mall. When we go we normally have Namibia or Mozambique in our sights. We go far and we go rough. So at launch time we ask things like can it tow my off-road trailer? Will it be able to handle my favourite 4×4 trail or is it not made for that type of unrelenting terrain? So as the Chevrolet Trailblazer hits the South African market we are once again asking these very same questions, and to answer this conundrum pit the Trailblazer to the current king of the mid-size SUV castle, the Toyota Fortuner 3.0 D-4D.
The production model of the second-generation Trailblazer, unlike its North American predecessor, is available globally. It made its début at the Bangkok International Motor Show in March of this year. Why Bangkok? Well the Trailblazer was built there after the Thai government offered General Motors a generous tax incentive if they built a bakkie-based SUV at the factory in Rayong. Locally, the Trailblazer will be available in three derivatives, two with a Duramax turbodiesel, a 2.5 and 2.8, and a 3.6-litre V6 VVT petrol engine.
To ensure that we gave it a good working over we headed for the Western Cape’s Overberg region where farming and bad gravel roads rule. To get there it was up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass before turning off the N2 at the KFC-less village of Caledon. The road towards the Hemel en Aarde Valley was under construction so it was a little like driving through a never-ending quarry. To give the Trailblazer and Fortuner a stiff off-road test spent half-a-day at Glen Oakes, a working farm with a very technical 4×4 trail.
A scary thing happens when you park these vehicles nose to nose – the similarity in looks and outline are rather startling. When the facelifted Fortuner appeared towards the end of 2011 it was as if the designer had taken an unnatural liking to chrome. Out the window went the old black grille and in came several rather generous dollops of chrome including the several strips that make up the grille. Less subtle are the chrome door handles and chrome boot strip. The poor interior did not escape the chroming either.
Most of the significant and less bling changes occurred on the front bumper and bonnet of the vehicle. Instead of going straight towards the headlamps, the raised lines on the bonnet headed inwards towards the little silver Toyota badge found in the centre of the grille. With its now flatter nose, the Fortuner has the stance of a ‘not to be messed with’ bulldog. Up until now this bulldog could pee against any tree it liked as all the other dogs were scared of it.
Enter the Chevrolet Trailblazer, though we are not yet sure if this one is a bulldog, boxer or pug. Time will tell. From the front it definitely has that American Chevy big, rounded SUV look about it. The two-part black grille has a chrome finisher while the famous golden Chevrolet bowtie badge stands in the centre part that divides grille. Chevrolet has used what it calls a ‘body in, wheels out’ exterior design style in an attempt to gain every kind of off-road advantage.
As for the rear, the Trailblazer once again has a slightly more rounded appearance while the chrome strip is shorter and does not go from tail-lamp to tail-lamp as on the Fortuner, making it slightly more understated. The 18-inch alloys found on the Trailblazer are thicker and chunkier than the Prado-like wheels of the Fortuner. But when it comes to choice of rubber the Toyota has an advantage. Both vehicles are running the popular Bridgestone Duellers, but the Fortuner has the off-road friendly AT version whereas the Trailblazer has tar-biased HT tyres.
Interior and accommodation
I have always found the interior of the Fortuner to be rather plain, functional and understated. It is not going to win awards but it is going to do the job. The one thing that I have never got the hang of is the sandpaper-like facia, but at least if you throw a laminated map onto it while trying to evade militia in central Africa it won’t slide off and into your lap. One of the advantages of the simple sandy-beige-and-grey hued interior is that it is fairly simple to clean with a cloth and some elbow grease, ideal if traversing the dirty and dusty bowels of our continent. But it is not all bad. Each occupant of the seven seats in the Fortuner has a place to put a can of Coke or decent-sized water bottle.
In many regards the Fortuner and Trailblazer are on par: the power-adjustable driver’s seat, number of seats, flimsy centre console lids, rear cooler, half-decent audio, Bluetooth, cruise control and electrically-adjustable rear-view mirrors are common. But when you climb into the Trailblazer after driving the Fortuner you do sense a classier, more stylish environment. That is until you look at the radio as the design is based on an eighties boom box crossed with a soccer ball.
The biggest interior difference is the configuration of the third row of seats, where the Trailblazer easily comes up trumps. When not required, the Fortuner’s seats fold up against the sides of the cabin thereby wasting loads of precious packing space, and when folding down you have to first loosen two hooks before flattening the seats. One little handle does all of this in the Trailblazer where the seats fold away nicely onto the floor, creating a flat, uniform surface.
Under the bonnet
The Toyota 3.0 D-4D engine will go down in history as one of the classics. It has proved to be efficient and reliable in even the harshest African conditions. This much-loved motor delivers a useful 120kW with a maximum torque of 343Nm, which makes it one smooth operator in both the city and the bush. Our Trailblazer test unit was the 2.8 LTZ 4X4 Auto that, on paper, slightly betters the Fortuner with peak outputs of 132kW and a healthy 470Nm. When you fire up the Trailblazer and hear that diesel crank over for the first time, it does sound a little like a truck – we are sure Swartland farmers will enjoy this effect. But others who are used to stealthy hi-tech diesel engines might not find it that attractive.
On the way out to our 4×4 destination I was in the Fortuner and it flew over Sir Lowry’s Pass. When we hit that famous right-hander switchback I tackled it as fast as my talent would allow. The Fortuner sat like a piece of gum on your tekkie. It was not going anywhere except on the road. Would the Trailblazer do the same? Well on the way home the Trailblazer pleasantly surprised me. While not as responsive on pullaway as we would have liked, once it got going it cornered that switchback confidently and without any cheek-clenching discomfort.
So in order to determine who ruled the roost we moved off-road, an important part of the test as this is Africa and we do go off-road. This Fortuner is a full-time 4WD vehicle but with the Trailblazer you have to turn a knob to take you from 2WD to 4WD High Range, which can be done on the fly. One disconcerting Trailblazer fact is that unlike almost every other vehicle we have driven before there are no bright little lights on the facia to confirm engagement, so you have to trust the big black knob. Hardly ideal. However, if you push the Hill Descent Control (HDC) button, a warning light does appear.
Standard on all Trailblazers is a limited-slip differential that kicks-in when one of the driven wheels is struggling for traction by transferring torque from the slipping wheel to one with available traction. Not so for our Trailblazer: this instead had an optional mechanical locker, which engages when the vehicle’s sensors decide it is time to lend a helping hand. It will activate when a differential wheel speed of 100rpm is reached and is only deactivated once you go over 36kph or if there is a reversal in torque. In the Fortuner, the rear diff-lock engages with the push of a button.
As far as the off-road capability is concerned there is not much to separate these two. The Fortuner has a 30deg approach angle, 25deg departure angle and 220mm of ground clearance. The Trailblazer also has a 30deg approach angle but only a 22deg departure angle, and when it comes to ground clearance there is just a centimetre more (230mm) clearance.
On the trail’s first challenging incline, the independent suspension of the Trailblazer worked well. We were trying to go as slowly as possible but just before the end of the obstacle there was some wheelspin but with the help of a heavier foot and some Traction Control, over and up she went. We were curious to see how the Fortuner would go but even without the rear locker it crested the incline without any wheelspin or fuss. One nil to the Fortuner, then. Was it because of the better off-road tyres on the Toyota? In a cross-axle situation the Fortuner struggled when the right-rear wheel fell into a hole, but after engaging the rear diff-lock on it went. With the Trailblazer you had to work the steering wheel a little but it, too, eventually got through without any fuss. All square.
At the mud hole, the Fortuner got stuck about half-way through whereas after locking into second gear, low range, the Trailblazer powered through. We gave the Fortuner a second go and it too went through. All in attendance agreed that the mud seemed thicker and deeper on the Fortuner’s first pass.
It was during a rocky incline with a big step near the end that the Fortuner clinched it from the Trailblazer. The ease of control and rear diff-lock made it effortless for the Toyota. Not so with the reactionary nature of the mechanical locker of the Chevrolet, which struggled and the Trailblazer had to fight its way up and over, requiring some serious acceleration at one stage. While generally the Trailblazer did impress greatly when off-road, the Fortuner out performed it.
Others have tried but failed to topple the Toyota Fortuner. During our testing, the Chevrolet Trailblazer did better than all before it. In fact, we feel that when it comes to interior and exterior qualities it equals and even betters the Fortuner. The needs of the buyer are of great importance when deciding between these two. How much luggage space do you need? Are you going to Timbuktu in Mali or Tofo in Mozambique? Are you buying the 4×4 or 4×2 model? The Trailblazer is good looking, pretty capable, spacious and comfortably cruises the highway. But is it better than the Fortuner? Only time or, more importantly, sales figures will tell.