Time was Detroit wouldn't even make a performance version of anything with more than two doors. The idea of a sport sedan just didn't compute. Even now you cannot get a Cobalt SS Supercharged in sedan form. But if you want a high-performance SUV, which might seem a contradiction in terms, there are suddenly two to choose from: the 395-horsepower Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS and 420-horsepower Jeep Grand Chrokee SRT8. I took both for a test drive to see how they compare, and whether a high-performance SUV makes any sense at all.
A slightly different version of this review appeared a few weeks ago in the Grand Cherokee listing. There is little point in reading both.
Back in 2002 I thought the then-new TrailBlazer a very attractive SUV. And I still do, but it's overly familiar now, fit and finish still need work, and the exterior trim doesn't appear particularly precise. The indentations around the wheel flares are a cliche whose time has passed. The newer, edgier Grand Cherokee, though in some ways not as attractive, looks crisper, more sophisticated, and simply more up-to-date.
Both vehicles have unique exterior trim compared to the mainstream models. For the SS, Chevrolet adds 20-inch alloys that nicely accentuate the TrailBlazer's fender flares, a mesh grille, a lowered ride height, and a deeper front fascia with additional mesh inserts. The deletion of the bodyside moldings standard on other TrailBlazers also makes the fender flares more evident. A bit lowbrow perhaps. And some people will wish the styling was further differentiated from that of a regular TrailBlazer.
For the SRT8, Jeep also adds 20-inch alloys. With five thinner spokes to the Chevy's six relatively fat ones, I prefer the SRT8's. Both sets of tires are Goodyear Eagle RS-As, but the Jeep's are larger, 255/45 front and 285/40 rear vs. the Chevrolet's higher-profile 255/50s. The latter do have the advantage of filling their wheel openings more completely.
Jeep also adds a more complete and more aggressive body kit that, in combination with a significantly lower ride height, makes the SRT8 look at once sportier and more sophisticated than the SS. The large twin chrome exhuast outlets that emerge beneath the center of the rear bumper are an especially nice touch--but leave no obvious place to mount a trailer hitch.
So, while in some ways I continue to prefer the basic styling of the TrailBlazer, I vastly prefer the overall execution of the Jeep.
Inside there is simply no contest. While the materials inside the Jeep are hardly luxury grade, they look and feel solid and the instrument panel has a modestly upscale appearance. The patterned leather used on the top part of the steering wheel is an especially nice touch; I wish it covered the whole rim.
In comparison, the interior of the Chevrolet appears cheap, flimsy, and dated. Where the Jeep has crisp lines the Chevrolet has vaguely organic forms. Usually black makes an interior appear more upscale, but tan seems better in this case. The top of the instrument panel, perhaps the part of the interior you're least likely to touch, is the main use of soft-touch materials. Beyond the instrument panel and console, the instruments, the steering wheel, and all of the switchgear simply appear much cheaper and cruder than those in the Jeep. Add in the Chevrolet's clunky door-closing sound, and "junky" comes to mind.
The Jeep is a more compact vehicle, especially in the rear seat, so if interior room is your top priority the Chevrolet might be your best bet. On just about any other criterion the Jeep is superior. You sit high in both vehicles--they are SUVs--but in the Jeep the instrument panel doesn't hulk up in front of you.
And yet the nav system in the Jeep is mounted in a more convenient location higher on the dash. The Chevrolet uses GM's nav radio, which was clearly designed for use in instrument panels not designed with nav in mind. A Hummer salesperson also posted on a forum that the GM nav radio doesn't need to be code enabled, so thieves love them.
The Jeep's front seats, similar to those in other SRT models, are well bolstered and very comfortable even though they don't have many adjustments. Unlike in many sport seats, the bolsters are not too widely spaced for my average frame, and I felt very well secured between them. They also feel very substantial, lending the whole vehicle a high quality feel.
The SS' front seats do provide more lateral support than those in the regular TrailBlazer, but then the latter provide none at all. Compared to the seats in the SRT8, those in the SS are mushy and less supportive. They also feel less substantial than those in the Jeep.
The rear seat a major advantage of the Chevrolet. While the rear seat in the Jeep is firmer and better-shaped, there's too little space back there for adults. The Chevrolet has a less comfortable seat--somewhat mushy again--but there's much more room for legs back there.
Neither vehicle has a third row. Cargo volume is greater in the Chevrolet, but still very useful in the Jeep. While the Jeep has no obvious place to mount a hitch, the Chevrolet can tow a few tons. So if you want the truck to work, the Chevrolet is likely the better bet.
On the Road
It should come as no surprise that both SUVs are extremely quick. Both engines make their power the old fashioned way, through sheer displacement rather than a turbo or variable valve timing, so major torque is available just above idle. Want to throw your passengers back into their seats and suck their guts in? Just stab the gas. The muscle car lives--in SUV form. The engine in the Jeep makes slightly more sophisticated noises. Both are fairly loud when you're dipping into the throttle, but reasonably quiet otherwise.
The Jeep's manually-shiftable five-speed automatic shifts much more smoothly than the Chevrolet's conventional four-speed automatic. Under hard acceleration the SS' powertrain feels much like the Camaros of yore. The Jeep's powertrain feels more polished.
In both vehicles the all-wheel-drive system effectively transfers power to the road, so you can stomp on the gas without fear of tire squeal or fishtailing. The SS is also available in rear-drive form.
The Jeep's brakes are very powerful, with a very firm feel. In comparison, the Chevrolet's brakes are mushy and do not feel as strong.
Both corner flatter than any SUV has a right to, but the Jeep feels especially level and balanced in hard turns. I did not feel anywhere near its limits. The harder I pushed it the better it felt. Not once did a tire so much as chirp.
The Chevrolet handles much better than other GM midsize SUVs I've driven, even the Saab 9-7X, but it's not in the same league. Where the Jeep feels solid and precise, the Chevrolet has a minor amount of jiggle and slop. The body-on-frame construction might be to blame; the Jeep, like most cars, is unitized. Where the Jeep felt totally composed over road imperfections, with amazingly effective damping of any untoward motions, the Chevrolet shimmied and bobbed a bit. The Chevrolet actually behaves very well for a conventional SUV, but the Jeep is simply astounding in this regard.
This said, the Chevrolet does have one advantage: its steering is firmer and provides a bit more feel on-center--though neither is particularly strong in this area. If there's one thing I'd change about the Jeep, it's the steering.
Usually the only way to make a tall vehicle handle well is to make its suspension extremely firm. So I totally expected both trucks to beat me up over bumps and dips in the road. Yet neither did. I experienced no harshness in either, with just a small amount of busyness over some minor road imperfections. Both are also fairly quiet, though the performance exhausts and tires keep them from reaching luxury car levels. The Jeep has an edge here as well. It's a thoroughly livable vehicle, the biggest surprise of the day.
Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS Price Comparisons and Pricing
With the 2006 TrailBlazer, the SS bits were grouped in a package that could be added to either the LS or LT trim. For 2007, the SS is a separate trim, but the content and options remain much the same. So you can still buy a lightly featured SS.
In contrast, the SRT8 is a unique model that comes heavily loaded. So while the Chevrolet with AWD starts at $32,430 after a $1,000 rebate, the Jeep starts at $39,995 and has no rebate. Adjusting for feature differences narrows the gap to about $5,500.
Is the Jeep worth an extra $5,500? Easily.
But wait...dealers right now want AT LEAST MSRP for the Jeep, while the TrailBlazer can be bought at a large discount. Before the recent price cut, people at trailvoy.com (a forum for TrailBlazer and Envoy enthusiasts) report buying the SS for as much as $9,000 below MSRP.
In this market, invoice on the SS certainly shouldn't be too difficult. This would add nearly $3,000 to the gap. Simply want the engine, and don't care for all-wheel-drive or amenities? Then the gap in what you'll pay could easily be $12,500.
I always say that people should only pay for the stuff they want. Chevrolet is far more flexible here than Jeep. Someone who "merely" wants a super-fast SUV with good handling will no doubt find the approximately $27,500 base SS a better buy than the $40,000+ Jeep.
A 395-horsepower SUV for $27,500? Suddently the SS is much more appealing.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the TrailBlazer:
The TrailBlazer SS is a commendable achievement. If the Grand Cherokee SRT8 did not exist I'd have little trouble recommending the SS to a driving enthusiast who wants an SUV. The performance is a substantial improvement over the regular TrailBlazer. The cheap interior would give me the greatest pause.
But Jeep's SRT8 does exist, and it's a much more refined, sophisticated, and comprehensive package. In many ways I prefer it to the more expensive Mercedes and BMW SUVs I've driven. Though its interior is not as nice, the Jeep nearly matches them in terms of overall refinement (the BMWs certainly don't ride as well) and has more character. If I had to drive an SUV, it would likely be this one.
But if my budget was limited or I wanted to actually be able to tow something, the Chevrolet would take the top spot by default. The TB SS is an especially good value if you don't tick off many option boxes.
Either way, it seems a high-performance SUV does make sense.
A Note on Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a TrailBlazer SS rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Chevrolet TrailBlazer reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the TrailBlazer--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access
to the site's reliability information. For non-participants, this access will cost $24.95.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 review
Chevrolet TrailBlazer review