Mountain Wheels: Chevrolet’s inexpensive Trailblazer provides off-road kicks

Small but remarkably agile, the three-cylinder Chevrolet Trailblazer was able to tackle the gnarliest of Central City-area roads last weekend.
Photo by Andy Stonehouse / Mountain Wheels

It’s not often that a vehicle arrives to me like it’s part of a blind taste test, but in the case of the very, very new Chevy Trailblazer, its appearance on my doorstep was literally the first time I’d even seen the vehicle. So I started off as you might during the Pepsi Challenge — no preconceptions, no stats sheets, no Car and Driver reviews — and had a pretty positive experience.

If you went on stats alone with this all-new small crossover, you might go into it with some misconceptions. The 2021 Trailblazer brings a reintroduction of a name first seen as an upscale version of the Chevy S-10 pickup, then the relatively popular, larger predecessor of the current Traverse.

If I said that this was instead now a small, Korean-built, three-cylinder engine vehicle — sorta tiny Toyota FJ Cruiser meets Mini Cooper Countryman — would that knock your socks off? Probably not. Would an entry price of about $20,000 change your mind, considering that Chevy’s Bolt all-electric vehicle retails for $20,000 more than that?

As I said, I didn’t even know that when I first checked out its small-but-not-that-small presentation, including very contemporary, Camaro-sourced grille and fascia looks, a flourish of unusual bronze-colored chrome trim and a very FJ/Mini-styled white roof and mirror caps.

And yes, on first startup, an actual three-cylinder engine did not produce the most macho of sounds, nor was I particularly thrilled by what seemed to be an excessively bumpy ride on some sort of half off-road tires, especially on bad pavement.

But then I went full auto TV show on the Trailblazer — in this case, the Activ model as opposed to the more urban-styled RS or traditional LS or LT trims — and drove it up an actual steambed, over head-sized boulders, all the way up to about 12,000 feet. I banged the living hell out of it. And it was fun. It really did blaze trails. Who knew?

I know that most drivers never, ever, ever subject their new vehicles to backcountry torture tests, but if a ($30,580, as tested) smallish, Korean-made Chevy can gallop along like a mountain goat and still show itself to have steady on-highway poise, I’m pretty impressed.

The Activ model does get special suspension tuning, slightly better ground clearance and more robust underbody paneling than the other models, which was helpful as I bounced along on forest roads connecting Rollinsville to Central City, the very crunchy back way. Hankook Dynapro sport terrain tires with chunkier sidewalls also made the travel easier, seeming very easy-going when I hit the highway again, by comparison to my first drive.

It still comes with either a 1.3-liter turbo engine, making 155 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, or a 1.2-liter, stepped down to 137 horsepower. I drove one with a nine-speed automatic transmission, though a CVT automatic is optional or the standard issue on the smaller engine.

And as long as I did not try drag racing on the freeway, those 155 horses seemed pretty hearty here, especially as Trailblazer is only 3,275 pounds, with all-wheel drive and the bigger engine. Better yet, it got me a very consistent 30 mpg, though the computer said someone had managed 56 on a previous drive. That’s OK by me.

Large it is not — my perceptions further skewed as I had the new Miata parked next to it — but with a 103.9-inch wheelbase and 173.7 inches of overall length, it’s not minuscule, either. Total cargo capacity with the second-row seats dropped is a respectable 54.4 cubic feet, and the back seat actually offered pretty decent space, as well (though super-thin front seatbacks also contribute to some of that room). You can also fold the front passenger seat entirely flat to throw an 8.5-foot-long grandfather clock inside.

At this vehicle price point, it was also noticeably short on the offroading buttons and tools you see in most larger SUVs these days. All-wheel drive and traction-control buttons were literally it, hidden in front of the shifter, plus a multimode drive selector, dialing up a buzzier sport mode.

But I did not miss hill descent control, vehicle angle displays or the terrain knobs most drivers completely ignore in their more expensive vehicles. Basic, solid offroading was easy, and in town, the mixture of power and size was perfectly fine.

It’s certainly stylish, with that multilevel face (featuring Camaro-styled running lamps up top, very bright potted headlamps in the middle and small fog lamps at the bottom). The interior is also an explosion of surfaces and levels, with copper colored inserts, denim-styled material inside the doors and on the seat edges, and chrome highlights elsewhere.  

Andy Stonehouse, Summit Daily News
Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at

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