The updated Trailblazer majors in balance, but will the Fortuner beat it at its own game?
There was something of a furore when the Chevrolet Trailblazer knocked the Toyota Fortuner off its perch to become the large SUV of choice in our 2013 Top 12 Best Buys. Many fans of the Japanese body-on-chassis stalwart were quick to point to its underpinnings shared with the hard-as-nails Hilux, and sales figures that have perennially outstripped those of its rivals.
But towering sales success doesn’t automatically make you the best. Such a premise essentially argues that Justin Bieber makes the best music in the world and McDonald’s the best food. And, while the Toyota’s underpinnings carried a bulletproof pedigree, they ultimately became its Achilles’ heel in the contest with the Trailblazer, rendering it an ungainly throwback in an SUV market that demanded a blend of off-road capability and town-bound user-friendliness. And those were attributes that the Trailblazer capably delivered.
Not that these matters deterred buyers; the first-generation Fortuner remained a top seller until its recent replacement arrived. But Toyota has been mindful of this market shift and, by injecting its second-generation Fortuner with more finesse to complement its ruggedness, the Japanese brand produced an all-new model that has so far impressed. Mindful of this seismic shift in the segment, Chevrolet has implemented a series of updates to its already capable Trailblazer. Are the tables set to turn again?
The Trailblazer’s chunky, purposeful design has aged well, so Chevrolet would never have made sweeping changes. Revised, upswept headlamps frame a slimmer take on the earlier car’s two-section grille, visually tying the Trailblazer in with a number of Chevrolet’s newer models.
The most noticeable changes take place in the cabin, where Chevrolet claims to have placed greater emphasis on material quality and ergonomics. And it has worked. Although hard plastics abound, they feel of a higher quality than before and are complemented by leather-effect panels on a clean facia, with the few manual ancillaries present being legible and easy to use. While the cabin updates may be more functional than fancy, Chevrolet has ensured that driver contact points such as the steering wheel and seats exude an upmarket air by wrapping them in leather as standard.
It’s a minor touch, but it contrasts with the Fortuner’s urethane-rimmed wheel and so-so cloth seats that sit at odds with what’s otherwise a well-built, similarly soft-panel-equipped and visually engaging cabin. Perhaps the most telling division between the cabins is the execution of their entertainment systems, where GM’s crisp and function-rich MyLink touchscreen infotainment system contrasts sharply with Toyota’s rather fiddly, dot matrix-screened unit. While Toyota has yet to announce any plans to alter this model’s specification, don’t be surprised if a combination of customer demand and model diversification eventually ushers in trim and equipment revisions.
There’s almost a hint of Lexus about the sharp creases, chrome accents and strong horizontal elements present in the new Fortuner’s exterior styling, and that’s not a bad thing at all. That smooth-skinned shell manages to make the Fortuner look upmarket and doesn’t diminish the purposefulness of its imposing dimensions.
Packing and comfort
In seven-seater duty, the arrangement of their rearmost pews comes under considerable scrutiny. Toyota’s side-folding items, with their fiddly strap fasteners, are somewhat inelegant in both appearance and deployment, given the modern car to which they’re attached. By contrast, the Trailblazer’s floor-folding third row is neatly executed and, unlike the Toyota’s, don’t impede rear-three-quarter visibility when stowed.
The Trailblazer falls short of the legroom served up by the Toyota’s seats and also offers a rear cabin with less luggage and utility space. Although slightly shorter than the Trailblazer, the Fortuner’s interior packaging is well resolved and in all measurable aspects, bar headroom, it’s marginally the more spacious.
While there’s little separating the two in terms of utility, the matter of driver ergonomics is a clearer one. Both cars feature supportive driver seats, but the Trailblazer’s, even on its lowest setting, is too lofty. A steering column that lacks reach adjustment doesn’t help matters and shows up the Trailblazer’s driving position as less comfortable than the more adjustable Fortuner’s.
Performance and efficiency
We were very taken with the Toyota’s new 2,4-litre turbodiesel when we tested this Fortuner in the July 2016 issue, and our reacquaintance with the engine furthers this impression. It concedes 10 kW to the Trailblazer’s 2,5-litre unit, but that handy dollop of 400 N.m between 1 600 and 2 000 r/min lends it satisfying flexibility. The Fortuner’s gearing is on the tall side, but thankfully the gearbox has a precise, short-throw action that’s almost car-like in its operation.
The same cannot be said of the Trailblazer’s mechanical-feeling, long-throw lever. Although brawnier than the Fortuner, the Chevrolet engine’s 20 N.m torque deficit is evident in overtaking figures that suggest the powertrain finds its feet only once it’s deeper into the rev range.
There’s little to separate them as towing vehicles, with the Toyota’s braked towing capacity only 15 kg off the Chevrolet’s and the unbraked figures identical. The Toyota’s extra low-end torque and the standard fitment of a trailer-sway-mitigation system that regulates brake and engine characteristics to prevent fishtailing give it a slight edge. Perhaps the most marked difference between the engines is NVH suppression, where the Toyota’s unit exhibits less mechanical feedback and is swaddled in noise-suppressing materials in the engine bay.
The CAR fuel index shows a marked advantage to the Toyota, but both cars impressed during our mixed-use fuel run, with the Fortuner and Trailblazer returning 7,6 and 7,7 L/100 km respectively.
When the Chevrolet pipped the previous Fortuner a few years back, it did so largely owing to driving manners that were more car-like than those of its Japanese rival. But time, and the arrival of polished opponents such as Ford’s Everest, has now made the Chevrolet feel even closer to its Isuzu KB donor than before. While it’s true that both cars’ makers have essentially adopted the same modus operandi – taking the underpinnings of their respective bakkies and replacing the leaf-spring rear suspension with a more car-like multilink arrangement Toyota’s sharper execution now means that the Fortuner can be safely added to said list of capable rivals.
Thanks to a new chassis with considerably more torsional rigidity than that of its forebear, nearly twice the number of welded contact points between body and chassis, and suspension that now incorporates larger-diameter dampers, the Fortuner does a good job of snuffing out impact harshness. These developments also contribute to body control that, while not unibody-SUV-composed, is better than that of its rival here.
Although the Chevrolet’s ride remains just about pillowy enough to capably absorb abrupt bumps, the body exhibits a distinct floatiness when negotiating rises at reasonable speed and the copious body roll that typifies body-on-chassis SUV handling.
While it’s a given that handling prowess is never going to be the forte of vehicles such as these, driving them back to back galvanises the impression that the Chevrolet just doesn’t feel quite as settled as the Toyota. This dynamic disconnect is furthered by a steering rack that’s slower and slightly more numb than the Toyota’s. And it’s this remoteness that’s evident when traversing gravel tracks. Both vehicles’ ride heights are adequate for modest green-laning, but at speeds above 60 km/h on loose surfaces, the Toyota feels more surefooted. Its steering is lighter but more communicative, and the stability control, an omission in the Chevrolet, intervenes in a measured manner to keep the vehicle in check on loose surfaces.
Both vehicles are equipped with assisted braking systems and tip the scales at a smidgen over two tonnes, so our 10-stop 100-0 km/h brake test saw both cars halting at around 3,3 seconds to glean an “average” rating. Overall average stopping distances were near identical at around 44,3 metres.
Value for money
In terms of standard specification, there’s precious little separating the two. Where the Chevrolet adds leather upholstery and parking sensors, the Toyota counters with keyless entry and a more comprehensive suite of driver-assistance systems. The Toyota’s service plan equals its rival’s, but the Trailblazer’s warranty is two years and 20 000 km longer. This advantage is further cemented by service intervals that are 5 000 km less frequent than those of the Japanese product.
Resale-wise, you’ll be able to pick up pre-facelift Trailblazer 2,8 LTZ models with three years and around 100 000 km under their belts in the region of R300-350 000. It’s far too early to tell how the new Fortuner will fare second-hand, but judging by the stock demand and value retention of the previous model, it should hold up very well when the time comes to part ways.
Test SummaryIn this first opportunity for the new Fortuner to lock horns with this particular mainstay of the body-on-chassis brigade, the tables have turned. Where the Trailblazer once stood as the balanced one of the duo, blending civilised, car-like manners with mechanically tough underpinnings, it's now been beaten at its own game. Gone is the slightly clumsy feeling, bakkie-flavoured Fortuner of the past. In its place now stands a range of balanced, yet still durable-feeling vehicles that have evolved enough to give the Ford Everest a proper run for its money. But does that mean the Trailblazer has been left in the dust? Not at all. The exterior updates, although negligible to our overall assessment of the car, are tastefully executed, and the improvements in facia layout and material quality are definitely welcome. In fact, a number of testers concluded that they preferred the overall feel and finish of the Trailblazer's cabin. Given the result of this test, we're champing at the bit to pit the Fortuner against its direct rival, the upcoming Everest 2,2 TDCi. But, for now, the consensus is that, while the Trailblazer is still a robust member of its segment that's pleasant enough to pilot, it's been eclipsed on most fronts by the Toyota. *From the November 2016 issue of CAR magazine
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