BURNT FLATS, Calif. —The steep and rutted path out of Devil's Hole, a sink on the barren eastern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains overlooking California's Mojave Desert, consists mainly of packed sand and loose gravel. As expected, it sets up a slippery surface not really conducive to secure traction by motorized vehicles.
We could probably climb out on foot, perhaps using hands on occasion to claw through sand to improve grip on severe grades, but we'd risk a dangerous tumble, not to mention encounters with desert critters like the rattlesnakes spied earlier on this four-wheeling foray.
So it seems prudent to remain in the vehicle at hand, risking plastic bumpers, tires and gears instead of our fragile flesh. Besides, the point of this trek — which traces a long loop down to a sandy desert floor from a lofty perch in the alpine forests at Lake Arrowhead — is to experiment with the traction capabilities of small sport-utility vehicles.
Trying it in a Tracker
The revamped Chevrolet Tracker happens to be our vehicle of the moment and the set of wheels needed to climb out of Devil's Hole.
This specific Tracker, a prototype of the two-door convertible SUV, joins the previous four-door wagon variant in Chevrolet’s expanded line for 1999. It comes stock with a two-speed transfer case for the four-wheel-drive system, along with newly installed shift-on-the-fly convenience, thanks to new set of automatic locking front hubs.
The Tracker soft-top’s base engine — a single-cam four-cylinder — only generates 97 horsepower. To help compensate for this modest power output, the Tracker’s engine employs aluminum block and cylinder heads, thus paring excess weight. With less freight to ferry, the powerplant produces more than adequate amounts of torque in low range and manages to keep all four tires rolling steadily through the desert debris. The hardtop has a stronger engine, but it's optional for soft-top. The twin-cam 2.0-liter four runs to 127 hp.
1999 Chevrolet Tracker
Our Tracker also runs well on dry pavement, of course, while the all-season treads are reputed to do a reasonable job of tackling rain-slicked or snow-covered streets.
Tracker gives good grip
At this moment in time, though, we must scale that very slippery slope.
So we shift into low range of four-wheel drive, drop the manual stick into first gear, then get a good grip on the steering wheel while easing off the clutch and adding some throttle. Gears mesh, the little engine hums, and tires spew sand in all directions as Tracker slithers up the hill, skirting several serious depressions and bumping over embedded granite impediments along the way.
On top of the grade at last, Tracker made all of the slip-sliding work seem easy, despite the tiny engine.
It also handled rocky obstacles with confidence — exhibiting agility not found in several car-based competitors that lack a four-wheel-drive low needed for crawling over the really rough stuff.
This new generation of Tracker comes with a wider track and longer overall length. Additionally, it contains more refined mechanical components and more comfortable appointments than any previous Tracker model.
This updated version of the Tracker rides better and handles with a certain sophistication not evident in previous issues, yet Chevrolet somehow manages to hold the line on prices this year, which allows the Tracker to remain squarely pegged in the affordable column.
Chevrolet's pint-size sport-utility comes together in Canada, at a plant operated as a joint venture between General Motors Corp. and American Suzuki Motor Corp. Editions for Chevrolet’s two-door open-top Tracker and the more powerful four-door wagon are essentially the same as Suzuki's two- and four-door wagons, although GM’s designers gave the Tracker’s exterior miles of cladding, which gives it a unique look, with its own hunky appearance package.
1999 Chevrolet Tracker
More of everything
Strengthening this new Tracker is a sturdy steel frame, which stretches to the length of the vehicle and employs ladder-type cross members that resist twisting and stabilize the platform for navigating through even the roughest off-road terrain. The tall stance of the hardtop's superstructure brings good vertical space too, with more than 40 inches of headroom for front-seat positions. The two-door version, 6 inches longer than the earlier edition, gains 1.3 square feet of floor space for cargo in the rear section. In addition, a clever lockable storage compartment boosts security.
Adding malleable suspension components like the front MacPherson-type struts and a rigid rear axle of five-link design, with lower and upper trailing arms and large 15-inch wheels and tires, creates an impressive vertical ground clearance of 8 inches. Our trek through both mountain and desert proved it was quite capable at keeping the Tracker positioned to avoid doing damage when encountering obstacles like rocks, stumps and other debris capable of causing bumps.
Tracker's two-speed transfer case, available for both hardtop and convertible, splits engine torque and applies it intelligently to either the front or rear wheels (depending on need) to prevent slippage. Both variations pack a power-assisted steering system — now improved, thanks to its rack-and-pinion design — and both have power-assisted brakes with front discs.
For safety, Tracker gets dual airbags to shield front-seat riders from frontal crashes. A steel frame forms a protective safety cage around the passenger compartment, with front and rear crumple zones built into the chassis.
Front riders sit on comfortable reclining bucket seats divided by a center console with twin cup holders and storage recesses for personal gear. The rear bench, which folds flat in the convertible when not needed for passengers, provides more than 52 inches of shoulder room for two riders. In the hardtop, the rear seat back splits but also folds flat to the floor.
Conveniences range from full carpeting to stereo sound and complete instruments, including tachometer. Options begin with air conditioning but extend to four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes, cruise control, a CD player, and power windows and door locks, plus skid plates for serious off-road work.
Tempting price tag
So why would anyone pick a teensy-weensy sport-ute like Tracker?
Perhaps the most important consideration might be constraints placed on your purchase decision due to a tight budget. These 1999 Tracker