DEEP GAP , North Carolina — Our sturdy four-wheel-drive edition of Chevrolet's enhanced Blazer sport-utility vehicle, on a rutted trail layered in fallen leaves and slick from the morning dew, threaded slowly down a hillside deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Rocks and roots and nature's debris on the trace failed to impede our progress, though, because this wagon crawled across all obstacles, using its nubby tires to grip with assurance. It worked its big gas-charged Bilstein shock absorbers and its off-road suspension package to cushion our ride, and also delivered sure-footed control when stair-stepping in bump-and-grind fashion down the mountain.
So we proceeded into the wilderness, with the Blazer instilling confidence with every movement, thanks to its steady stance and good grip, plus the healthy power flowing from a muscular engine. You quickly realize there's perhaps no vehicular task in the off-road world that Chevy's wagon cannot tackle, as you ride comfortably on cushy seats of a revamped edition.
Sharp sport-ute styling
The Blazer looks sleek and aggressive, thanks to a streamlined face designed to catch the eye with new headlamp clusters and integrated body-colored bumpers. The current model follows the form of a 1995 redesign, which emerged shortly after the debut of a new version of Chevrolet's S-10 compact pickup. Not coincidentally, the Blazer rides on the S-10 truck's platform and also displays a similar front-end treatment.
In addition, both S-10 and Blazer contain updated interiors with ergonomically correct instrument panels with analog instruments and second-generation airbags. For 1999, new equipment ranges from four-wheel disc brakes at all trim levels to a passenger-side airbag, GM’s PassLock theft-deterrent system and improvements to front and rear seats.
Both two- and four-door variations are available, along with choices for rear- or four-wheel drive.
The Blazer's interior looks and feels less and less like that of a hulk of a truck. You sit high, above the traffic, in form-fitting front bucket seats or a three-person rear bench, and you're surrounded by the perks and conveniences of luxury. It manages to sidestep a trucklike ride quality thanks to the rigid S-10 chassis and a refined suspension that provides four settings: Base, Sport, Comfort and Touring. (The latter two suspension settings are available strictly on a four-door Blazer, which accounts for the majority of all sales.
1999 Chevrolet Blazer
The power underhood
The sole engine, Chevy's iron block 4.3-liter V-6 with overhead valving and sequential fuel injection, produces 190 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 250 foot-pounds of torque at 2800 rpm, statistics good enough to elevate Blazer to a high rank among all midsize SUVs. The Blazer's muscle shows its stuff when working a steep off-road grade like those navigated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Blazer zipped up and down slopes in four-wheel low gear like it was simply meandering down a dusty lane.
On pavement, the V-6 generates plenty of strength for passing a slower vehicle without fear of pegging limits on forward velocity. If you need to pull a trailer load, Blazer's powertrain enables the wagon to lug up to 5,000 pounds of excess baggage in the 4x4 version. It’s this trailer-toting, slope-sucking, car-passing strength that captures your attention when testing Blazer — but what ultimately wins your confidence is its easy handling and carlike character.
The Blazer reins in generous space for heads, shoulders and hips of front and rear riders. Front passengers end up with 39.6 inches of headroom, for instance, and almost 58 inches for shoulder space. This ultimately translates to increased comfort in transit, particularly in the rear seat.
Safety and storage
Behind the fold-down rear seat, the Blazer has a cargo bay of generous proportions.
When creating this space with an eye toward practical hauling chores, designers used the dimensions of a washing machine carton as template in defining the size of the rear hatch opening.
The Blazer's back gate brings choices in function for four-door editions. Either the window flips up for quick placement of hand packages like groceries or it drops into the liftgate via power controls, but the bottom half folds down for adding larger cargo.
An extra tire stows below deck externally, so you don't sacrifice cargo space for a spare.
1999 Chevrolet Blazer
The Blazer meets or exceeds competitors for on-board safety equipment, notably with the dual airbags and four-wheel anti-lock brake system carried by all models. A dramatic slope of Blazer's front hood works functionally to improve driver's visibility, and the vehicle's chassis includes front and rear crush zones to dampen collision forces. In addition to its safety features, Blazer also wears significant sound damping systems. The complicated array of devices extends to triple seals on doors and upgraded carpeting.
Blazer's model ladder begins with a base unit priced below $22,000. Both two- and four-door Blazers may be equipped with a four-wheel-drive system, and a manual five-speed transmission can be substituted for the automatic four-speed in two-door Blazers.
For four-wheeling, Blazer uses one of two systems. Insta-Trac permits shift-on-the-fly switching from rear- to four-wheel mode and has a 4x4 low gear for serious off-road work. The new Autotrac automatic active transfer case is a smart system that automatically switches from standard rear-wheel-drive traction to a mode that channels power equally to front as well as rear wheels when on-board sensors detect wheelspin.
The Blazer LS adds more equipment, while the four-door Blazer LT adds leather upholstery. An elite new TrailBlazer four-door wagon caps the series, revealing a monochromic paint scheme outside and tone-on-tone leather for plush seating inside.