In Ann Arbor, Michgan, home of automobilemag.com's editorial offices, leagues of Toyota Priuses and Subaru Legacy wagons patrol the streets, fighting the good fight for sensible, low-emissions, all-weather mobility. What better place, on an unseasonably cool and wet May afternoon, to pit two of the world's most illogical SUVs against each other? The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 and the Chevrolet Trailblazer SS have no reason to exist. Both get horrendous gas mileage. Both are faster than any 4500-plus-pound rolling bricks ever should be. But they do exist, and fast, ostentatious rides are the stuff that enthusiasts' dreams are made of. Can these big, heavy, fuel chugging tanks transcend their softer, slower, mainstream siblings to become desirable muscle trucks?
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8Riding on massive chrome wheels and coated in fiery inferno red paint, our Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 tester looks aggressive, modern, and European. It could be mistaken for a Range Rover to the (considerably) less discerning eye. Along with twenty-inch tires, the SRT8 has taller front and rear fascias than a stock Grand Cherokee and thunderous, center-exiting, dual exhausts. This truck is no poseur. A 420-hp, 6.1-liter Hemi V8, capable of launching the all-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee from 0 to 60 mph in under five seconds lies under its bright red hood. Due to its traction advantages, it is not only the quickest Jeep ever made, but it's also the second best performer in the entire Chrysler Group family. Only the Dodge Viper SRT10 is quicker.
All of that power is very usable and thrilling when you're driving around town, and the five-speed manu-matic transmission keeps shifts smooth and quick. Roll down the windows for an earful of the engine, which sounds great even at idle. Blip the throttle and inattentive pedestrians will dive for cover. Once the road opens up and the SRT8 is allowed to dance, though, the sportiest Jeep begins to stumble. When it's pushed, the Jeep's lack of directional stability is startling. Launching it full-throttle along a winding road reminds us of a cowboy trying to guide a bucking bronco into a corral. That sort of behavior is fine in the stable, but not for an SUV capable of 150 mph. The Jeep is a much tamer stallion on city streets or in straight-line highway settings. The highly bolstered leather and faux-suede seats are comfortable and supportive in any conditions, although some staffers complained about a lack of thigh support.
Other than our problems with the SRT's directional stability, our greatest disappointment was the 4788-pound truck's city fuel economy of twelve miles per gallon. The Chevy, which is 200 pounds lighter, managed only fourteen mpg during our two-day testing period. These trucks' heavy curb weights do have one advantage though--supported by their all-wheel drive systems and fat rubber at all four corners, both trucks have exceptional grip.
Chevrolet Trailblazer SSThe Trailblazer SS gets the same type of exterior styling tweaks as the Grand Cherokee SRT8--twenty-inch rubber and revised grilles and bumpers. The Trailblazer's styling has had several years longer to age, but it is no fine wine. Especially in drab pewter paint (other creative choices include blue. . . and black. . . and white), the SS is difficult to discern from lower Trailblazer trim levels, so few people will even realize you've spent $31,255 or more on a Corvette-engined street truck. By comparison, though, a base, rear-wheel drive SS is a relative bargain (although we drove the all-wheel-drive model for the sake of a fair fight). The Grand Cherokee SRT8 starts at $39,995 and can easily crest $45,000-plus. The less powerful Buick Rainier and Saab 9-7X both easily can top $40,000 as well, so although the SS is the quickest truck (other than the outgoing SSR convertible pickup) on the GMT360 light-truck platform, it is not the most expensive. Window stickers can be misleading, though, since all are readily available with rebates or other discounts.
As is the case with the SSR, the Trailblazer SS is saddled with a prehistoric four-speed automatic transmission. And unlike the SSR, the Trailblazer isn't offered with a manual transmission. Shifts are slow and jerky, and the transmission downshifts with the slightest brush of the accelerator. Those downshifts aren't smooth, either. Senior editor Joe Lorio elaborates: "There are mile-wide gaps between the gears and none of the sophisticated electronic controls [you find on many vehicles] that adjust the engine throttle to smooth out shifting. Consequently, any shift made with urgency causes a heaving ripple effect through the car." The truck's 395 horsepower can't get to the ground with any urgency because of the long first-gear ratio, so city driving in the SS is hardly different than it is in the weaker, short-wheelbase, 5.3-liter V-8-powered vehicles offered on the same GM platform. In contrast to the Jeep, the Chevy is better to drive on winding roads, where it is able to stay in the power band of one gear. But even there, the spotlight doesn't burn brightly on the SS.
The price difference between these two trucks was most apparent when we moved from behind the wheel of the Jeep to the Chevy's cabin. The Trailblazer's interior design and materials remind us why GM is trying so hard to regain the respect of many American buyers. Even the underdog Korean brands are sculpting finer cabins. The leather and suede seats are soft and comfortable, but lack the lateral support we'd expect in a truck with sporting intentions. The plastics on the dash and doors are rock-hard and roughly grained. The air vents feel cheap, as does most of the switchgear. The gauge cluster is all printed on one single panel, the way GM has been doing it since the Reagan administration. GM designers should sit in a Honda or Volkswagen and see how interiors should be done.
As one staffer put it, "choosing between these two trucks is like going to a strip club to find a wife." They aren't exactly the types of vehicles we'd like to settle down with. Judging strictly in terms of their dancing styles, we'd take the Grand Cherokee SRT8. It's wild and uncoordinated when it's really jiving, but it's always a blast to spin the Hemi up to speed. The Jeep is certainly better looking, both inside and out, and its lowered stance and generous slatherings of chrome will appeal to Dr. John fans and Lil' Jon fans alike. But there are better vehicles for $40,000 if you want speed, there are better trucks if you need space, and there are better vehicles in general if all you desire is attention.
Since most Chevrolet fans don't have easy access to a high-speed road course (with the exception of a few NASCAR drivers), we don't really know whom the Trailblazer SS is for. GM has just announced a new six-speed transmission for its rear- and all-wheel-drive vehicles, so there is promise for the SS and similar performance-oriented vehicles. Just tuck that transmission (and, of course, that same 'Vette engine) under more appealing sheetmetal next time around, General.