Buick Rainier CXL AWD
The Rainier is Buick's first true attempt at an SUV (the Rendezvous is more of a minivan-based crossover). Although it shares a platform with Chevy's Trailblazer, the Rainier has been tuned with traditional Buick luxury in mind. That makes for the softest ride in our group, insulating passengers from any imperfections in their path. It seems that Buick engineers went to great lengths to dampen any external stimuli. The Rainier is commendably quiet and comfortable, but that comfort comes at the expense of control. The ride quickly goes from soft to downright floaty, and body control deteriorates. This is the SUV for the retired doctor who just loved his Buick Park Avenue.
Inside, the Rainier is a mishmash of hits and misses. Comfortable leather seats (with blazing heaters that will conquer arctic cold in mere seconds) and elegant gauges are let down by a lack of interior storage and a poor dash layout. The partially wood-rimmed steering wheel feels great to the touch, but the interior wood's dark hue and plastic sheen does little to liven up the drab gray plastic. The Rainier does excel on the utility side of the ledger with clever rear headrests that flip back automatically when the rear seats are folded down to make a flat load floor.
We tested the Rainier CXL AWD in both I-6 and V-8 forms. The 4.2-liter 275-hp I-6 generates 275 lb-ft of torque, providing perfectly acceptable performance for most situations. The Vortec 5300 V-8 is a worthy upgrade with minimal impact on fuel consumption (15/20 mpg city/highway for the I-6 versus 15/19 for the V-8). The V-8's additional power is welcome when merging on the highway or for that extra thrust entering the fast lane. Identically equipped except for the engine, our I-6 retailed for $37,860 while the V-8 was $39,010. Of course, that's MSRP. Like all of GM's big SUVs, the Rainier should be available with generous incentives. That's a good thing, because dynamically, the Rainier clearly is a step off the pace.
Chevy Trailblazer EXT LT AWD
As platform-mates, the Trailblazer and Rainier share most of the same components, but different suspension tuning makes for subtle but important differences in their driving demeanors. The Trailblazer's suspension is still on the soft side, but it provides a better compromise between comfort and body control.
As you might expect, the Chevy's interior is the same hit-and-miss proposition as the Buick. The dash is finished in the same expanse of gray plastic, but it's even more unrelenting in the Chevy. Compared with the Rainier, more cup holders and better storage bins make life nicer for the driver, but the fit and finish still fall short of the competition. The bright touch-screen LCD that comes with XM Satellite Radio and Bose premium sound is a nice high-tech flourish in an otherwise old-think interior.
Our seven-seat, V-8-powered Trailblazer EXT (base price $34,220) was optioned to $39,875, making it the second-most-expensive SUV in this test. While it offers the most spacious accommodations for seven, that's a mighty steep price for a package that falls toward the bottom of the pecking order in presentation and performance.