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.