It took me a while to understand what people see in newer Toyota Land Cruisers. They’re extremely inefficient, expensive even with lots of miles on them, pricey to maintain, too large to be amazing off-road in stock form, not that big inside, slow, poor-handling, and they require a $1000 timing belt job every eight years. But when I bought a Lexus LX470 in 2021, I finally understood: Land Cruisers blend extreme comfort with good off-road capability and reliability in a way that few other machines can. The U.S. Toyota Land Cruiser is a luxury off-roader that — unlike many of its peers — you can buy with 200,000 miles on the clock and not have to worry about endless electrical or mechanical failures, and that’s rare. I mention all of this because I test-drove a 2008 Chevrolet Trailblazer this past weekend, and I’m convinced that it offers most of what a Toyota Land Cruiser does but at 20 percent of the price.
If you’re on a budget and want to get into the off-road space, it seems have to sacrifice comfort or reliability. If you want a reliable, cheap Jeep XJ or TJ or YJ, just know that you’re going to have to deal with loud wind noise and a so-so ride. If you want a comfortable and capable old Land Rover, expect to deal with electrical gremlins. If you want a somewhat-comfortable, capable Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ, prepare for electrical and transmission issues. There are obviously some exceptions out there (I’m convinced my manual ZJ is one of them), but the king of used-off-roaders that offer reliability, off-road capability, and enough comfort to actually be a viable family-hauler is the Toyota Land Cruiser and its U.S.-variants the Lexus LX and GX (the GX is technically the Land Cruiser Prado, but it counts in my eyes).
I used to own a 2001 Lexus LX470; I drove it from Chicago to Seattle, then back to Detroit. The thing crushed miles; it was absolutely incredible at eliminating almost all exterior wind noise, the ride quality was amazing, the 4.7-liter V8 was buttery smooth, the vehicle towed like a tank, and its traction control system and decent ground clearance made it impressive off-road for its size. Plus I think it looks cool. I totally get why people love these machines, even if I myself might be willing to give up a bit of comfort for a lower asking price and more off-road capability (but I’m single, and I’m convinced that maybe later in life I might value comfort more).
With all that established, this past weekend I flew from LA to a wedding in Fort Collins. I had to find a car for the four day trip, and since I was a bit late to be asking for a press vehicle, I hopped onto Turo and found this:
Now, I realize that many of you might not find this machine remotely interesting, but I’ve always wondered what these SUVs were like to drive — after all, the Trailblazer and its GMT-360 siblings the GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, Oldsmobile Bravada, Isuzu Ascender, and Saab Whateverit’scalledprobablysomethingwithahyphenandanX were the last American vehicles with gasoline inline-sixes until the recent resurgence of straight sixes (they’re coming back now to maximize synergy with inline-fours that have become so efficient and powerful).
Yes, I got a 15 year-old Chevy with a check engine light and bent windshield wiper arm (look at that view above!) as my rental. Meanwhile, my colleague Matt’s 4th of July weekend car was a $150,000 Lucid Air. Is there something wrong with me? Yes, yes there is. But while I’m off on this tangent, I should note that my weekend went great; I was the emcee of my friend Brian’s wedding reception (I know Brian from my Chrysler engineering days); here I am trying to be entertaining/charming:
I also went on a great hike (see below) that I thought was 7.5 miles but was actually over 10, leading me to run out of water and forego eating lunch (as I figured it’d make me thirsty) until I reached the trailhead. Unfortunately, this was five hours after I’d started the hike and six hours after I’d bought the turkey sandwich, so I got food poisoning. The bathroom at the airport has seen better days.
Anyway, back to my rental car, which, again, I chose primarily for its “Atlas” 4.2-liter straight six engine called the Vortec 4200.
I love straight sixes for their smoothness and (often) low-end torque, and the Vortec 4200 in the 2002 to 2009 Trailblazer is a true gem, as I wrote in my article One Of The Last American Inline-Six Engines Was In Your Normal Everyday Chevrolet Trailblazer for Ye Olde Lighting Site. It’s an all-aluminum, dual overhead cam 4.2-liter straight six that — for the 2008 model year — made 285 horsepower and 276 lb-ft of torque. Those are phenomenal numbers, especially if you consider that six cylinder engines in the mid 2000s just weren’t putting out those power numbers. Dodge’s high-output 3.5-liter was making 250 horsepower, and that was a big deal. Ford’s 2005 Mustang 4.0-liter V6 made 210 ponies. Sure, Toyota had a 3.5-liter making 280 ponies in the mid 2000s, but when the Trailblazer came out for the 2002 model year with 270 horsepower from that six, that was nuts. Those were V8 figures!
Never mind that the engine’s MPGs were also V8 figures (see above); the point is that the Vortec 4200 has always fascinated me, which is why I rented that Trailblazer for the weekend to see if it would live up to the hype. It very much did.
Right away I should note: It’s not fast. Yes, 285 horsepower sounds like a lot, but the Trailblazer weighs 4,500 pounds, and the engine’s power has to go through a four-speed “4L-60E” slushbox automatic transmission (Motor Week, embedded later in this article, hit 60 mph from a standstill in about 7.5 seconds — not bad). Everything happens gradually, but with confidence; the motor makes plenty of power and will get you up steep Colorado mountains without issue, but it’s not going to be all that exciting.
90 Percent Of A Land Cruiser’s Comfort
The interior is fine. It’s a little Playmobil-plastic-y, and the controls are a little more “chunky” than they are elegant, but the Turo vehicle I drove — which had about 130,000 on the clock — was holding up very well:
I will admit that my 2001 LX’s interior looked a bit nicer/more modern:
Regardless, those seats in the Trailblazer offer couch-like comfort, and what’s more, the ride quality is fantastic. Seriously, the lack of wind noise, combined with a truly supple ride and a ridiculously buttery-smooth inline-six engine (I found it just as smooth as the Land Cruiser’s 4.7-liter V8), propel the Trailblazer’s overall driving comfort right up to the Land Cruiser’s doorstep. The Trailblazer isn’t quite as vault-like as my LX was, but it’s 90 percent there. It’s incredibly comfortable, and John Davis from Motor Week agrees:
“On more normal highways and byways, the Trailblazer redeems itself with a superb ride and very low interior noise levels,” Davis says before referring to the optional leather seat-equipped Trailblazer as “plush” and mentioning a great Bose sound system, optional heated seats, and standard side airbags, among other options.
The Trailblazer I was driving was a regular model, and it was gigantic inside. Both rows of seating enjoyed copious legroom, and the cargo area was huge. The EXT version of the Trailblazer (I’ll show a video if it in a moment) — which is 16 inches longer, making it over a foot longer than even the Chevy Tahoe of the era — adds a third row, and is just a straightup beast.
My Lexus LX470 was significantly smaller inside than I thought given the machine’s huge exterior dimensions. Folding the rear seats didn’t offer enough space for me to sleep in the rear. I bet it’s still a little bigger than a standard Trailblazer, but much smaller than the EXT.
Good Off-Road Capability
The Trailblazer has the same basic suspension layout as the Lexus GX and LX: An independent front suspension and a solid rear axle, all bolted to a fully-boxed ladder frame. The Chevy’s 29 degree approach angle is decent, though its 23-degree departure angle isn’t amazing, nor is the 7.8 inches of ground clearance. The Lexus LX and GX from the era offered similar approach angles, but significantly better departure angles and more ground clearance. Plus, both Lexus models offered an excellent ATRAC traction control system, though the Trailblazer (which has a four-wheel drive low range transfer case) could be had with an automatic rear locker (G80). (Some Lexus LXs also could be had with rear lockers).
Still, a little lift (as shown above) to jack up that departure angle and the ground clearance, and the Trailblazer makes for a decent off-road machine.
Oh, and in case you’re curious, the video above shows the extended EXT model hitting the dirt.
Of course, the aftermarket support for Trailblazers is just not comparable to that of a mid-2000s LX or GX — not even close — so modding a Trailblazer to be an off-roader/overlander is a bit tricker than it is for a Land Cruiser owner. It’s also worth noting that, while the Trailblazer isn’t rated to tow as much as my LX was, 5,700 pounds of towing capacity ain’t bad! That’s only down 800 pounds from both my LX and from a GX of the Trailblazer’s same model-year.
What About Reliability?
So the Trailblazer offers 90 percent of a 100 Series Land Cruiser’s comfort, probably 80 percent of its off-road capability, and now we’re at the third pillar of what makes a Land Cruiser a Land Cruiser: Reliability. How does the Chevy hold up?
Well, that Vortec 4200 is known for being borderline unkillable. Google “Vortec 4200 reliability” or “Atlas 4200 reliability” and you’ll find forums filled with Trailblazer owners who have had no issues whatsoever. The 4L60-E four-speed automatic, however, is known to be decent, but certainly not unkillable, with some having to rebuild theirs before 200,000 miles. The Aisin four-speed in Land Cruisers (and later the five-speed) was known to last as long as the also-unkillable (if you don’t forget to change the timing belt) 4.7-liter V8.
But aside from a transmission issue every couple hundred thousand miles and some occasional small BS that Land Cruisers don’t have to deal with, Trailblazers are known to be stout enough (just read this thread and the comments here and here) and that’s impressive given how absurdly cheap these machines are.
An Alternative, Not A Replacement
I should make this clear here: I’m not saying the Trailblazer is a Land Cruiser replacement. It’s unlikely a Toyota Land Cruiser fan is going to fall in love with the Trailblazer. But I do think it’s an excellent low-cost alternative in that it offers a lot of the things a Land Cruiser does but at a fraction of the price. Is it as capable off-road? No, but it’s 80 percent there. Is it as comfortable on-road? I mean, almost — I’d say it’s 90 percent there. Is it as reliable as a Lexus LX or GX? No, but it’s probably 80 percent there. Multiply all those out and you’re at about 60 percent. Now consider that I sold my 265,000 mile Lexus LX470 for $7,200, and that you can buy a Trailblazer with half as many miles for half that price, and you see where I’m coming from. If you can afford a Lexus GX or LX, buy one. If you can’t and you need a super comfortable, large SUV with some off-road capability and not horrible reliability, consider buying a Trailblazer. By most accounts, it’s a great machine.