Home » The First-Gen Chevy Trailblazer Is A Great Low-Cost Toyota Land Cruiser Alternative

The First-Gen Chevy Trailblazer Is A Great Low-Cost Toyota Land Cruiser Alternative

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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).

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Image: Lexus

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).

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Image: Lexus

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:

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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).

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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I will admit that my 2001 LX’s interior looked a bit nicer/more modern:

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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:

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Oh, and in case you’re curious, the video above shows the extended EXT model hitting the dirt.

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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Glenn Walters
Glenn Walters
11 months ago

In the annals of our family’s old cars, the 2006 Trailblazer shines as the top favorite. Quiet, comfortable, powerful (I had the V8), and reliable. It had the absolute best winter performance of any vehicle I’ve ever owned – that’s saying a lot as I’m from Vermont. Yes, it had the chronic low oil pressure problem that I was too lazy to fix. But I bought it with 175,000 miles on it (traded my 2013 Outback and got a pile of cash in the deal) and sold it with 240,000 miles. I never needed to put any money into it other than a set of tires and routine maintenance. My 18-year old daughter would love to find it and buy it back – she’s regularly scanning posts and will likely buy her own. I’m not a Chevy fan by any means (their dashboards are an abomination!) but this one hit a sweet spot for us.

Flinched
Flinched
11 months ago

Worked at a Chevy dealer when these were new – junk then and junk now. And they were somehow the darling of the subprime crowd which hasn’t helped how they’ve aged. Couldn’t get approved on a Tahoe but hey, here’s a Trailblazer. The one you rented looks ok but it seems like every one on the road today is way past it’s expiration date of being useful.

B3n
B3n
11 months ago

I’ve only ever had to send one vehicle to the junkyard in my life, and that was a Trailblazer. The front LCA mounts have rusted off of the frame, and they are boxed in a one-piece subframe. No welder would touch it.
But I guess Toyotas are also famous for rusting out (looking at you, 4th gen 4runner, and Tacoma).
I agree on the comfort, it was indeed a super comfy vehicle.
Off-road performance though? Nah, the transfer case is weaksauce on these, so is the entire front drivetrain with the driveshaft that goes through a tunnel in the oil pan.
And the available lift options are mostly crappy blocklifts.
The 4.2 was smooth, but it was weaker than the 5.3 and both got the same fuel economy.

Myk El
Myk El
11 months ago

While I hope David Tracy lives a very long time, the bit about the turkey sandwich after the hike now makes me think he’s more likely to die early from a poor food choice as opposed to my original thought of a poor automotive choice.

Dennis Ames
Dennis Ames
11 months ago
Reply to  Myk El

Not a tetanus infection? Or is that part of the Automotive Choice?

Myk El
Myk El
11 months ago
Reply to  Dennis Ames

I consider that a subset of automotive choice, though an argument for separating that out could be made. Need to check with the Vegas oddsmakers.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
11 months ago
Reply to  Myk El

I’m alarmed that the sandwich was poisonous*five hours* after obtaining it. What, did he buy it second-hand?

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more likely that seems…)

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
11 months ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

Well, first of all, I’m guessing it was a questionable gas-station turkey sandwich that was already near expiration. Secondly, it was probably sitting in his backpack or in the car which had the sun beating down on it.

This is at least the second time David has gotten food poisoning since this site started (the mashed potato incident) and I’m guessing shower spaghetti has probably also lead to some unpleasantness that just wasn’t reported.

Idiot_with_a_garage
Idiot_with_a_garage
11 months ago

Maybe my brain isn’t awake yet, and I know I am late to the party, but I always thought these had the same head stud/gasket issues that plagued the northstar GM engines? I assumed that is why I never see them anymore…

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago

Never owned or worked on one, but don’t these GMT 360’s have a ticking time bomb front axle design? Something about the splines breaking because they weren’t/couldn’t be lubricated in any way from the factory?

And 4L60/65’s aren’t bad transmission for every day driving… but if they are abused they go boom. Fun fact though, 4L60/65’s have the lowest (highest numerical) 1st gear of any of the big three automatics. So that means that if you have someone build one for you to toughen it up a bit, they are good for off roading.

Tip: NEVER EVER tow anything with a 4L60/65 if it’s in overdrive/4th, also, intall a 2nd trans cooler (if your car doesn’t have it already).

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
11 months ago

yeah that transmission is perfectly fine in most applications, it’s just that GM stuck it in everything including their 2500 trucks. A Silverado with a slide in camper towing a boat is way different than an Astro van.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Yep, lower GVWR also helps. They also seemed to last much longer in Vans vs everything else, especially the Astros/Safaris.

Jake Harsha
Jake Harsha
11 months ago
Reply to  Rabob Rabob

2500 trucks got the 4l80e. It was heavier duty.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago
Reply to  Jake Harsha

You are mostly correct, however there were a small number of 2500 trucks and vans that did get the 4L60. C/K 2500’s with the 6 lug wheels and a couple of years of Express/Savana vans that also had AWD.

4L80’s were on the other end of the spectrum…extremely durable.

Strangek
Strangek
11 months ago

I’ve always wondered about these because I’ve noticed for years that they are cheap and plentiful. I think I’d still go Yukon or Tahoe for some inexpensive GM fun, bigger is better.

Daniel Bruce
Daniel Bruce
11 months ago
Reply to  Strangek

Unfortunately, GM isn’t inexpensive in the full size department these days.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
11 months ago

I had a 2006 GMC Envoy XL for over 10 years, and it was a good vehicle, but having owned multiple Toyota’s, it is no Toyota. The drivetrain lived up to the hype. It was dead reliable, but where it fell short was everything else. The thing ate wheel bearings like they were Cheetos. I changed more power lock modules than I can count. The road noise and exhaust were quite loud. While the straight six was torquey and reliable, there is no way you would refer to it as smooth (at least compared to a Toyota). They just are not comparable.

Last edited 11 months ago by Farty McSprinkles
86-GL
86-GL
11 months ago

Savvy people buy used Toyota/Lexus SUVs because the balance of reliability, purchase price and ongoing maintenance echo that of a much newer car. They are a known entity that can be relied upon. They are built to be used, and hold their value.

There are any number of aging body-on-frame SUVs that boast similar if not superior performance stats, but to suggest one in place of a Landcruiser is to ignore the true reason people buy Toyotas, which is peace of mind.

These GM SUVs are hardly some best-kept secret, they are incredibly common vehicles. If they were anywhere near the same quality and utility as a Lexus, they would be priced somewhat accordingly- but they aren’t even in the same ball park. We’re talking like $2500 vs $15,000 CAD for similar mileage. I know the Toyota tax is real, (and I’m no Toyota fanboy) but come on. We’re talking entirely different ownership demographics.

Last edited 11 months ago by 86-GL
Mocamino
Mocamino
11 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Exactly this. I’ve been debating exactly how to solve my need for a decent towing machine. Our 1965 Play-Mor camper weighs MAYBE 2250 lbs loaded, but it’s just too much for my wife’s Grand Vitara. While I’d love to have a GX or a Land Cruiser, I just can’t afford them. After a lot of research, the GMT360 family is probably where I’m going to find my tow machine. Will it be as comfortable or reliable as a Toyota/Lexus? Certainly not. But I can buy a decent example for five to six grand. If the worst I have to deal with is a possible trans swap when the 4L60E craps out, that’s not a big deal. And when it happens, I’ll put in a rebuilt one that’s been beefed up and I’ll never have to worry about again.

Plus, when the body finally rusts out, I’ll take the Atlas or LS and 4L60E out of the GMT360, refresh them, and drop them in my El Camino. 🙂

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
11 months ago
Reply to  Mocamino

Astro 😛

That Guy with the Sunbird
That Guy with the Sunbird
11 months ago

My uncle Tony (rest in peace) loved the Chevrolet Blazer. He had a ‘91, a ‘94, a ‘96, a ‘98, and then he got sad when the TrailBlazer was introduced because he figured it wouldn’t be “the same.”

He tried one and surprisingly loved it. So, he got a first year TrailBlazer. A 2002. Then he got a 2006. And a 2008. He passed in 2013 and we sold his 2008 for a decent amount because it had low miles and was in mint condition because it just sat in a garage (he was really ill those last few years).

I asked him why he always got a new Blazer/TrailBlazer every couple of years when the model hadn’t changed much (if any) and he said “because I can.” He was single and had the money and wanted one, so he did. I always admired that.

Mark
Mark
11 months ago

A whole article about the Trailblazer and not a mention of the SS?
In the late 00’s they were the cheapest way to get a LS2. Really rare though, less than 2% of all Trailblazers were SSs.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
11 months ago
Reply to  Mark

Don’t worry, I gotchu. 😉

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
11 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

The real grail is the Saab version of the SS…

Anxious John
Anxious John
11 months ago

90% of these things have to complete piles of rust dust by now. I liked them at the time. I also thought the Bravada was the more handsome looking one.

Pappa P
Pappa P
11 months ago
Reply to  Anxious John

Yes, definitely fatal rust is an issue with these, but you could say the same about most Toyota trucks as well.

Last edited 11 months ago by Pappa P
Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
11 months ago

These are actually pretty awesome, per everyone I’ve known who’s had one.
(Maybe they were outliers, but.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Stef Schrader
SkierX
SkierX
11 months ago

The reason this vehicle existed, Bob Lutz. He brought his good ideas from pre Daimler Chrysler to GM. It was his take on the Grand Cherokee. Inline 6, and trapezoidal wheel openings. Those were his doings.

BolognaBurrito
BolognaBurrito
11 months ago
Reply to  SkierX

The squared-off wheel openings were a GM truck design choice for decades before this thing came out…

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
11 months ago
Reply to  SkierX

Lutz rejoined GM in September 2001. This and its GM siblings would have been too far along in development anyway, but they also debuted very early, actually in 2000, just didn’t go on sale for a few months. The Bravada actually debuted just a few days before GM announced they would discontinue the Oldsmobile brand, and then a 2002 Bravada went on to be the pace car for the Indy 500 in May 2001.

Last edited 11 months ago by GreatFallsGreen
Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
11 months ago

Tom Wallace, a college classmate of mine and many decade SCCA racer was the chief engr on this program. He did a good job. There were some conflicts with Lutz (mentioned in Lutz’s book) but lots of mutual respect.

MadAnthony
MadAnthony
11 months ago
Reply to  SkierX

And presumably brought the badge engineering that he learned from Lee Iacocca too.

“It’s a Chevy, GMC, Buick, Olds, Isuzu, and Saab!”

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