Behind the Wheel: 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer

I rented a 2007 Chevy Trailblazer to drive Amanda’s parents around in as we did a big tour of New England in the fall, so I had plenty of time to get aquainted with this vehicle – on both highways and tight city streets.

And I can say, unoquivically, that it sucks.

Having said that, I can’t help but notice… this behemoth of an SUV is everywhere. We stayed at a hotel in Waltham, MA – and the two nights we were there, there were not one, but two other Trailblazers – ironically, they were all the same color!!

The unusual popularity of this SUV confuses me. When I say it sucks, I mean it sucks – and for several very good reasons:

  • The steering is loose and disconnected,
  • There is far too little rear legroom for such a large vehicle,
  • Acceleration comes on in “surges” instead of smoothly,
  • Very tipsy (although to be fair, you’d have to expect this),
  • Confusing/difficult control stalk (especially the cruise control),
  • No limited slip differential makes for limited off-road capability,
  • Surprisingly little ground clearance for such a big SUV,
  • Jittery steering at highway speed.

Let me elaborate:

The Steering: I know it’s a big SUV, and perhaps I’m spoiled, but it is somewhat frightening in such a big vehicle to be unable to get much feedback from the steering. Half the time it’s like driving in a video game – there’s little to no feedback, making it difficult to steer with confidence.

However – and this is one of the few good points of this SUV – this thing has an excelent turning radius. For this reason, it is surprisingly easy to park.

Rear Legroom: one of the reasons we rented this thing was because we were going on a long trip with 4 people – we wanted rear legroom, plus room for luggage. Surprisingly, most rental places actually charged less for an SUV as opposed to a full-sized car, so we opted for the SUV, thinking that it must have more room – it’s bigger, right?

Well, wrong. The rear legroom in this thing is awful. Even with the front passenger seat all the way forward, there is surprisingly little room back there for the legs of rear passengers. Although there was plenty of room for luggage, it seems to me like a little bit more room could’ve been sacrificed to the passengers. (Perhaps this is why Chevy came out with an “extended” Trailblazer model?)

Surging Acceleration: It’s only got a straight 6 engine, but there’s a fair amount of “oomph” there. The only problem is that it comes on in big “surges” rather than smoothly across the entire rev range. The touchy gas pedal makes city driving – especially accelerating gently from a stop – somewhat challenging.

Tipsy: Well, what large SUV isn’t tipsy? But still, when you combine the surgy acceleration with the disconnected steering and a top-heavy SUV, that’s a recipie for disaster.

Control Stalk: Now, I know Chevy likes to put every single control function on this one stalk, but perhaps some concessions could be made? I eventually figured out the cruise control, but I was on the verge of reading the manual to make sure I had it right.

No Limited Slip Differential: Now perhaps some models DO come with a limited slip diff; I don’t know for sure. But the model we had didn’t. And although we never needed it (being confined to on-road driving pretty much the entire trip), it does kind of seem silly to have a big SUV with a fancy control nob for switching between 2 wheel drive, 4 wheel drive (automatic), 4 wheel drive (high), and 4 wheel drive (low) – but then neglect to have a limited slip diff.

The upscale SS models have an AWD system – I think Chevy should’ve just made that standard for all models across the range.

And don’t get me started on that control nob – I’m still not quite sure what the difference between 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive (automatic) really is – or why you’d want to switch between them, ever. (If you know, feel free to chime up in the comments.)

Not Much Ground Clearance: The Trailblazer has 7.8 inches of ground clearance. My little Outlander has 8.3 inches. Which one is billed as more of an off-road vehicle?

Jittery steering at speed: Let’s face it, when you’re in a huge vehicle like this, especially an American-made vehicle, you sort of expect it to handle the big highways with ease – just “floating” along, crusing easily and steering with one finger (errr, I mean, both hands firmly on the wheel!). But, with the Trailblazer’s disconnected steering, instead you get a rather “jittery” feeling at speed that doesn’t inspire much confidence. In fact, it can be nerve-wracking at times – especially in a crosswind.

So there you have it – damning evidence of the suckiness of the Trailblazer, collected in over a solid week of driving.

So… why do I still see so many of these things on the road? I just don’t get it…

Driving = Freedom

Getting in the car, putting on some tunes, and just driving… nothing else makes me feel so “free.”

Now, this might be something that’s restricted to those of us that grew up in areas where there was no such thing as “public transit” and the only bus you could catch was the one that took you to school (if you were lucky). So if you’re a city person, or if you grew up with public transit, then this may not make much sense to you.

But when you go for a drive – just to drive, just to get out of the house, just to get somewhere – anywhere – that’s different from where you are – to get away from what’s bothering you – it all just melts away. All your troubles are literally left behind you, and your mind is clear and the freedom of the open road beckons to you – all you have to do is drive

To me, that’s freedom. That’s why I love driving.

Where’s the Stick Shift Gone?

It’s time to revisit a popular topic around here – the old “manual vs. automatic” argument.

If you follow – well, actually, let’s just be honest here and say “obsess” – over cars, you might have noticed a trend in regards to what transmissions are available on new cars these days. And that trend is that traditional, “proper” manual transmissions are increasingly rare – especially in bigger, sportier cars. (Think: BMW, Audi, etc.)

(Just to be clear, I’m not going to talk about “luxury” cars here – those have almost always been exclusively automatic, and with good reason, so let’s just cut them out of the discussion for now, OK?)

What seems to be replacing our beloved manual transmission these days is something that the folks on Top Gear call a “flappy-paddle gearbox.” You’ve probably seen them in car ads by now – those little, well, “flappy” paddles on the steering wheel (or the steering column, if the car is badly designed) that change gears for you. Once only exclusively found on super-expensive “supercars,” you can now find them on things like the Mitsubishi Lancer (or the new Outlander – alas!).

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of transmissions – not the least of which is because the presence of the paddles says absolutely nothing about what type of transmission is really “under the hood.” And that seems kind of… gimmicky to me.

It is worth noting that paddle shifters originally came from the world of high-speed racing – when you’re going 300 MPH and the next driver is 3 inches from your bumper, taking your hand off the wheel to shift can be… problematic. When you’re shifting gears while trying to find a parking space at your local shopping mall it’s… less so. (I’ve heard that paddle shifters, although arguably cool and good for racing on a track, are less than optimal for “around-town” type driving – and can in fact be quite infuriating in those instances!)

To further muddle things, paddle shifters might be connected to a normal automatic gearbox, and might function the same way as the “manu-matic” or “sport-tronic” transmissions that were so popular for a time. The only difference is that instead of shifting the gear lever into a little “gate” and pushing it up or down to change gears, you do it instead with the little paddles on the steering wheel.

On the other hand, those paddle shifters might be connected to a very crazy thing sometimes called a “clutchless manual transmission.” This is almost exactly what it sounds like – a manual transmission that just doesn’t have a clutch… or, well, a clutch pedal, anyway. Internally there is (usually) still a real clutch, which is controlled by the car’s computer, but otherwise it functions just like a normal manual transmission (in theory, anyway).

As you’d expect, these fancy transmissions are (generally) only found on very expensive cars. They may very well be “the way of the future, ” but I don’t think they’re here yet, and I don’t think they will be for some time. These sorts of systems are quite complex, which of course is just a fancy way of saying they have lots of ways to break down. And aside from fact that the car’s computer is capable of shifting gears much faster and very much more consistently, there’s really no advantage to it. I mean, if you’re going to have all that mechanical, technical, and electronic hoo-ha, why not just… get an automatic? Or, better still, just get a traditional manual?

Perhaps it’s because many cars with these sorts of systems are – well, let’s be honest, quite expensive, or at least more “status symbol” than “mode of transportation.” Rather than being for practical purposes, these fancy new transmissions are really just there for show, or at least so that the 60-year old retired CEO or whatever who’s driving the car (with the arthritic leg) can still drive like an idiot (and talk on his – or her, to be fair – cell phone, no doubt) in a $100,000+ car without having to dilly-dally with all the bother of actually controlling the gear change in the car. Because that would be too much like… “driving.” But I digress.

Automatic transmissions are getting much better these days – but until there is a deep, fundamental change in the method that automatic transmissions use to change gear ratios for the car’s drive train, they are still going to have the same fundamental drawbacks (more or less) – sluggish gear changes, less efficiency, and greater costs. Obviously, some automatic transmissions will be better than others on any of these things, but they’ll all suffer them, to a greater or lesser degree.

There is one bright ray of hope, however! With gasoline prices going up like they are, smaller cars – especially fuel-efficient 4-cylinder cars – are becoming quite popular again. And there’s no doubt about it – a manual transmission allows you to make the best use of a smaller, weaker engine. So there’s some good news. Of course, on the other hand, for ultimate fuel efficiency, car makers are turning more and more to something called CVT – that’s Continously Variable Transmission, in case you were wondering. This is actually a really exciting technology – no more gears, just a continous, practically “infinite” range of drive ratios, automatically selectable without any disconnection of the car’s drive train. (The Wikipedia article I’ve linked to is particularly instructive.)

The downside, of course, is that current technology limits the amount of power (torque, in particular) that can be sent through a CVT – making it generally only acceptable for smaller, lower-power cars. And lots of people find the lack of “lurch” – as in when the gears change (automatic or manual) – disconcerning, so some manufacturers actually take steps to make the car still “lurch” preceptively at intervals. Weird, I know. But of course as in all things, technology will improve – so maybe in the future we’ll all be driving cars with CVTs? (Assuming we’re not driving “flying” cars… I’m waiting for that day, but I won’t hold my breath.)

So what’s a tripedalist to do? Well, I think it is safe to say that the stick shift will never completely dissapear – after all, there will always be a place for a simple, efficient, manual transmission in cars of many different types (sports cars, small cars, and certain types of big trucks). But things like “flappy paddle” shifters are more likely to show up – and to be the only available option – on more and more cars. So the best thing we can do is vote with our wallets – if you like driving a stick shift (and why wouldn’t you?), buy a stick shift, even if it’s not quite the car you’d like. (Or use your own discretion – after all, you’re the one driving it!)

If you’re one of those people who’s not lamenting the gradual dissapearance of the stick shift in today’s cars, well, I guess you can break out the cake and celebrate. If a car to you is just a “thing” to get you from point A to point B, where there’s a lot of traffic in between (or long stretches of open highway with no curves/stops), all I can say is… enjoy your automatic.

As for me – I’ll be driving stick, and I’ll be quite happy with it, thank you very much! Long live the stick shift!

Horsepower and Torque

We’re thinking about getting a second car – Yay!

We’ve been looking rather longingly at the Mazda3 5-door. But when I look at the numbers, I get a little… confused.

Mazda 3 (2008 5-door)
Outlander (2003 AWD)
2983 lbs 3461 lbs
4.8 inches ground clearance 8.3 inches ground clearance
Fully independent 4-wheel suspension Fully independent 4-wheel suspension
2.3 liter engine 2.4 liter engine
156 hp @ 6500 RPM 142 hp @ 5000 RPM
150 ft/lb torque @ 4500 RPM 157 ft/lb torque @ 2500 RPM

Take a look for a moment at those numbers. Notice anything… odd? The Mazda has a slightly smaller engine… yet it develops more peak horsepower! How can this be?

And look at those torque numbers… the Outlander develops more torque at lower RPMs. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a graph of horsepower and torque curves, so we can’t compare them like that, but still, it makes you wonder.

We’ve taken the Mazda3 for a test drive – it’s definately a spunky little car with lots of “get up and go.” Moreso, I dare say, than my beloved Outlander. And yet… those torque numbers continue to befuddle me.

Horsepower vs. Torque

Horsepower and torque are confusing ideas – we all tend to think we understand them, but when you look at their definitions, you can’t help but feel a little confused. We often tend to think of more horsepower as good, because it makes the car faster, right? Well, horsepower is “work done over time.” Now try to work out in your head how being able to do “more work done over time” makes your car faster.

Same thing for torque – which few people even pay attention to. Torque is just rotational force – which gets really confusing when you realize that even if something is not rotating, it can still have torque! For example, when you try to turn a stuck bolt, you’re applying torque – even if the bolt isn’t turning.

Given that, you’d think that torque would be a very important number for cars – more turning force seems to imply that you could turn the wheels faster, right? Well, yes and no. You see, it’s not just raw turning force – you’ve got to consider that your car produces different amounts of torque at different engine speeds (RPM), and then you’ve got the gear ratio to consider (different for each gear your in, plus the gear ratio of your drive train). If you’re a casual car buyer, trying to figure all this out can give you a major migraine.

There’s got to be an easier, more objective way to measure things, right?

Power to Weight Ratios

Looking back on the Outlander vs. Mazda3 chart, I realized that it may just be the weight numbers that are throwing off my perceptions – the Outlander is quite a bit heavier, due in no small part to it’s (fantastic) all-wheel-drive system. So how can we compare?

A little bit of digging on the subject turns up the term “power to weight ratio.” Ahhhh, here’s what we’re looking for!

Mazda 3 Outlander
Torque/weight ratio 0.050 0.045
HP/weight ratio 0.052 0.041

Ah, now that’s a bit better. We’re still ignoring the final drive ratio (produced by the drive train, etc.), but this is much better for comparing power “at a glance.” And now we can see why the Mazda3 feels “zippier” – it’s power/weight ratio is a bit higher than the Outlander’s.

Of course, this reveals another anomaly – the Mazda’s HP/weight ratio is higher than it’s torque/weight ratio, while with the Outlander the opposite is true. But it’s not really much of an anomaly if you look at the rated towing capacity of the two cars – the Outlander is rated to pull (much) more than the Mazda.

So there you have it – the means to (somewhat) objectively compare horsepower and torque ratings between cars, so as to get a sense for their performance. It’s not the total picture, and of course you should still drive a car before you buy it, but perhaps this will help you narrow down your choices (as it sort of did with me).