Auto-Biography: 2003 Chevrolet Tracker – My New $2500 EXBRO6-Compatible Genuine Four-Wheeler

Remember this time last year, when I started modifying my xB to make it compatible for EXBRO5, our Nevada Overlanding trip? I lifted its suspension, cut away the low-hanging bodywork, put on bigger all-terrain tires and a few other things. It worked out quite well, except for getting stuck in a water hole. I assumed that I would use it for future EXBROs, but then I got the bad news: the route this year, through rugged Eastern Oregon, includes a couple of steep, rocky sections that apparently have to be taken quite  slow. Uh-oh; that’s the enemy of FWD—momentum isn’t going to work there.

What to do? Put in a limited slip diff? Go up in reverse? Depend on a tow? Not go? Get a genuine four-wheeler, with a transfer case and Low range even? I decided that the last option was the most realistic one. But since new Broncos have like a year-long waiting list, I had to find a quicker solution. And a cheaper one—knowing me—obviously.

I absolutely hate car shopping, but I opened up Craigslist and looked for some cheap four wheelers. Is that even possible these days? But there it was, a 2003 Chevy Tracker (Suzuki Grand Vitara) described as “Mom’s car”, offered for $3500.

So I bit, after biting a grand off the asking price. I never looked at anything else. Typical me…

Finding a genuinely off-road compatible vehicle these days for cheap is not an easy undertaking. My son sent me an email with a dozen or so possibilities he’d found around Portland and even Seattle. Am I going to drive to Portland or even Seattle to look at cars? No. I have better things to do.

And this Tracker seemed to be calling me. I’ve had a bit of a thing for Suzuki four wheelers going way back, especially for the Jimny. But they’re a bit too small, and since my nephew is flying out for EXBRO6, a four door with the longer body makes more sense.

But as you all know, I do like smallish, narrow and tall vehicles. And the Tracker/Grand Vitara fit the bill there. In fact, the moment I sat in it and felt the very ample free space over my head and the comfortable high seating position, I was already 90% sold. Desite it having 218k miles on it.

Yup; that’s more than I might have liked, ideally, but then it;s a 20 year-old car, and everything about says it was never driven hard by the seller’s 80 year-old mom. 200+k isn’t all that unusual anymore. And it drove very well; it felt solid, no strange sensations, looseness, or anything else. The a/c is dead (likely a refrigerant leak) and there’s a crack in the windshield. Hence the reduction in price.

And here’s the key component: a transfer case with Low range. Now more FWD anxiety on steep, rocky ascents.

I fit very well in it; it’s got my kind of proportions. I just didn’t want something big, heavy and thirsty. And having driven it around town the last three days, it’s a perfect around-town errand-mobile, and the automatic is rather a boon for that. I love me a stick, but it does sometimes get a bit tedious in traffic. And Stephanie can drive it, if need be.

The thing that folks get down on smaller cars with weaker engines and automatics is that they feel more sluggish. A significant amount of that is subjective, because the automatic tends to shift up sooner under partial throttle than a stick driver might. The key is to just give it more throttle, or in this case, push the “Power” button on the console, which extends part/low throttle shift points. Makes it feel sprightlier.

Power comes from a 2.0 L 130 hp 16 valve engine, and the four speed box is from Aisin; both have very good reps for longevity and reliability. A 2.5 L V6 was also available, but I rather prefer the simplicity of the four.

Given that these are genuine little trucks sitting on a separate frame, I was expecting a pretty rude ride. It’s better than expected, especially after I lowered the pressure in the tires from 45(!) to 28. Why do people do that? Oh, right; because that’s the maximum pressure stated on the sidewall, so that must be the recommended one. As if.

The night I got it, I took it for a lovely early evening spin on my favorite local 20 mile loop through splendid nearby hills and valleys. I took it easy to begin with, to familiarize myself with it; but after a few miles my tempo kept increasing, as my confidence in it rose. I ended up zipping right along; not to impress anyone or myself, but to get a sense of how it feels being pushed into brisk curves. Is it squirrelly?

Not at all; it took a nice, neutral attitude, and hung in there, with a bit of body lean. Sure; it’s not a canyon carver, but I want to know how it’s going to react on back roads. No likely vices.

The accommodations in front are quite generous; they’re the opposite in the back seat 9this is with the driver’s seat pushed all the way back). That’s a big departure from the xB, which has a huge back seat. This is the trade-off for a quite small BOF vehicle with longitudinal drive train. Something has to give. That’s ok; it’s not going to get used much, if ever.

The cargo area is significantly bigger than the xB’s, which is rather tiny. The dog’s footprints from last night’s hike are evident (the sellers cleaned it up quite thoroughly).

I prefer the boxy styling of its predecessor,but they’ve become pretty rare, unless one wants a “project”. I did not.

The 1998 restyle got a more rounded body and a number of minor improvements, but it is essentially the same underneath. The front suspension has struts, and there’s a coil-sprung rear axle that is located with links, which gives it pretty good articulation.  Ground clearance is just under 8″ in stock trim with 205/75R15 tires. Which have to go, ASAP, among other things because they’re cheap all-weather units.

The biggest tire size that fits without any clearance issues is 235/75R15, which is what this Suzuki GV is wearing. They’re 29″ tall, which means a good inch more ground clearance. Overall gearing is increased 6.5%, which is not ideal but realistically it’s not going to be very noticeable.

The full size spare on the back is a boon, as it means I won’t have to carry a rooftop basket to haul one in, like in the xB. Oddly enough, finding some replacement steel wheels like these is turning out to be a bit difficult; there are very few easy junkyard swaps. The 5×5.5 bolt pattern is like millions of old Ford (pre 1996) and Dodge trucks, but the hub hole is bigger on the Suzukis. And the cute little spoked or holed wheels from the Samurai don’t fit these later ones, due to caliper clearance.

And what’s going to become of my beloved xBox? I’m not sure. I love its quirky styling and its many qualities, but I’m finding the Tracker to be a rather effective replacement, at least for the time being. If that’s going to be a long-term reality or not, remains to be seen.

When I look at this shot, I see a typical older Austrian guy who lives up in some little village in the Alps and drives a typical car for that region. These and its kind were and are very popular there. But after 62 years in the US, why does this dude refuse to Americanize properly and not drive a big pickup or SUV? Why does he keep buying and driving these cheap, old, small shit-boxes?

Good question.


Related reading:
Auto-Biography: The xB EXBRO Overland Edition Is Finished and Ready For Off-Road Adventure

Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5), Day 1: Alkali Flat Hot Springs To Pine Creek

Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5), Day 2: Pine Creek To Somewhere In The Toiyabe Range Near Austin – The xB Meets Its Match