(first posted 9/12/2012) Writing this Curbside Classic took the same trajectory as the Blazer. It started as a legitimate nod of acknowledgment to the S-10 Blazer as the trailblazer of the compact SUV market. But as soon as I got a bit further along, I realized just how badly GM bungled the huge opportunity for the baby Blazer in a segment that became a monster money machine for Jeep and Ford. As all the mistakes were so prototypically GM, I just had to rewrite it as a Deadly Sin, even though it would have been easier to just leave it as it was. Which is exactly what GM’s Deadly Sin with the Blazer was: leave it as it was, practically forever. Well I’m not ready just yet to have someone document my Deadly Journalistic Sins, so here goes: Blazer, take two.
Before any mud-slinging begins, lets define the new category that this Blazer blazed. Sure, the Jeep CJ was always compact, as were the first generations of Scout and Bronco. But they were, first and foremost, uncompromising and gnarly 4×4 off-roaders,. The1983 S-10 Blazer was the first of a new wave of compact and reasonably comfortable four-wheelers that were every bit as much (and perhaps even more) at home on the road than off it.
The Isuzu Trooper II (above) and the Mitsubishi Montero (Pajero) are the only other vehicles that might contest the compact Blazer’s claim to its eponymous name. Both appeared on our shores at about the same time the Blazer started rolling off GM’s assembly lines.
The Montero (Dodge Raider version shown here), which then came only in a short-wheelbase version was rather trucky, more of a Japanese update to the Jeep or Scout than the pioneer in a new category. And the Trooper II was, well, a longer- wheelbase version of the basic Montero formula. I’ve got a soft spot for both of them (especially the Trooper II), and they’ll be covered in a future CC. But lacking a V6, a softish ride, the “cute” styling element–and probably most importantly, Chevrolet’s vast dealer network–both were, at least initially, relegated to something like outsider status.
The baby Blazer appeared during my L.A. years. And what a godsend it must have been to the Chevy dealers in the decade Californians started treating domestic passenger cars like airline passengers with hacking coughs–especially GM and Chrysler dealers, as Ford was still getting some Sunshine State love for its Taurus, Mustang and T-Bird. During its first couple of years the Blazer was a hot item, especially with the ski set. My Peugeot 404 wagon was looking a wee bit archaic in the Mammoth Mountain Main Lodge parking lot amongst the shiny new white and red Blazers driven by blonde ski bunnies.
Like the ski bunnies, the Blazer had its superficial attractions; dig a little deeper, and things weren’t nearly as pretty. The GMT 330 platform that underpinned the Blazer and S-10 pickup was an uninspired piece of work, unlike that of the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) that followed the Blazer by a year. With its dull handling, crude ride and mediocre build quality, the Chevy was quickly outclassed by the Cherokee.
Obviously, the seeds of the Blazer’s arrival in ’83 were sown during the very painful 1981 energy crisis, which obviously motivated Chevrolet to develop a little brother of the massive K-5 Blazer. But in view of their new-found early-’80s zeal for fuel efficiency, some rather dubious engine choices showed up under the S-10 Blazer’s hood. The standard mill was the rough-and-tumble 2.0 OHV four that also powered so many J-cars (Cavaliers, et al.). In California, an Isuzu Trooper-sourced 1.9-liter four was used for smog certification reasons. Odd. Managing a mere 83 hp, the 2.0-liter might have been barely passable in a stick-shift, 2WD S-10 pickup, but the B-O-F Blazer was not a relative lightweight like the unibody Cherokee. And if you really wanted to be thrifty, you could order the 2.2-liter diesel, also from Isuzu, which made all of 58 horsepower! Good times. They were durable motors, though.
I remember hearing a couple of diesel-powered S-10 pickups back in the day, but not a Blazer. Would a 58-hp diesel Blazer be collectible? In reality, probably just about every one of them came with the optional 2.8-liter V6, the longitudinal version of GM’s evergreen 60-degree V6. It sucked an awful lot of fuel to generate a measly 110 hp, but with gas prices dropping like a stone during the ’80s, who cared? Well, I did.
The Niedermeyers succumbed to SUV fever and the (big) monthly payment lure, so the dear old 404 wagon that had cost me $75 (and a junkyard motor) gave way to a $16k ’85 Cherokee with that same Chevy 2.8. It was anything but brisk, and slurped gas at almost twice the rate of the Peugeot, but now we officially were Yuppies! Well, you had to be one to afford these trucklets, which were anything but cheap. Decently optioned, with basic amenities that are all standard today, transaction prices were stiff; adjusted for inflation, our Cherokee ran about $35k. What’s more, the current interest rates on loans were stratospheric. No wonder longer-term car loans were invented back then.
Mileage-wise, it took a minor miracle for the 2.8-liter V6 to break out of the mid-teens. Reliability was another marginal affair. Apparently, a huge number had main rear seals that self-destructed in short order. We managed to dodge that bullet, but not with the world’s most complicated and expensive carburetor. Too cheap to install fuel injection, Rochester’s answer to the latest round of emissions regs was a Rube Goldbergian affair that allowed no adjustments short of those then constituting a federal offense. The inevitable replacement cost over $500 bucks ($1000 adjusted), and just for the carb. I used to buy nice used cars for less than that. Eighties-style new car ownership was a painful adjustment for me.
The Blazer got some bigger engines after a few years, although both the Iron Duke 2.5-liter four and the 4.3-liter V6 displayed notoriously unrefined manners. Still, the Blazer’s deadliest deficiency was the lack of two rear doors. Once the four-door Cherokee appeared, the Trooper and Montero quickly sprouted extra doors; in fact, those two small Japanese firms managed to bang out four-door versions in no time at all. Compact SUVs were becoming the station wagons of the day, and who wanted to return to the contortions of the long-gone two-door wagons, especially with baby seats and seat belts?
Even so, it took GM almost eight years to take a Sawzall in hand and carve out some damn rear doors. By then the Cherokee had long stolen the show, at least until the new Ford Explorer appeared in 1991. Although the Blazer’s design, unlike the Cherokee’s, didn’t age at all nicely, it wasn’t until 1995–12 years later–that GM found fit to give it a new skin. By then, it had long been relegated to a distant third.
GM seriously fumbled the ball with the Blazer. For over 20 years, it undertook no serious effort to adequately improve a vehicle that had been the crudest in its class from the start. During its latter years, it seemed a pathetic joke compared with the continually refined Explorer.
The reskinned Blazer stumbled along on the same old tired platform until finally expiring, in 2005. But in Brazil, you could still relive the early-’80s days of GM and buy a new old Blazer (offered only with a four-cylinder engine) up until last year.
Indeed, the first shall be last, and in more ways than one.