Here's Why GM Didn't Make the New Chevrolet Blazer a Rugged Off-Road Truck

And why it might be doomed.

2019 Chevrolet Blazer RS and 1972 K5
Chevrolet

The formula seemed simple enough: take one iconic off-road nameplate, modernize it for a truck-crazed market, and make it rain. Grab some of those buyers who've propelled rugged rigs like the Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Wrangler to sales records this decade. But instead of following the trail blazed by the 2020 Ford Bronco, General Motors made the 2019 Chevrolet Blazer a roadgoing crossover. We wanted to know why.

During the media launch for the new Blazer, Chevrolet representatives said up front that bringing it back as a body-on-frame truck on the Colorado platform was never in the cards. They contend that's not what buyers in the lucrative midsize, two-row SUV segment want, brandishing market research showing "overall exterior styling" as their number one concern.

"For this vehicle, with the midsize, two-row customer really being design forward, we looked at the business case, and those customers aren't necessarily looking for the body-on-frame," Chevy spokesperson Maureen Bender said. "So we kind of have a modern interpretation of a Blazer with this being a crossover. It was never intended to be anything else."

In other words, GM thinks more people will buy the Blazer as another Matryoshka doll of a unibody CUV than one built with off-road duty in mind, like the old K5 and S10 used to be. That's a little unfair—the Blazer's design is nothing if not distinctive—and if you consider its current competition to be things like the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano, that strategy makes sense. But the reasoning is thin.

Chevrolet

The good old days.

There was another desired rival bandied about during the conversation: the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which sold a mighty 225,000 models in 2018. Problem is, the Grand Cherokee also makes an effort to stay true to its capable roots. Then there's the two midsize, two-row, body-on-frame SUVs mentioned up top: the Wrangler and 4Runner both outsold the Edge and Murano last year.

That's why in today's age of hybrid this and electric that, the upcoming 2020 Ford Bronco is drawing on its heritage and using a truck frame with off-roading in mind. Pressed on that obvious comparison, and why Chevrolet wouldn't want to revisit that historic rivalry, Bender held firm.

Chevrolet

"It was never on the radar. We thought there was opportunity here with the two-row segment. This area of the business is growing, so that's why Blazer is what it is," she said.

Two paths diverge in the woods. One leads to a rough road rich in history; the other, a smooth, anodyne moving walkway. I suppose you can't blame General Motors for taking the easier route. Ford's decision to go all-in on trucks and SUVs means it needs to expand its lineup, lending space for a body-on-frame Bronco to develop. Meanwhile, GM sees the magic carpet—efficient, quiet, and for that first second, fun—as a simple path to the future.

"Our intent all along was to be about dry-road handling. Kind of like a sports sedan, you know, drawing on that performance DNA," Blazer lead engineer Larry Mihalko said. "As people are converting from sedans into crossovers, this provides something a little more sporty in this segment, versus something you'd just use in a utility way."

So ultimately, the 2019 Chevrolet Blazer is what it is because GM wants to offer the same kind of variety in crossovers that you used to find in its sedans. It's leaving the tough stuff to the Colorado ZR2—which, to be fair to the company, is a more technical off-roader than anything Ford currently offers.

Kyle Cheromcha

The author's K5.

As to why this sport-ish CUV is wearing such a weighty name, well, that's a conservative shop like GM for you. I'll admit it's annoying, especially as the owner of a 1988 K5. (Though if it somehow increases the value of my truck, hey, go for it.)

But the bigger problem is how this approach could spell trouble for the automaker. Signs are growing that we're headed toward at least a small economic slowdown, if not an outright recession. Six out of the top ten best-selling SUVs in America saw significantly worse numbers in January compared to a year ago; with little apart from style to really distinguish it from the hundred other blobs sold across General Motors brands, an extended, industry-wide sales slump could leave the Chevrolet Blazer dangerously exposed. 

The Blazer will sell as long as people keep buying right-sized crossovers. But just as the last recession cleared out GM's bloated portfolio, so too could the industry's current instability kneecap the thing right out of the gate. And it's here that the ancient Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Wrangler have one more lesson to impart: it's easier to weather economic headwinds as a specialist. Both survived the 2009 crisis in large part because they're unmatched as daily-driveable off-roaders in the market.

Time will tell if the Chevrolet Blazer's flashy design and sharp handling lights a fire large enough to keep warm through the cold winter. But this much is certain: it didn't have to be just another crossover in today's day and age. The General just wanted it so.