Suppress your rational instincts, and maybe–just maybe–these 400-hp rebel SUVs start making sense. BY LARRY WEBSTER PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON KILEY March 2006 On the scale of silliness, a hot-rod truck is up there with a gas-powered bar stool. Sure, you can do it, but why would you want to? If you just want to go fast, why not start with a lighter car? Still, anything that has a 395-hp engine and costs less than 40 grand is going to seize our attention. Which is why we're here comparing a pair of new, high-powered sport-utility vehicles: the Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS versus the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. Jeep's Grand Cherokee, already a powerful player with the available 330-hp, 5.7-liter V-8, emerged from Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology fitness regimen as a sport-ute with plenty of sport. In the engine bay sits a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8, coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive, that produces a whopping 420 horsepower. There's some bodywork action, too, including an extended front spoiler, 20-inch wheels, and two exhaust pipes three inches in diameter poking out the center of the rear bumper. It looks very cool, especially in the black paint worn by our no-options $39,995 test vehicle. In the other corner, our loaded TrailBlazer SS cost a similar $39,885. The SS carries a lower base price of $33,600 and does not have four-wheel drive as standard. We wanted this to be as close a matchup as possible, so we ordered our SS with the $2250 full-time four-wheel drive and enough options to bring the two vehicles to as-tested prices that were just $110 apart. The SS is a little down in pony count, packing a 395-hp, 6.0-liter V-8, but it, too, sports 20-inch wheels and an automatic transmission. And in case you think these two vehicles are straight-line specials, both have pumped-up suspensions and large brakes with cooling air ducts. We recommend neither for off-road rumbles. If one company deserves credit for hot-rod-truck madness, it's General Motors. The first of the genre appeared in 1991, when the boosted GMC Syclone landed with a turbo whoosh heard everywhere the power crazy gathered. Its turbocharged six-cylinder engine belted out 280 horsepower, which was big news back then, and we were not immune to its charms. In our September 1991 issue, we compared the $25,970 truck to a $122,180 Ferrari 348ts. Yes, we were just being our demented selves, but the Syclone could hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, 0.7 second quicker than the megabucks Ferrari. The formula fell apart, however, when the Syclone was asked to do what it appeared built to do, namely, haul stuff. Its payload capacity was a paltry 500 pounds. What good is a truck that can barely carry a load of firewood? When the Syclone's powertrain was mated to an S-15 two-door sport-ute, the Typhoon, the formula made a little more sense because for about 30 grand it offered seating for four, four-wheel drive, and Corvette-like acceleration. In the Typhoon's towing-capacity box, however, was a goose egg, a zero. As fun as those trucks were, their limited usefulness affected sales — only 4700 Typhoons and 2995 Syclones were sold between 1991 and 1993. Chevy made sure not to repeat that utility pitfall this time. The TrailBlazer SS can tow up to 6700 pounds. Jeep, on the other hand, seems to have retreated: The SRT8 can tow only 3500 pounds. And the Grand Cherokee's visually appealing exhaust pipes occupy the space where a hitch would go. As hot-rod trucks, you might think only performance should matter here. Sorry, remnants of our rational streak got in the way. If it looks like a truck, then in some ways it should act like one, too. So, although we put these two through our usual battery of performance tests, back-road driving, and highway slogging, we also considered the usefulness of each. Let's see how they fared. Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 - Second Place Without question, the Jeep is the hottest rod here. Although the two have fairly similar power-to-weight ratios (11.4 pounds per horsepower for the Jeep, 12.3 for the Chevy), the Jeep easily outruns the SS. This thing explodes when you jump on the gas. The four-wheel-drive system routes the majority of the engine's power to the rear wheels while cruising, and a clutch in the center differential can reroute power to the front wheels if the system detects that the rears are losing traction. Hit the gas, and after a barely audible chirp from the rear tires, the Jeep hurtles forward. From rest to 60 mph takes only 4.5 seconds, which is about as quick as a BMW M3 and a second quicker than the SS. The Jeep passes 100 mph in 12.0 seconds, 2.6 seconds sooner than the Chevy. Part of the Jeep's acceleration advantage comes from the quick-shifting transmission. It has a manumatic feature that allows manual gear selection, but the automatic mode worked so well that we mostly relied on it. Upshifts and downshifts are quick and much smoother than the Chevy's. As a smack-you-into-the-seat machine, the Jeep's got a definite edge. It also handles fairly well. We're talking about a 4794-pound sport-ute with a decidedly unsportingly high center of gravity, but it's crisper in the curves than you'd think. On the skidpad, its 0.88 g outperformed the Chevy's 0.81-g score. The SRT8 would have performed better in the lane-change test, but its stability-control system can't be completely disabled. In normal mode, the system clamps down at the slightest slide. Hitting the "off" button allows a little more sliding, but it still intervenes enough that it slowed us down in the lane change. But in the real world, the stability system wasn't a bother. In fact, this truck is fun in the twisties. Although we didn't put it on the clock as we zipped around our well-traveled handling loop, the Jeep didn't feel much slower than the high-powered sports cars we usually pick for this particular group of back roads. We could carry a lot of speed in the corners. The Jeep doesn't lean much, but you never lose the feeling that you're sitting high in the air. Thankfully, the brakes are terrific. The pedal has a reassuringly firm feel that's a relief to encounter at the end of a high-speed straight, and the brakes felt up to the task of repeatedly slowing the nearly 2.5-ton brute. We liked the steering, too, which has a tight feel to it. After a few miles of spirited driving, you forget you're in a truck. The responses are sports-car quick, and you drive this Grand Cherokee like you would any other performance car. For example, in one tricky corner we used the brakes to bring the nose down to the corner apex and then squeezed the gas for a quick shot down the following short straight. The choreography was straight out of racing school. That handling precision, however, comes with a stiff ride. The Grand Cherokee swallows large impacts well enough, but humps in the road set the chassis into a harsh up-and-down motion that could bring on nausea. Maybe we're getting soft, but it's uncomfortable enough that we wouldn't want to endure the ride on a daily basis. In the ride category, we gave the Jeep an eight and the Chevy a nine. Besides the ride, the Jeep also lost points in the utility department. That 3500-pound towing capacity cost it three points, and there's the interior, which is small compared with the Chevy's. The back seats are tighter, and the rear-seat cushion is too low. In rear-seat comfort, the Jeep got four points to the Chevy's five. Plus, the Jeep can't carry as much stuff. With the seats folded, the SRT8 offers 67 cubic feet of space versus 80 in the SS. Those deficiencies cost the Jeep first place, but it lost by only two measly points. We loved the V-8 rumble and fantastic thrust, but it's still a truck, and we expect more utility. Sure, it looks great and is loads of fun, but you can get that with plenty of cars — a Dodge Charger SRT8, for one. Highs: Rattlesnake throttle response, terrific V-8 soundtrack, looks sporty even though it's a truck. Lows: Tight back seat, a traction-control system that can't be completely disabled, stiff ride. The Verdict: A sport-ute with plenty of sport but not much ute. Chevrolet TrailBlazer SS - First Place Let's hope our trail of excuses explains away some of the reasons the slower truck emerges in this standoff. But the TrailBlazer did not win solely because of its hauling credentials. Excuse this, but the SS hauls ass, too. A 5.5-second blast to 60 mph is still quick enough to make it feel much less like a truck and more like a sports car. As in the Jeep, there's an electronically controlled center differential that automatically sends power to the wheels with the most traction. As powerful as these machines are, forget smoky burnouts. At least there's a musclecar soundtrack. In that arena, the Jeep is throatier, but the Chevy is no mouse, especially when the throttle is wide open. Pity, the Chevy's four-speed transmission is one of the few GM trannies that's not transparent in its actions. Downshifts seem delayed, and full-throttle upshifts are uncomfortably abrupt. The Chevy's stability-control system can be fully disabled, however, which gave it the edge in the lane-change maneuver (61.9 mph versus 61.3) and allows the sort of juvenile power slides that these things seem made for. During one such maneuver — kids, don't try this at home — we flicked the truck left, then abruptly right, at about 90 mph. The SS gracefully arced into a sideways slide that would do professional rally driver Colin McRae proud. We were grinning like idiots until we looked out the left-side window and noticed this tippy sport-ute was drastically leaning on its left side. Have you ever had a brief moment of clarity when time slows to a crawl and you can seemingly foresee impending disaster? We did while we were going sideways — at 90 mph — in the Chevy. But nothing happened. The SS handled the maneuver a lot like a Corvette; a little bit of countersteering and it pulled out of the slide just fine. We tried it a few more times — for experimental purposes, you understand — and each time the SS behaved predictably and soundly. The SS and the SRT8 are perception-changing vehicles. The performance maneuvers we did in the SS were well within its capabilities, but it took us a while to overcome our notion that it's a truck and simply shouldn't be able to pull off the tricks it was doing. Once we got over that, we were flying around in the SS just like in the SRT8. The main difference with the SS is that it's simply a little softer in the handling department, and in this case, that's a good thing. It rolls a little more in the corners, and there's a little less feedback through the steering wheel, but it's still a fun car to hustle on back roads. In exchange for some of the handling precision, however, the SS delivers a much better ride. We're still talking about sports-car firmness, but the SS doesn't bounce around like the Jeep. It's too bad the SS has to deal with the TrailBlazer platform. The SS's stiffer suspension amplifies its flimsy structure. Over some bumps it felt as if the body were flexing so much that the seat was twisting in its mounts. We wonder what GM's high-performance division could have done with a better canvas. A few other quibbles involved a brake pedal with that initial GM sponginess before the brakes bite and seats that are comfortable but without lateral support. For sure Chevy and Jeep walked a tightrope here. How much edge are you willing to accept in return for performance? The Jeep comes with a stiff ride and not much hauling capacity. The Chevy, however, simply delivers more in hauling and features. For a few bucks less than the SRT8, the SS came with heated seats, load-leveling rear air springs, automatic climate control, and OnStar. It's a little less fun than the Jeep, but not by much. And when you factor in everything else the Chevy can do, it emerged the winner. Highs: Fast, can tow a boat, roomy interior. Lows: Lazy transmission, and it's still a TrailBlazer. The Verdict: An impressively wide range of talents.