The Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2019
May 11, 2019
I DON’T KNOW General Motors’s vice president of global design personally, but I can tell from the driver’s seat of the new Chevrolet Blazer RS, Mike Simcoe needs help.
Mr. Simcoe, an Australian national who came up through the ranks with GM Holden division, became global design boss in 2016, replacing the retiring Ed Welburn. Mr. Simcoe’s fresh eye and exquisite sideburns had made me hope for better things out of GM. But as the new Chevy Blazer midsize crossover makes evident, he has no more pull with the accountants than Mr. Welburn did when it comes to vehicle interiors.
The Blazer is a style-forward, niche-filling two-row crossover that has been whipped up out of GM’s box of commonality, with design inspired by the Chevrolet Camaro. The family lineage is conveyed by its sweeping hood, the Clint Eastwood-squinting LED headlamps, and cowcatcher grille. On the inside, Camaro landmarks include the prominent circular air vents with bezels that adjust temperature, as well as the teeny-tiny row of buttons to manage climate.
Built in Mexico, the Blazer reflects GM manufacturing’s emerging product strategy in North America: Standardize sub-assemblies, powertrains and architectures across divisions, segments, and model years, then charge extra for personality and refinement.
And how. Base model Blazers start at $28,800 before delivery. Blazer Ls are propelled by ye-olde Ecotec 2.5 turbo four, producing 193 hp and 188 lb-ft of torque. It’s the Hertz special.
There are good reasons to stick the old Ecotec in the base Blazer, but none favor the customer. It allows Chevrolet to trumpet an eye-catching base price. But it makes the base model so hard to love that many shoppers will be pushed into the higher trim levels. Somewhere a sales exec is steepling his or her fingers. Excellent.
The Blazer’s better engine—GM’s naturally aspirated 3.6-liter, 308-hp iron-block V6, also long of tooth—requires an additional outlay of $1,000, not including all-wheel drive, available for another $2,700. Want the leather package? That’s another $1,500. To step up to the sporty RS with the optional AWD requires another $3,300. Our violently red tester went out the door for $50,765.
This number staggered me. In my head a little ****ney flower girl said, “Gwwwann!” How could something so cheap-feeling cost so much?
Which brings me back to Mr. Simcoe. You see, there’s design design, and then there is production design. Or, if you like, what Mr. Simcoe wants and what he gets after negotiation with the beancounters. This process includes material cost reduction (MCR) powwows, where the team looks for nice things they can take out, hopefully without customers noticing. These are the meetings that squeeze the love out of GM vehicles.
It was at some MCR meeting in a secure location that program execs decided to use the thinnest sun visors they could find for the Blazer; the least lovable plastics on upper and lower doors, dash, center consoles and trim; and go with the usual penny-wise upholstery, with its wandering seams and puckers. I imagine Mr. Simcoe sitting in these meetings, losing every argument, tears rolling off his sideburns.
I didn’t ask Mr. Simcoe’s permission to use him as a club to beat management. My apologies in absentia. I’m only advocating for better GM product design, and he’s the guy whose door says “Design.”
To be sure, the Blazer has curb appeal. While dimensionally within fractions of its GM crossover/SUV siblings, the Camaro-inspired styling really comes across, at least for Camaro lovers. The Blazer has a lot of stance and a lot of cool curves, with upswept hood lines, deep drafts through the door’s sheet metal, a turret-like side window opening and a rising beltline kicking up above the rear haunches. The RS models brandish huge 21-inch alloy wheels and 35-series summer tires. Our tester’s gloss-black wheels and lower skirting dazzled as long as there was no dust, dirt or mud clinging to them. It’s kind of a high-maintenance look.
I got two-thumbs-ups from a couple of passing motorists, and a report from a friend who said a neighbor kid thought it was “dope.”
But as a driving machine, the RS feels pretty generic and, under any kind of throttle pressure, sounds positively spectral, moaning and groaning like it was haunting Danish parapets. What is going on with the noise insulation under the hood, if any? The 3.6-liter DOHC iron-block wears more modern cylinder heads (direct ignition, stop-start function); but its raucous and unrefined induction noises fills the cabin like ’90s arena rock.
The RS and Premier trim levels get the V6 bundled with a nine-speed automatic; yet despite a considerable application of powertrain code, including five selectable driving modes, our RS’s delivery of power felt sluggish and disconnected. Even in light, day-to-day traffic, throttle response and downshifts lagged way behind my demands, even in Sport mode, which is supposed to sharpen the throttle and shifts. Oof. Sometimes, before I could bring the Blazer’s pot to boil, the opening in traffic had evaporated, which meant having to chop the throttle, leaving the engine to overrun awfully, hung out by its own rotational momentum.
Underbaked and starved of value, the new Blazer is a reminder that GM the financial entity and GM the car-building enterprise don’t have the same interests. GM is now enjoying stable returns, which Wall Street likes; but it’s all on the back of its contraction of North American market share. If GM wanted to grow its business, it would plow more money into making products desirable.
It must make Mr. Simcoe crazy.