Pumping Up: Domestic SUVs set to join horsepower horse race The production version of the TrailBlazer SS concept shown here will tout high performance for a Chevrolet price. By RICK KRANZ | Automotive News (07:58 June 28, 2004) Next year Chevrolet will pump up the TrailBlazer with a high-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 and a suspension tweaked at an unlikely location - Germany's famed Nurburgring track. Meanwhile, Jeep is considering an SUV that would be at home on a racetrack, too. And it definitely wouldn't be "trail rated." SUVs with big engines and suspension tweaks aren't new. Both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche AG have such vehicles. But it is not yet clear whether nonluxury brands can successfully compete for high-performance bragging rights. The interest in powerful engines and better-handling SUVs reflects the trend in the car business, says Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power and Associates. The Chrysler group has been promoting Hemi-equipped cars and trucks, while Saturn has begun marketing its Red Line high-performance vehicles. High-performance SUVs "equate to the whole kind of fun-to-drive wave that we are riding," Schuster says. "I think that is all playing into this, in ways to differentiate yourself from the competition." To be sure, General Motors attempted this strategy once before - with little success. In 1992, the automaker introduced the GMC Typhoon, a 280-horsepower SUV variant of the Jimmy. The automaker sold 2,500 Typhoons in 1992, and 2,200 in 1993. After two years, the company dropped the truck. Some critics noted that the Typhoon's lowered suspension ruled out towing or hauling. General Motors is mum about details for the 2006 TrailBlazer SS. But a concept vehicle by the same name displayed at the New York auto show in April offers some hints, GM executives say. That vehicle featured a 345-hp 6.0-liter V-8 Corvette engine with 380 pounds-feet of torque. The concept was equipped with stability control, the latest traction control system and an electronically controlled air suspension. Key elements of the TrailBlazer SS's character will be ride and handling. The vehicle will share its suspension design with the 2005 Saab 9-7X, according to an industry source. A test mule with a TrailBlazer front end was photographed in May during high-speed runs at Germany's famed Nurburgring track. That track is where Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac and other automakers test their sports cars and some sedans. It's an unlikely venue for an SUV, but not unprecedented. Porsche tested its Cayenne SUV at Nurburgring. While most SUVs have enough ground clearance to climb over rocks and tree trunks, GM lowered the center of gravity for the TrailBlazer SS. The concept's suspension is two inches lower. The intent is to reduce the risk of rollover. The 2006 TrailBlazer SS is aimed at "a guy who wants an SUV that is out of the ordinary," says Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc. "It definitely looks better because it sits lower. It is a lot more aggressive." But GM isn't saying whether the 2006 TrailBlazer SS will be equipped with the Corvette engine touted in the concept. Company spokeswoman Dayna Hart said the production vehicle will have a 6.0-liter V-8. The automaker "can't give specifics on whether it is the exact Corvette engine or the truck version, but it is a Corvette-inspired engine." GM has three 6-liter V8s in its engine portfolio. The truck's suspension "will not be exactly like the Saab's suspension," says Hart. But she did say that its suspension tuning will be that of a high-performance SUV. Sales of the TrailBlazer SS will begin in fall 2005, she says. All-wheel drive will be optional. Jeep touts its SUVs as "trail rated" and points to their off-road capability. Yet Jeep is considering a Grand Cherokee SRT. SRT is the Chrysler group's performance unit, which created vehicles such as the Dodge Viper SRT-10 and Ram SRT-10 pickup. Vehicles developed by the group feature horsepower, braking and handling enhancements. "There is room for SRT in Jeep," says Joe Eberhardt, the Chrysler group's executive vice president of global sales, marketing and service. While not confirming that a Grand Cherokee SRT will be produced, Eberhardt says, "I won't think that a couple of thousand SRT Jeeps will destroy the overall imagery and trail-rated capability of the Jeep brand." But a Jeep aimed at performance enthusiasts would have to be re-engineered. The center of gravity would have to be lowered, which would affect the vehicle's off-road capability, Eberhardt says. "We cannot lower the suspension of the vehicle enough to get high speed, highly capable handling and then have the articulation you need" to go off road," he says. "It doesn't work." "I don't think people would expect a racing inspired, street-legal, high-performance Jeep to be at the same time off-road capable. That's the tradeoff." Ford has no plans to follow General Motors, a company spokesman says. "High performance is reserved for a different niche, and we don't have any immediate plans for an Explorer SVT or anything like that," says Ford spokesman Dan Bedore. But Schuster believes that the Asian automakers won't ignore this trend. "I think the market is demanding performance across the segment," he says. "I think to be competitive, (Asian automakers) will have to have variants that can play with these guys."