By Jeremy Cato
The Chevrolet Tracker may look like a sport cute – one of those urban-only small utilities – but looks can be deceiving. The Tracker, folks, is a real truck with a rugged, ladder frame, not to mention a low-range gear for really challenging off-road terrain.
It’s always been this way with the Tracker, dating back to 1989 when the Geo Tracker had its debut. Of course, the Geo name was discontinued in 1998 and the Tracker model renamed a Chevrolet. Then for 1999 an all-new version hit showrooms in both two-door convertible and four-door hardtop versions.
The '99 model was a major step forward in terms of styling, comfort, road manners and performance. I should also point out that the same can be said of the Suzuki Vitara and the V6-powered Grand Vitara. Not only do they share the Tracker's mechanical pieces, they're also built on the same assembly line in Ingersoll, Ontario.
In any case, Chevy and its Suzuki partner did a nice job of reinventing the Tracker for 1999. These little trucks have proven to be sturdy and reliable (see Buyer's Alerts). Where, perhaps, the Tracker has suffered on surveys such as J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study is in the little things such as noise concerns and overall car-like refinement. Consumer Reports gives the tracker an "average" reliability rating.
The used vehicle buyer should note that a 1999 Tracker is much superior to older versions dating back to 1989. Newer Trackers have a much more handsome and user-friendly cabin, with good seats and a relatively sensible instrument panel. The back seat is more spacious and welcoming, too, and it has a back that folds flat to make room for more cargo.
All the seating positions in 1999-2003 Trackers are high up and quite comfortable. Four adults won't find themselves pinched at all. The contrast is especially telling when compared to the previous version. Chevrolet gave the newer Tracker more width between the wheels (track increased some six cm or 2.4 in.) which especially improves hip room over the '98 Tracker.
The added track also makes for a better stance and that benefits cornering stability. A new rear-suspension design for '99 was designed to minimize lateral or sideways movement of the body in relation to the suspension. It the real world of driving that translates into a tighter ride.
Steering feel and response was also made better for '99, thanks to a more precise rack-and-pinion steering arrangement versus the recirculating ball steering of the '98 truck. A more rigid body structure and added insulation cut down on road and wind noise at highway speeds, as well.
Point is, there is a world of difference between the '98 and '99 Tracker. Be aware of that, used car shoppers.
One thing shared by all Trackers dating back to '89 is their ability in the bush. The short wheelbase and minimal front and rear overhangs, combined with a well-engineered part-time four-wheel-drive system, add up to one tough little bush-whacker.
The '99-and-newer versions are more comfortable than their predecessors, but an older Tracker is pretty nimble. For the most recent Trackers the list of standard features includes protective skid plates beneath the rock-vulnerable front differential and transfer case.
As for styling, the '99 looks fresher than the Tracker it replaced, though it's still a very conservative design. There's something of a Chevy family resemblance in the Tracker's sculpted flanks, lower roof line and contoured edges. But frankly it's not really a head-turner. Rather, this is a sensible shape designed to maximize interior room and off-road capabilities.
Power for the 1999-2002 Tracker was provided by either of two four-cylinder engines, one rated at 97 horsepower, the other at 127 hp. For 2003 the smaller 1.6-litre four-banger was discontinued, with the 2.0-litre (127-hp) four-cylinder standard across the line.
The 2.0-litre delivers adequate if not spell-binding acceleration and it's not as harsh and raucous as the engines in older models. The optional four-speed automatic transmission serves up reasonably decent shifts, but if power is at all a concern, look for the manual five-speed.
If you're on a tight budget and want a go-anywhere mini-ute, an older Tracker might be an option for you. Just keep in mind that the Tracker has never been sold with an all-wheel-drive system capable of being driven safely on dry pavement. The Tracker has strictly a part-time four-wheel-drive system.
By the way, that's in sharp contrast to most of the Tracker's key rivals, such as the Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V.
Current Red Book Pricing (avg. retail) September 2003:
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on recalls, see Transport Canada's web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.