Blazer shows up at right time for Chevrolet

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
The new Blazer is priced closer to the larger Traverse at $29,995 on a base model and $43,895 on the top-level Premier trim.

San Diego — The revived Chevrolet Blazer comes at a critical time for General Motors Co.'s mainstream brand as the sporty two-row crossover busts into a growing and competitive segment.

With the Blazer, Chevrolet's stylish crossover designed to slot between Equinox and Traverse, Chevy enters a market currently led by the stalwart Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.

The new Blazer — priced closer to the larger Traverse at $29,995 on a base model and $43,895 on the top-level Premier trim — has been hailed as the right product at the right time by GM leaders and industry analysts, who see big potential profit margins for the legacy nameplate.

The automotive industry is facing increasingly complex economic hurdles and the U.S. car market is expected to contract this year. GM will need to lean on profitable products like pickup trucks, crossovers and SUVs while continuing to pivot away from less popular, money-losing sedans.

"Going into a down market, you need to find ways to break out of the mold," said Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst for IHS Markit. "The Blazer is a strong addition to the crossover lineup, but how they go to market will make a big difference. A bad launch could hurt the vehicle."

Blazer's official advertising campaign is expected to start in April. 

The hulking crossover borrows cues from the Camaro inside and out, to make the crossover a more striking member of the Chevy showroom.

The Blazer is the anti-family crossover, aimed at sporty buyers looking to make a statement with what they drive.

The top-level Premier trim is outfitted with a more elegant interior and splashes of color that represent the earthbound design theme designers had in mind when crafting the vehicles. The sporty RS trim, powered by a 305-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6, features black accents inside and out for a more domineering look. 

"We get the question a lot: 'How many crossovers and SUVs are too many?' And the answer, to us, is that you can't have too many," Majoros, director of marketing for Chevrolet's cars and crossovers, said in an interview. "There is a fundamental paradigm shift in the market right now."

GM this year will stop building six sedans when three assembly plants in North America — Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Lordstown Assembly and Oshawa Assembly — indefinitely idle in the coming months. That represents the end of the line for at least five cars, including Chevrolet's Volt and Cruze.

The manufacturing adjustments, part of a larger restructuring of GM that will also include upward of 4,000 white-collar layoffs this month, tackles two issues for GM: a growing overcapacity issue in its bloated manufacturing footprint and a reaction to a shrinking sedan market.

With the Blazer, Chevy enters a market currently led by the stalwart Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge and Nissan Murano.

But it also creates a political headache for Chevrolet's new Blazer, which is built at GM's Ramos Arizpe Assembly plant in Mexico. The Mexican-built legacy nameplate has become a symbol for lawmakers and United Auto Workers and Unifor union leaders who oppose the plant idlings.

GM has been accused of investing in Mexican manufacturing at the expense of U.S. and Canadian manufacturing, with Blazer as the prime example, but the automaker has said all of its U.S. plants were full when the SUV's manufacturing plans were coming together.

In addition to the Blazer, GM imports from Mexico the Chevrolet Equinox, Trax and Cruze hatchback, as well as the GMC Terrain. The automaker imports the Buick Envision from China. Its three Buick Regal models are assembled in Germany, and its compact Buick Encore SUV is built in South Korea.

Unifor is calling for an all-out boycott of Mexican-built GM vehicles, including the Blazer, which is built with parts from Canada and the U.S.

It's unclear how that effort will affect Blazer sales, but the Canadian union and the UAW have long encouraged members and consumers to buy union-built vehicles. Blazer's sales performance will also be largely unknown until April when GM releases first-quarter sales results.

GM is forging ahead with its restructuring efforts, despite loud dissensions. GM CEO Mary Barra and CFO Dhivya Suryadevara have said the time is now to make "difficult decisions," while the economy is good and the company is in good financial shape. 

"We've spent a lot of time talking about responsible business at General Motors and Chevrolet, so there's old ways of doing things a new ways of doing things," Majoros told reporters in San Diego following a first drive of the new Blazer. "We feel good about the things we’ve been doing whether it’s production management, whether it’s the way in which we deal with things like lease penetration or rental. These are all important things that are driving shareholder value and are a big part of GM’s overall success."

Twitter: @NoraNaughton