GEORGE, South Africa – General Motors' latest product for its comprehensive emerging-markets portfolio, the new Trailblazer SUV, marks a significant step in the auto maker’s quest to tap into high-growth markets and, in particular, mount an aggressive campaign against Toyota’s stranglehold on the segment.

GM is investing heavily to become a key player in developing markets, and the Japanese OEM is the benchmark. The upshift in GM’s ambition is clearly evident during the recent international launch event of the Trailblazer here.

Under the Chevrolet nameplate, GM now has slotted a full product mix for emerging markets, from the Sonic and Cruze small cars and Captiva cross/utility vehicle to the Trailblazer D-segment SUV.

The Trailblazer promises to be significant, not just in terms of its potential profit margins and segment growth but also as a halo vehicle. Crucially, in building its brand perception in emerging markets, GM until now has lacked a high-impact SUV.

The midsize Trailblazer has an added card to play in the form of timing. Toyota’s highly successful Fortuner, spun off the auto maker’s IMV global platform, was introduced in 2004 and has seen little change since. It also is fast approaching the end of its lifecycle. The next-closest competitor, Ford’s next-generation Everest, is some time away.

The Trailblazer is further significant in that it’s a striking visual that the auto maker is shifting its emerging-markets positioning.

“Chevrolet is moving towards SUVs,” says Alastair Ironside, general manager marketing for General Motors South Africa. “The ability to build hardworking and durable workhorses resonates with consumers in these markets.”

At the Trailblazer’s international media launch, there is an air of bullishness as well as quiet confidence. GM normally is circumspect in identifying rivals, but in this instance the Trailblazer conspicuously is benchmarked against the Fortuner at every opportunity.

“The Trailblazer will be a very serious competitor for the Fortuner,” says Edgar Lourencon, president and managing director of GM Sub-Sahara Africa.

“We are going after Toyota's Fortuner,” adds Ironside, who rules out the Trailblazer stripping sales from the Captiva. “Each of these two models appeals to different consumers.”

Says Roberto Rempel, GM global vehicle chief engineer-midsize trucks: “We believe that we have designed a world-class vehicle. I have no doubt we have raised the bar in the midsize SUV segment.”

Lourencon, nevertheless, admits there still is work to do. “Toyota is a very strong brand; Chevrolet is a growing brand.”

Turning Chevrolet into a serious rival for Toyota is the toughest challenge facing GM in new emerging markets and one that won’t be solved overnight. In that respect, the Trailblazer is crucial and early signs are promising.

Debuting at the Bangkok auto show in May, with sales launched in Thailand in July, the locally built Trailblazer saw deliveries through September reach 2,935 units.

GM doesn’t like to be pinned to targets, but the vehicle’s market performance so far is a pleasant surprise. “Sales have been much better than expected,” confirms Chanvit Khieonavavongsa, director-marketing, Chevrolet Sales (Thailand).

With the global rollout now under way, Lourencon is setting ambitious targets for South Africa. He is chasing the Fortuner’s stranglehold of about 90% of the segment, with about 1,000 sales a month. Trailblazer deliveries are expected to kick in at 300-400 a month.

For Sub-Saharan Africa, Lourencon believes the Trailblazer’s key selling points are an outstanding interior and exceptional performance. “We won't dominate the segment, but we will be a serious contender,” he says, noting 2,000 people signaled interest online during a recent promotion.

“Feedback from dealers is very strong; customers are waiting.”

Lourencon reckons 80%-85% of sales will be diesel-powered models and 15%-20% gasoline in a very strong market for diesel.

In Thailand, the majority of customers use the vehicle on-road. This is reflected in the tuning of the suspension that offers compromise between off-road ability and comfort. Designing the Trailblazer was the work of a team headed by Rempel.

Creating distinctive styling was a key metric, he explains: “We didn’t want this vehicle to be oversize or square. We wanted the car to be equally proportioned and capable. The engineers worked early in the program to embed (the styling).”

However, safety was the No.1 concern. “One of the key characteristics is the handling,” he says, pointing to the fast rack and pinion steering, while revealing that the platform has had 1,864,200 miles (3 million km) of testing.

All engine/transmission options beat or match the Fortuner in power, torque and economy, Rempel says, while towing capability is about a third more in weight.

The Trailblazer’s global rollout in second-half 2012 in addition to Thailand and South Africa includes:

  • Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in Asia/Pacific.
  • Australia and New Zealand in Oceana.
  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan in the Middle East.
  • Algeria and Libya in North Africa.
  • Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay in Latin America.

In March, the Trailblazer will arrive in another key target market, Russia, and GM has high hopes of success there.

“Feedback from the Russian press has been very positive,” says Chevrolet Russia spokesman Roman Skolsky. “They like the diesel’s torque and the automatic transmission.”

Skolsky sees the Trailblazer as the right product at the right time for the Russian market. “The D-SUV is a big segment,” he says, predicting consumers will favor the 2.8L diesel model with manual and automatic transmissions and the 3.6L gasoline version with an automatic gearbox.

In 2013, the SUV will be offered in the smaller Southeast Asian markets of Cambodia, Laos and Brunei as well as Fiji and Mongolia. In Sub Saharan Africa, it will be sold in 28 countries.

The Trailblazer’s extensive global reach has led to a few interesting tweaks. Skolsky says heated seats have been added for the Russian market, where temperatures can plunge below freezing, and Lourencon says a special design for the luggage compartment’s side panels accommodates golf bags for South African customers.