Gone are the days when "SUV" meant "big" and "subcompact" meant "hatchback or sedan." Automakers are now rolling a line of crossovers and SUVs out into the munchkin end of the market.
With its 2015 Trax, Chevrolet has offered up a tiny SUV with exceptional visibility, good interior room and a surprisingly large cargo area, but pokey acceleration — especially with optional all-wheel drive.
The Trax is offered in base LS trim as well as LT and LTZ versions. Each model uses the same 138-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Each trim also has the option of front- or all-wheel drive. Prices range from $20,995 for an LS with front-wheel drive, up to $27,405 for an LTZ with all-wheel drive. All prices include an $875 destination charge.
The Trax will vie in the subcompact SUV class with models such as the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, as well as new entries like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. You can compare these vehicles here, along with the Trax's bigger sibling, the Chevy Equinox. (The Mazda and Honda cars are not yet on sale as of this writing, and the Juke will be updated for the 2015 model year.)
General Motors says it's aiming the Trax at what it calls "Urban Explorers" who like to seek out new adventures in the city. I drove one in San Diego, winding my way through neighborhoods and hills in an LS both with and without all-wheel drive, as well as in a front-wheel-drive LTZ.
Exterior & Styling
The Trax has conventional SUV styling and the split grille that's shared by many of Chevrolet's cars. It's bulbous, but in a good way. It looks better to me than the larger, more angular Equinox.
There are some differences among the trim levels, notably that the LS doesn't have the roof rails that the other trims do. Further, the standard wheels are 16-inch steel ones on front-wheel-drive LS models, 16-inch aluminum ones on all-wheel-drive LS models and all LT models, and 18-inch aluminum wheels on all LTZ models.
Finally, to give you an idea of the size, the Trax is about 4 inches longer than the Soul and about 5 inches longer than the Juke. The Trax is within an inch of the Soul and Juke in terms of width and within 3-4 inches when it comes to height. Compared to the next-smallest Chevrolet SUV, the Equinox, the Trax is about 20 inches shorter, 3 inches narrower and about the same height.
How It Drives
Just as there's no getting around the fact that the Trax is a small car, there's also no getting around the fact that it's a modestly powered one. It has good accelerator response initially, so you know the car wants to go, but what happens after that largely depends on your drive equipment: With all-wheel drive, there's no surge of power. Instead, it just sort of ambles along up to speed. It's not terrible around town, but the lack of power is noticeable, and hills and highway merges are a definite weak spot.
It's better with front-wheel drive. It's the same engine, so there's no additional power, but with front-wheel drive the Trax is about 150 pounds lighter and feels quicker.
In either case, the six-speed automatic transmission does what it can by kicking down gears or holding on to them to give as much power as it can. I prefer this transmission to many of the continuously variable automatic transmissions on the market in terms of responsiveness and behavior.
Still, I'd go so far as to recommend drivers test both models and ask themselves if they really, truly need all-wheel drive before going with that version, especially given the mileage penalty they'll pay: The EPA rates the front-wheel-drive Trax at 26/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined and the all-wheel-drive Trax at 24/31/27 mpg. These numbers are about 3 or 4 combined mpg higher than the front- or all-wheel-drive Equinox, for comparison's sake.
Finally, the Trax has a pretty good ride, even with the larger 18-inch wheels on the LTZ. I was expecting a jarring ride from something with such a short wheelbase, but it absorbed the potholes of southern California very well. Compared with other vehicles like it, it's on the more comfortable end of the ride spectrum, with the Juke on the harder end and the Soul in the middle.
The car's interior space is also bigger than you'd expect just looking at it from the outside. My co-driver was about the same size as me — about 6 feet tall and broad through the shoulders — and we never bumped elbows during our drive. Make no mistake: This is a small car — but while you'll be cozy, you won't be cramped.
The front seats could be a bit more supportive. I felt like the optional imitation leather seats were more firm and offered more support, but the standard cloth seats were too mushy for me.
In the backseat, the same cozy but not cramped interior space carries over. I had plenty of legroom and headroom with the driver's seat set to a comfortable position for me. My knees were a bit raised and there was a lack of thigh support, but for the short, urban trips that Chevrolet has in mind for this vehicle, it'd be fine.
Overall interior quality is OK. There's a lot of hard plastic, but it looks acceptable. LTZ trims get more chrome accents and a nicer metallic finish around the climate controls and radio. Overall, it's fine for a Chevrolet; if it were a Cadillac or Buick I'd raise more complaints.
If power isn't the Trax's calling card, visibility will be. The Trax has the best visibility of any car I've recently driven. Obviously a lot of that is how the windshield and windows are shaped and angled. The Trax is more upright in design than a lot of swoopy cars out there, and that's a benefit; its high seating position also aided visibility.
I do wish the side mirrors were a bit larger, but that's a fairly minor complaint given how outstanding visibility is in this car. I think shoppers moving from other compact sedans and hatchbacks will be impressed with how much more they can see when driving the Trax.
It won't just be Trax drivers noticing things going on around them: Passengers will benefit, too, especially wee ones. One of the Trax's designers told me a challenge they were given was to make it so that a 5-year-old could see out the rear window. I can't vouch for their success — no 5-year-olds were provided for our test drive — but all-around visibility is excellent.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Chevrolet uses its MyLink system for multimedia and navigation integration. In the era of ubiquitous smartphones, having a system that works with your phone's navigation makes a lot of sense. Why pay for a fully integrated navigation system if you can punch the destination into your phone and have the map display on your vehicle's screen? And why pay extra for that integrated system? This also gets automakers out of the business of trying to be one step ahead of smartphones, app developers and Google. That's smart. Yes, you do need to have Sirius XM satellite radio and the BringGo app, but I'd still take that setup on convenience alone.
What I'm less sold on are the controls for the radio volume: Instead of knobs, you're given two touch-sensitive arrow buttons. I don't think that's as intuitive or easy-to-use as a knob, and I think it's not smart.
The rest of the controls for the climate control are knobs and buttons, and it's nice to see Chevrolet resisted the temptation to move those controls over to a touch-screen menu.
Finally, on the electronics front, there's available 4G LTE with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Cargo & Storage
The Trax's ability to carry cargo is notable. With the rear seats in place, there's a surprisingly large cargo area. It'd easily be enough for at least three adults' luggage, and the liftover height isn't terribly high.
If that's not enough room, the rear seats fold, and all Trax models have a front passenger seat that folds flat and is backed with plastic to allow you to carry long items, such as surfboards.
Moving around to the front, it's largely the same story: There's lots of room for stuff. There's no center console, but there are numerous door pockets and a storage area under the passenger seat. Also, the Trax has top-of-dash storage for sunglasses, as well as a compartment above the glove box that has a USB port; it's also large enough for a bigger smartphone plus a pair of gloves or something.
The Trax has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Trax a five-star rating — the agency's highest — for frontal impacts and a four-star rating for rollovers. The ratings are the same whether the vehicle has all- or front-wheel drive. The Trax has not had a side crash test performed, and there's no overall crash-test rating for the car.
You can check out the full list of safety technologies here.
Value in Its Class
Instead of trying to be a sporty SUV or a wildly styled one, the Trax aims for modest performance with more practicality.
In its class, starting with mileage, the Trax is competitive with what's out there now. Its combined mileage figures of 29 mpg with front-wheel drive and 27 mpg with all-wheel drive compare well with the Soul's 26 mpg (for models with a six-speed automatic transmission) and the 2014 Juke's figures of 29 and 27 mpg with front- and all-wheel drive, respectively (though the Juke takes premium gas).
In terms of practicality, the Soul has more cargo room — 61.3 cubic feet of maximum luggage volume compared with 48.4 for the Trax — but I've had issues both fitting long items into the back of the Soul and fitting myself into the Soul's backseat. (Both the Trax and Soul are substantially larger than the Juke's maximum cargo volume of 35.9 cubic feet.) So I'm not ready to say that it's a slam-dunk, no-brainer choice to go with the Soul if cargo room is your top priority.
Where it gets really interesting is when you consider the fact that there's more in the market than small SUVs. For roughly the same price, the Trax also faces competition from other small cars, in particular the Subaru Impreza and Mazda3.
The Impreza offers better mileage (31 mpg combined with an automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive) and more overall cargo room (52.4 cubic feet versus 48.4). The Mazda3 hatchback offers similar mileage with an automatic transmission (31-33 mpg, depending on which engine is selected), similar cargo space (47.1 cubic feet versus 48.4) and a lot more driving fun.
So if mileage and practicality are the criteria, the Trax faces stiff competition just from those two cars. Its major line of defense is the visibility you get from the higher driving position of its SUV body style.
As a small SUV, the Trax largely succeeds in its mission. It's a well-packaged vehicle that offers a surprising amount of interior room, the option of all-wheel drive and great visibility. But even though it's not trying to be a sports car, I still think it needs more power to excel anywhere other than short urban trips. Further, considering the Trax as a small car — not an SUV — opens your options to consider hatchbacks that offer more space and good, if not better, mileage. In that case, its high seating position and visibility will likely be the winning cards for the Trax.
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