They say that there are no truly bad new cars anymore, and with the redesign of the Smart ForTwo that might actually be true. But that doesn’t mean that all new car choices equal a great bang for your buck. Case in point: the 2015 Chevrolet Trax, Chevy’s new mini-crossover.
(Full disclosure: Chevrolet needed me to drive the Trax so badly they dropped one off at my house for a week with a full tank of gas. I drove it a lot and used it to take my dog, some friends and their dog to get trailer food because I’m all about that #active #urban #Milliennial lifestyle.)
What is the Trax, and why should you care? I can at least answer one of those questions: it’s Chevrolet’s newest, smallest crossover vehicle. Built in South Korea, it’s on the same platform as the subcompact Chevy Sonic as well as the crossover Buick Encore/Opel Mokka, with which it shares many similarities.
It’s an important car for the General because the compact crossover segment is poised to become the hottest thing in cars this year, both here and in Europe. This is the rationale behind the Jeep Renegade, the Mercedes-Benz GLA, the Mazda CX-3, and the Encore, of which about 48,000 were sold last year.
It turns out all it really took to make Americans want hatchbacks was a couple inches of ride height and some plastic body cladding.
So here we have the Trax, essentially a big Sonic or a de-contented Encore. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, or its $20,120 starting price — at least at first glance. My tester was a top-of-the-line, unnecessarily and unrealistically loaded like all press cars, all-wheel drive Trax LTZ model. It came in at $27,405.
We need to start with the engine, because that was probably my biggest beef with the tiny Trax. Its only available motor is a 1.4-liter turbo mill that puts out 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. In the underrated Sonic RS, it’s actually kind of a fun, peppy little engine; it’s woefully inadequate at motivating the 3,200-pound all-wheel drive Trax.
Simply put, this thing is slow as a dog. Zero to 60 mph is somewhere in the nine second range; when you’re passing cars, pick your battles carefully. It’s a buzzy, weak motor that doesn’t like to be pushed and takes forever to build revs and speed. It makes you feel like some kind of European, and not the good kind that drives some crazy forbidden Audi RS wagon. The other kind, the one that drives an abysmal microcar we don’t want.
I was on an access road trying to merge onto the highway when I noticed a Camaro coming up fast behind me; I quickly changed lanes to let him by and then got back on. “Bastard,” I said, glaring at him, “I was in a Hellcat this morning.” Just a few hours earlier I would have sent him home feeling bad about his life.
Visually, it’s indistinctive, but it’s not at all unattractive. My tester came in this nice orange color that I rather liked and helped it feel a little bit less like an appliance. Chevy seems to be targeting a younger crowd with the Trax, and fun colors can’t hurt. It’s better than beige or silver.
Inside, it’s a reminder how high tech even budget-minded modern cars can feel. It all feels simple and clean and basic, but there’s still a 7-inch touch screen and haptic panel below it taking up most of the central real estate. This does manage to avoid an overload of buttons and switches, which is kind of refreshing, as is the actual honest-to-God gear lever — I can’t escape feeling like their days are numbered.
My tester also had leather seats, which never felt especially premium and which probably no one will ever spring for on a Trax. I was a fan of the “motorcycle-inspired” gauge cluster, which also comes from the Sonic. It’s a nice touch and surprisingly functional.
The problem lies with the plastic splayed across the dash, which was distinctly rental car-cheap and probably responsible for the strange rattle I heard in front of the steering wheel. Not very encouraging on a car with just 900 miles on the odometer when I got it. On the plus side, there’s a lot of storage compartments inside to compensate for the lack of a center arm rest — one on the top of the dash, one in front of the passenger, and a glove compartment. You have options when it comes to hiding your narcotics.
In the back seat, you get a decent amount of rear headroom and legroom, though the former is definitely better than the latter. Put the rear seats down and you have an extremely practical vehicle, albeit one that isn’t all that superior to some hatchbacks in terms of space. (More on that in a bit.)
Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system isn’t the best out there, but it’s seriously not bad. The touch screen is reasonably responsive and the big, colorful graphics are nice. It’s no UConnect, but nothing is. Curiously, navigation isn’t even an option; instead you can download an iOS or Android navigation app called BringGo that sends map directions to the system.
I’m not against that on principle, since a smartphone is inherently easier to type an address into than a car’s touch screen is. My problem was that it costs 99 cents to download and requires you to sign up for a BringGo account to use. I didn’t bother with that. It makes a strong case for Apple CarPlay or some other smartphone integration system.
So how does the Trax actually drive? Aside from the aforementioned lack of power, it’s not terrible, but certainly not great. The steering is incredibly numb. Despite its compact size, it never feels especially nimble, betraying its Sonic origins. The suspension is pretty soft, so expect a reasonable amount of body roll.
Fuel economy wasn’t what I’d consider outstanding. It’s rated at 24 MPG in the city and 31 MPG on the highway, but in mostly city driving I averaged about 22 MPG in my week of testing. It turns out that when you make tiny, turbocharged engines work their balls off to do anything, their gas mileage isn’t great. Who knew?
It’s never a fun or engaging car to drive. Part of me thinks it could be if it had the option of a manual and you could rev it out within in an inch of its life like the Sonic RS, but the six-speed automatic is the only available gearbox. Bummer. It’s not doing this car any favors.
Maybe your average Trax buyer isn’t looking for a fun or engaging car. I get that. I see the main draw as being its size and ride height. It’s a car that will appeal maybe to younger buyers starting families, or older empty-nesters who find it easy to get in and out of.
I think GM sees it drawing that coveted young urban Millennial driver, the one who lives an “active” lifestyle, and wants something practical that he or she can also park easily enough. And it does that.
Here’s the thing: I think your money can get you so much more elsewhere. The Trax is affordable, but it isn’t cheap; mine cost a few thousand shy of $30,000. You can get a lot more car for that kind of money than you can with the Trax.
Should you decide to spend $27,000 on a practical vehicle, you can get yourself a Mazda CX-5, a Honda CR-V or a Ford Escape, all of which offer more space, more room and more power than the Trax does. If you somehow want something fun and also usable, it’s hard not to recommend a Mazda3 or even a Volkswagen GTI over this.
Hell, you can even get into a Buick Encore at that loaded price, but I can’t see how it’s much better than this considering it has the same motor.
Thanks to its subcompact underpinnings, the Trax will always be inherently compromised when it comes to size, but it doesn’t have a bargain-basement price working in its favor. If this thing started at $17,000 or so, I’d consider it a good deal (and a good first car) if you keep the options light. As it is here, you can probably do better.
Here’s what you really ought to do, in my professional opinion: make “Trax” over to your Jeep dealer and buy a Renegade instead. There you can get a small crossover that’s cheaper, legitimately interesting to look at, and can be had with more power and four-wheel drive AND a six-speed manual. I haven’t driven the Renegade yet, but I can tell you that at least on paper it outclasses the Trax in most ways that count.
I’m sure the Trax will sell in respectable numbers, possibly even great ones. But I can’t say it’s a great choice to make.