Now a group of even smaller utility vehicles has emerged — the subcompact SUV — and automakers expect big returns. “People still like the ride height and utility of an SUV,” says Steve Majaros, General Motors director of marketing for cars and crossovers.
“But are often put off by the cost of even a medium-sized utility vehicle. Subcompact SUVs offer lots of cargo space, good fuel economy, and a commanding view of the road, all for a reasonable price.”
Most notable examples are the Buick Encore, Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, as well as the upcoming Jeep Renegade and Honda HR-V.
Chevy’s market research says that the “small SUV” market will be up 80 percent by 2016. That’s a meteoric rise, and why the automaker is also getting in the subcompact SUV game with the all-new 2015 Chevy Trax.
Like the Encore, the Trax comes with only one engine: a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-banger that produces 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic.
Front-wheel drive is standard, while all-wheel-drive is available as a $1,500 option. The Trax also uses the same suspension as the Encore, only tuned slightly different to improve the Trax’s ride.
Although it shares a lot of mechanical bits and pieces with the Encore, the Trax styling cues are all Chevrolet. Chevy calls the look “bold;” I call it conservative at best. The design is not unattractive, but it’s not sexy, sleek, or adventurous like its competitors from Nissan and Kia.
Same goes for the inside. It’s OK, but it isn’t going to impress anyone. You can see hints of the Sonic in the dash, however: the motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster with analog tachometer and digital speedometer, three-spoke steering wheel, multiple storage bins, and dual glove boxes. The rest is a sea of hard plastic, no part of which feels youthful or edgy.
But it is practical. While the Trax is small, with a total length of only 168.5 inches and a width of 69.9 inches, it doesn’t feel that way. Its minute size makes the utility easier to park in tight spots than, say, almost any other SUV on the market. However, its tall design — 65.9 inches — makes the utility feel roomier than it actually is.
Cargo volume with all seats raised is a generous 18.7 cubic feet. With the rear seats folded flat, it expands to 48.4 cubic feet. That's more room than the Juke, but way smaller than the Soul's 61.3 cubic feet of stowage. Fold the front passenger seat down and you can carry something up to 8 feet in length.
The MyLink infotainment system with 7-inch touchscreen and rearview camera is standard. Also available is 4G LTE with built-in WiFi hotspot and, for iPhone users, Siri Eyes-Free, which allows drivers to place calls, compose or hear text messages and select music through voice command.
On the road, this little crossover SUV is surprisingly composed, at 45 mph or less. During our test drive around San Diego and its suburbs, the Trax did an exceptional job of sucking up the bumps and uneven road surfaces while we wove our way through the small enclaves along the coast.
Visibility from the driver's seat is excellent, though the tiny rear window and raked roofline detract a bit from seeing what’s happening behind you. The front seats are cozy and upright, but don’t afford much bolstering.
Don’t expect them to keep you in place while attempting high-spirited maneuvers. Rear seats are just as comfortable, but aren't nearly as spacious and lack a little headroom. Even so, there's still reasonable room for two adults back there.
Steering is surprisingly light, and the electronic-assisted power steering makes child’s play of low-speed maneuvering. You could even say the Trax was nimble -- again, at low speeds. Same can be said of the ride; the vehicle was stable, smooth, even comfortable with little to no body roll in typical city driving. Getting into and out of tight spaces -- not just parking spaces -- is easy, and the excellent sight lines were useful in downtown traffic.
Yet things change as the speeds increase. The car doesn’t feel very stable over, say, 70 mph. It wasn’t exactly squirrelly on the highway, but didn’t feel sure-footed either while I maneuvered – somewhat aggressively – through traffic.
Those who couldn't care less about engine response will be happy to hear the Trax offers excellent fuel economy. According to the EPA, the FWD Trax will get 34 mpg on the highway, easily besting its peers, including the Kia. In the city, the AWD and FWD models get 26 and 29 mpg, respectively, which are comparable to the 27/29 mpg of the lighter but more powerful Nissan.
In the end, this little SUV is a conundrum to me. It’s practical, nimble around town and offers great gas mileage and a smooth ride. On the flip side, its design is unadventurous in a segment known for bold looks, it lacks the power and performance needed to play with the big boys, and the hard plastic surfaces make the interior feel low rent.
If you are looking for basic transport without any sporty intent, the Trax is a solid vehicle. If you are looking for something you can drive fast and fling, the Trax lacks a certain sparkle.