Remember the Chevy Tracker?
The pocket-sized SUV sold (in the U.S.) from 1998 through 2004?
It was very popular - and would probably still be around today were it not for the fact that it got outpaced by federal crashworthiness standards that made it effectively illegal to sell the thing. (The same fate befell another successful car that the market still wanted but government outlawed - the original VW Beetle.)
Indeed, production of the Tracker continued through 2013 South America - where the federales are less in your business than they are here.
Enter (by way of Korea, where it's built) the new Chevy Trax.
Same basic concept - updated to meet the requirements of our federales.
WHAT IT IS
The Trax is Chevy's latest - and littlest crossover SUV. It's about two feet shorter overall than the compact-sized Chevy Equinox, which until now was the smallest Chevy crossover available.
The Trax shares its underlying platform with the Sonic sedan/hatchback, but it's much taller (by more than six inches) and offers the option of AWD - while the Sonic comes in front-wheel-drive form only.
The Trax and models it competes with - like the almost-here (2016) Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V - are the leading edge of a new and rapidly proliferating class of tiny and cheap crossover SUVs.
The Trax starts at $20,120 for the base trim (and FWD) LS. You can add all-wheel-drive for $21,620 - which makes the Trax the least expensive AWD-equipped crossover in GM's lineup.
And vs. rivals like the new Honda HR-V, which stickers for $23,215 when ordered with AWD (at the time of this review, Mazda hadn't yet released pricing for the '16 CX-3, so we'll have to wait and see).
The Trax can also be cross-shopped against pint-sized "box" cars like the popular - and even cheaper - Kia Soul (base price $15,190) and the Scion xB (base price $17,120) but neither of these models offer an all-wheel-drive option.
WHAT'S NEW
The Trax is a new model, just added to Chevy's lineup.
Target market is the buyer who wants a crossover SUV - and the option of AWD - but not the size (and price tag) that tends to come with it.
WHAT'S GOOD
As Chevy notes, it's pretty much the least expensive AWD-equipped mini-me crossover SUV there is.
Lots of driver and front seat passenger leg and headroom.
Beats the Honda HR-V at the pump (though just barely).
Lots of high-tech features, including standard in-car WiFi hot spot and 7-inch LCD touchscreen input with integrated Smartphone apps.
WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD
Not as space-efficient as HR-V, which has much more second row legroom (39.3 inches vs. 35.7 for the Chevy)and more room for cargo, too.
No manual transmission available (HR-V offers a six-speed; Mazda CX-3 is likely to offer a six-speed).
Slow-pokey acceleration.
Back doors don't open very wide - which makes getting into and out of the already tight second row even more challenging.
UNDER THE HOOD
This is a simple vehicle - as modern vehicles go.
Regardless of trim, the standard (and only) engine is a turbocharged 1.4 liter four (same as the one that's optionally available in the Sonic) carrying a 138 hp rating.
This is exactly even Steven with the new HR-V's larger (and not turbocharged) 1.8 liter four, but the Chevy's torque output is higher - 148 ft.-lbs. vs. 127 ft.-lbs. for the Honda. The Chevy also has slightly more torque than the soon-to-be-here Mazda CX-3's much larger (2.0 liter) four, which - reportedly - will make 146 ft.-lbs. of torque (and a class-best 146 hp).
Chevy - like so many - is trying to maintain power/performance levels acceptable to car buyers while also achieving the fuel-efficiency mandatory minimums decreed by the government - by fitting a smaller engine with a turbo. The smaller engine normally uses less fuel - being smaller - but when the driver wants the performance of a larger engine, the turbo provides it temporarily (so long as increased performance is demanded by the driver's right foot). When he backs off the accelerator, the boost dies down and the engine's appetite does, too.
Mostly, it works.
The Chevy's mileage is very good - 26 city, 34 highway for the FWD version, which beats the larger-engined Honda CR-V's 25 city, 34 highway just barely.
Acceleration, though, is pretty slow-pokey.
The FWD version needs about 10 seconds to get to 60, all out. The heavier AWD version needs another several tenths.
Both the Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3 are quicker.
Probably because you can get a manual transmission in the Honda (unavailable in the Chevy, which comes only with a six-speed automatic) and because the Mazda's just got more engine.
Despite being turbo'd, the Trax is is designed to run best on regular unleaded - not high-octane premium - which will save you about 20 cents per gallon at each fill-up.
ON THE ROAD
There's not much to do in the Trax - and that's probably its chief negative.
The 1.4 engine - turbo'd remember - could be much more fun if it could be paired with a six-speed manual transmission instead of this automatic-only deal. Which by the way Chevy is doing to satisfy the government rather than please potential (and actual) buyers.
Automatics, you see, eke out an extra 2-3 MPG vs. a manual transmission in an otherwise the same vehicle.
For example, the manual-equipped Honda HR-V's mileage - 25 city, 34 highway - is slightly lower than the same vehicle with the optional CVT automatic transmission (28 city, 35 highway).
This is probably a distinction without a difference to most buyers (would you pass up a car you otherwise really liked because its mileage was 2-3 MPG less than a rival you liked less?) but it matters a lot to the car companies - who must finagle compliance with the federal government's CAFE "fleet average" fuel economy mandates. Especially to a car company like GM (and Chevy) which sells a lot of "gas hog" models. Remember, fleet averages. A company like Honda, on the other hand, has fewer "gas hogs" in its lineup (no big SUVs with V8s; no trucks) and thus can mix in a few less-than-maximally efficient vehicles (like the six-speed HR-V) without wilting its overall average too much.
But Chevy's gotta mix the mileage numbers of models like the Trax with the Tahoe's mileage. And the Suburban's. Etc.
Hence the need to squeeze as many MPGs as possible out of the Trax. Hence the mandatory/take-it-or-leaved-it six-speed automatic.
Which does fine once you're rolling. Like all modern vehicles, the Trax can easily hold 80-plus MPH for hours, assuming no cops. Plenty speedy for U.S. highways - and secondary roads.
It's only when you're stationary - and hit it - that the Trax seems a little torpid. It's the nature of the beast. Small engines do best - in terms of performance - with manual transmissions. The turbo boosted torque of the 1.4 liter four definitely helps, but being able to rev the engine up, the feather the clutch as you dig ever deeper into the gas would really help.
And would also make the Trax a lot more fun to drive - which ought to be a priority here given the nature of this animal. It is a small, city-minded runabout meant for typically younger - one would assume, more enthusiastic - buyers. Automatics are hard to argue with from a Spockian rational perspective, but the manual has and likely always will have an emotional draw an automatic will never be able to deliver.
In a similar vein, a boost gauge would up the emotional appeal of this little 'ute. It already has a sporty, motorcycle-style gauge cluster dominated by a large analog tachometer with a digital LCD speedo offset to the right. Chevy could take a cue from Mini (and Kia) and imbue the Trax with some cosmetic pep by adding a boost gauge that showed not just boost - the raw numbers - but the power swell as it did so. Maybe the gauge lighting could automatically shift from blue to red.
Something like that.
Sex it up a bit.
Like the old Tracker, the Trax is a short-wheelbased ride (just 100.6 inches) which often makes for a twitchy handling ride. This was in fact one of the critiques leveled at the old Tracker, which had both a short wheelbase and a high center of gravity. Which had the predictable results if you got stupid and tried to make it corner like a Corvette. But there was a legitimate problem, too. A sudden steering input (deer swerve) at normal speeds - and while pointed straight ahead - could (and sometimes, did) result in a violent pitching that ended up with you ditching.
Or, rolling.
Chevy fixed that by adding a bit more wheelbase (100.6 inches) vs. the old Tracker (97.6 inches) and also keeping the center of gravity closer to the pavement. Even though both are roughly the same height overall (65.9 inches for the Trax vs. 65.6 for the final year/2004 Tracker) the Trax is not role-prone. Nor is it twitchy. The suspension has been dialed in to slide when pushed, gently understeering rather than violently oversteering. Backing off the throttle if you go into a corner too hot and heavy will usually resettle the Trax - whereas the Tracker, once it broke loose, was pretty much going to run its course.
It's not a particularly exciting vehicle to drive - but that has its good points, too. This would be a fine car for a teenager or first-time driver. It's forgiving - and it's just powerful enough to mix with day-to-day traffic.
It's also an exceptionally easy vehicle to maneuver in traffic - the boon of its ultra-stubby dimensions (just 167.2 inches long overall; for some some sense of scale, an Impala sedan is 201.3 inches long overall - a difference of nearly three feet.) That, in turn, gives it a turning circle of just 36.7 feet (vs. 40 feet for the Equinox - a difference of more than three feet).
The other reason people will buy this over - well, the Sonic, for example - is that it's got that "crossover" feel to it. You sit up a little taller in the saddle.
Better visibility - and you feel a little safer as a result.
AT THE CURB
Though based on the Sonic, it's not a rebodied Sonic. It is a slightly stretched - and raised up - Sonic.
About 8.2 inches longer - and 6.2 inches taller. The latter figure, incidentally, being much closer to the old Tracker's (65.6 inches vs. 65.9 for the Trax). But it's less boxy than the Tracker, with a more in-tune-with-the-times (and trends) backswept (rather than upright) windshield and side glass that "dives" in the opposite direction - the beltline swooshing up from the A pillar to meet the rear sail panel. The forward edge of the front door side glass is actually lower than the A pillar - a styling touch that's becoming popular. "SUV" elements include the blocky (they invariably call it "bold") front end, with barred (and bow-tied) grille plus some pressed into the sheetmetal haunches over the wheelwells.
Chevy did a good job here. The problem - for Chevy - is that Honda and Mazda may have done a better job.
Preliminary photos of the pending CX-3 show a pint-sized centerfold. Ok, maybe that's a bit much. But take a peep between the plain brown wrapper for yourself. The newest - and littlest - Mazda - is a looker.
The new HR-V also.
And both are more space-efficient.
That could be a bigger problem for the Trax
The HR-V, for instance, has 3.5 inches more rearseat legroom (39.3 vs. 35.8) and almost two inches more shoulder room (54.5 vs. 52.8 for the Chevy). That's a difference you can feel - in both cases.
And the Honda's got more space for cargo, too: 59 cubic feet total vs 48.4 for the Chevy.
In defense of the Trax, the Honda is slightly longer overall (169.1 inches, so 1.9 inches to be precise) but that's a negligible difference in terms of parking/maneuvering - while the extra inches (and cubic feet) inside aren't.
As for the Mazda, it's not out yet - so specs weren't available for comparison when this review was written in late June. But Mazda is really, really good at making small cars feel big.
It is probably worth a wait-and-see.
The Trax's rear seat bottoms do fold forward, though - a cool trick. And the little Chevy offers a warren of storage cubbies (15 of them) and that makes up for the smaller cargo area behind the second to some extent at least. And even base trims come with a quite nice (quite similar to what you'd find in a Cadillac) seven-inch touchscreen as well as keyless entry/remote start. Electronic Park Assist is available but hardly necessary given this little runabouts abbreviate dimensions and excellent all-around visibility.
You can order an eighteen-inch wheel and tire package, too - but test ride a Trax fitted with these before you buy. Large - tall - wheels and short (stiff) sidewall tires always make whatever vehicle they're fitted to ride a T34 tank. But when the vehicle is relatively small - and relatively light - it also tends to make it ride bouncier as well as firmer. If you like the look - and have a resilient rear - by all means, go ahead.
THE REST
Probably the biggest "sell" is the relative affordability of the AWD-equipped Trax. Nice as the Honda HR-V, when optioned with its AWD system, its MSRP climbs to $23,215 - a difference of nearly $1,600 vs. the AWD-equipped Trax LS ($21,620). That's a chunk of change at this level.
Pricing info for the '16 CX-3 Mazda was not available when this review was written - and that could go either way. The Mazda could be the best deal of the three. Or, not.
We'll have to wait and see.
One thing that is known - about all three - is that none will get diesel power even though at least one (the Mazda) is available with it in export markets. The reason being our government's hostility toward diesels, expressed in the form of almost-impossible-to-clear emissions mandates.
European diesel-powered cars are not "dirty," incidentally.
European governments are simply more reasonable. They see the value of 50 and 60 MPG vehicles (vs. 25 and 30 MPG vehicles) as being worth a literally infinitesimal quantity of soot per car. Nothing you could see with your eyes - or smell with your nose.
Ask a Berliner or a Londoner.
Better yet, ask your congresscritter how come you can't have such vehicles.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you liked - and miss - the Tracker, odds are you'll like this new Trax, too.
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