ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — Chevrolet blazed the trail to subcompact SUVs a few years back with the wee Trax. It was an affordable, utilitarian breadbox.
You know, an appliance. Not any more.
For Act Two, Trax is still affordable, still utilitarian. But the breadbox has been transformed into a bronze sculpture. Call it a mini-Blazer. Ogle my loaded $27,080 Nitro Yellow Metallic Activ model trimmed in black with scalloped rocker panels, dual digital screens, wireless Android Auto and the face of a 2018 Camaro (the good lookin’ one).
Check that; Trax is better looking than a Blazer. Can we have an SS model, please? With its lower, leaner, wider stance, the small SUV better wears Blazer’s slinky lines. Think old hatchback favorites (oh, I miss them) like the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze. Did I say small? Trax’s interior is palatial compared to the last model, with three more inches of rear legroom and a whopping seven more cubic-feet of cargo room thanks to a bod stretched 11 inches.
Electric vehicles are all the rage, but their biggest barrier to entry are the gas-powered vehicles across the showroom. The same week I tested Trax here in Asheville, Chevy announced it was pulling the plug on production of its $27,495 Bolt EV at Orion Assembly, to be replaced by $50K Chevy Silverado EV production. With their mega-frunks and neck-snapping acceleration, pricey EV pickups are country-club fashion.
Among small car buyers, not so much.
I liked the Bolt EV, but Trax is a better all-around vehicle. My favorite, the $25K front-wheel-drive Trax Activ, mirrors the FWD Bolt’s wireless connectivity, digital displays and roomy interior. Then it loads on gas-fired practicality. Drive from Lansing to Washington, D.C. (as Sen. Debbie Stabenow famously did last year) and the politically-preferred, 248-mile-range Bolt will take 13½ hours with a trifecta of long charging stops. Trax will make the trip in 9½ hours with one five-minute stop to fill its 400-mile tank.
Sure, Bolt bolts past gas stations, but electricity isn’t free. At 48 cents per kWh at public charging stations, the EV would cost $94 to fill for the 585-mile journey. At $3.50-a-gallon gas, the 30-mpg Trax would set you back $68.
Trax is hardly immune from the nanny state. As EPA forces the industry to go EV, it’s shrinking engine displacement by strangling internal-combustion engine emissions. Trax drops a cylinder — to three — from the previous-gen, yet somehow manages to squeeze out 167 pound-feet of torque for a better, 8.6-second 0-60 mph time.
Compared to the doggy four-banger in Honda’s competing HR-V, Chevy’s three-banger was a spry companion as we danced through the twisties of North Carolina. My journey took me to Chimney Rock, where my father set the sports-car hill-climb record 50 years ago.
The three-mile-long climb to the summit is diabolical, with tight switchback turns linked by undulating high-speed sweepers. This isn’t Trax territory, but it would be a riot in another three-banger: the 300-horse Toyota Corolla GR. Note to Chevy: a 300-horse Trax SS would be a nice addition to the lineup. But I repeat myself.
Not even my favorite-handling small SUV, the Mazda CX-30, would be comfortable at Chimney Rock — a reminder that subcompact segment buyers are looking for utility and tech first.
It’s in those attributes that the stylish Trax really makes its mark. Let the CX-30 compete with the BMW X2 for the SUV hill-climb record; Trax beats it in interior utility.
Generation Smartphone will be agog over the dual screens in my Activ tester that house big digital displays. This is tech you see in Silverado and Colorado pickups costing twice as much. I paired my ‘Droid and navigated the Blue Ridge Mountains wirelessly on Google Maps. The Activ model options a front-console wireless phone charger, so your phone battery doesn’t drain while navigating.
The overall interior experience is pleasant, from comfortable seats up front to leg-sprawling room in back to thoughtful ergonomic touches around the cabin. Round, colorful A-pillar vents are another nod to Blazer/Camaro, and the dash is nicely sculpted for an upscale appearance. In addition to GM’s usual useful knobs and controls, the cabin is littered with storage cubbies for those of us who live in our cars.
Small sub-$20K cars are increasingly unprofitable in this country, and Chevy has abandoned its Spark and Sonic models in recent years. Only have $15K to spend? Walk across the dealer lot and buy a pre-owned Trax.
Chevy is confident you’ll prefer the used model’s room and tech features over a brand-new Spark shoebox.
For those who still want that new-car shine but on a $20K budget (or $339 a month for 48 months), the base $21,495 Trax comes with an analog instrument display and standard safety stuff like lane-keep assist, rear-park assist and auto headlights. Unlike Mazda, which loads its entry CX-30 with blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise control (my essentials) for $24,325, Chevy figures budget-constrained buyers are price-conscious first, feature-conscious second.
Chevy’s ute makes an interesting bare-bones comparison with my favorite compact car, the stylish $21K Hyundai Elantra, which takes a similar approach to sedans with big dash screens, wireless Android Auto and (ahem) better looking wheels.
As you’ve figured out, my max Trax is the Trax Activ with BLIS and ACC — plus that must-have Camaro-like front end. Those looks might lure empty-nesters who like Blazer style but in a smaller, sippier package. The $27K price is competitive. Want all-wheel drive? Chevy has a subcompact Trailblazer across the showroom it wants you to check out.
What Trailblazer also — and Trax tossed aside for this generation — is a fold-flat front seat. That clever chair got me through two knee surgeries (Mrs. Payne would pick me up at the hospital, flatten the front seat, then load me in the back seat with my stiff leg slung over the front). Most Trax buyers likely won’t miss it given the ute’s longer cargo area with the rear seats down.
Trax is a modern marvel, showcasing technology that a decade ago could only be found on luxury chariots. It’s also a reminder that the sub-$20K entry-level car is largely a thing of the past as average new-car transactions crest $50,000.
In 2019, over 40% of new cars listed for under $30K, according to Chevrolet. Today that number is under 20%. The terrific Trax should add to that number.
2024 Chevrolet Trax
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV
Price: $21,494, including $1,095 destination fee ($27,080 Activ model as tested)
Powerplant: 1.2-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder
Power: 137 horsepower, 167 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.6 seconds (mfr.)
Weight: 3,026 pounds (Activ as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA, 28 mpg city/32 highway/30 combined
Highs: Lots more ute for same price as last-gen; stylish Activ trim
Lows: No standard blind-spot or active cruise control; cheap-looking base LS wheels
Overall: 4 stars