2015 Chevrolet Trax

SAN DIEGO — Asked about the reasoning behind the launch of the Chevy Trax, chief engineer Al Manzour answered with refreshing honesty: “Originally, the Trax was scheduled to launch in 2012 just behind the Buick Encore, but it was delayed to see if the sales we thought were in this segment actually were there.”

Translation: Somebody got cold feet and the project was cancelled. GM had already decided not to sell the similarly sized but terribly utilitarian Chevy Orlando small crossover in the U.S. after announcing that it would be sold here, and was reticent to make the same “on and off” mistake with the Trax.

So what changed the minds of Chevy’s brain trust? A few things, actually. The first was the success of the Buick Encore, which proved that Americans were not only ready for a small crossover, they were accepting of a small luxury crossover. Next came the realization that, by 2018, automakers had plans to introduce 12 new small crossovers into the market. The Nissan Juke, Kia Soul, Mini Countryman and Mitsubishi Outlander were already in this space. Audi, BMW, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Jeep, Mercedes and others were either ready to launch or contemplating adding a small crossover to their lineups.

If Chevy was going to get a piece of the action, it was better to be early than late. The Trax was on sale in Asia, Canada and China, but not in the U.S. The U.S. version had to be resurrected.

Luckily for Chevrolet, the Buick Encore was scheduled for a mid-cycle update meant to keep the vehicle fresh, and give it the structural changes it needed to pass the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s shallow offset front crash test. Since the Trax and Encore are the same under the skin, it was a simple case of updating the structure for the Encore and porting that result to the Trax.

In addition, the Trax could use some of the “Quiet Tuning” upgrades Buick made initially, including a unique dash noise attenuation pad, a thicker windshield, more sound deadening, etc. without adding to the cost of the program. In other words, the 2015 Trax is a much better car than had it launched, as planned, in 2012.

Not lacking in safety features.The ride and drive concentrated on the streets of San Diego. There were no freeway jaunts, cross-country drives along scenic paths, high-speed motoring or sinuous roads for us to sample. It was, in a word, tedious, but meant to show the vehicle’s ability as an urban commuter. This, of course, set off alarm bells suggesting that Chevrolet didn’t want us to sample the Trax on the open road, or test its ability to merge with traffic on California’s freeways.

After all, the 3,050-pound. (base, front-drive) Trax uses the same 1.4-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder available in the Cruze and Sonic. This means 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque flowing through a six-speed automatic transmission. Add-in all-wheel drive, and the weight jumps 330 pounds to 3380. The engineers were careful to ease suspicions and point out that the torque rating was spread pretty evenly from 1,850 to 4,900 rpm, and that this means the Trax can carry a higher gear in most situations, which improves fuel economy.

And they were keen to point to the front-drive model’s  26 city/34 highway fuel economy rating as proof. In their defense, the Trax didn’t hunt up and down the gearbox for a suitable cog, could climb the hills in town without need for multiple downshifts, and would scoot away from a dead stop with traffic. However, you could feel the extra weight when calling down to the engine room for grunt; a bit more power would not be unwelcome. By the numbers, the Trax carries 22-24.5 lb./hp and 20.6-22.8 lb./lb.-ft. of torque, which explains why it can feel a bit lethargic at times.

The six-speed automatic, on the other hand, is a major plus. It shifts smoothly, quietly and efficiently. You hardly even know that it’s there. Ditto the all-wheel drive system. The Active On Demand AWD, as it is called, decreases the torque sent to the rear wheels the closer it gets to 37 mph until it reaches zero percent.

The reason is simple: Not only does this cut parasitic drag on the drivetrain and increase fuel efficiency, most “slip events” occur at relatively slow speeds, such as when accelerating from a stop, in stop-and-go situations, or when reversing out of a parking space.

However, should the wheel sensors detect a speed difference between the front and rear axles above 37 mph, the all-wheel drive unit is electronically engaged to deal with the event, then disconnected until it is needed again.

Staying with the mechanical bits for a bit longer, the Trax has very well-resolved ride and handling. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension are nothing out of the ordinary, but handle dips, camber changes, and transitions very well. The Trax rides like a much larger vehicle, and there were numerous times when, from the passenger seat, I cringed and prepared for a solid hit when my driving partner traversed one of San Diego’s myriad drainage indents without slowing. I fully expected the nose to bottom or, at least, to hit the depression with a bang, but the Trax dealt with it as if it wasn’t even there.

Furthermore, the sharp bumps that can make underdamped short-wheelbase vehicles sit down hard in the rear also had little effect. Finally, the slightly meaty electric power steering has good on-center weighting, and was not overly light in slow-to-medium speed situations. As I said, well resolved.

Well resolved is not, however, a synonym for exciting. The Trax goes about its duties efficiently with minimal fuss or bother, and a surprising maturity. However, it does so without making you feel invested in the driving experience. Perhaps all of the focus on its maneuverability and comfort in urban situations robbed the Trax of the verve, the life, the personality it might otherwise have had, but I don’t think that is true.

The reason is that this lack of personality infects the Trax’s styling as well. Whereas the Buick Encore adds a dash of style to the small crossover recipe, the Trax is an almost too-literal interpretation of current Chevy crossover styling, inside and out. If you have been in either the Equinox or Traverse, you have been in the Trax, only on a larger scale.

The interior is crisp, clean, and handsome. At first glance, you are hard-pressed to determine which plastics are hard and which have a softer surface — a good thing. The forward sightlines are great, the seating position is commanding yet comfortable, and the standard Chevy MyLink with its seven-inch touchscreen is easy to read and logically arrayed.

OnStar with 4G LTE connectivity is available, and part of Chevy’s push to attract youthful buyers for whom a WiFi hotspot is a constitutional right. However, when you look around you start to see the problem that keeps the Trax from shining. There are four cupholders in the center console, and 15 storage areas scattered throughout the interior, including a slide-out tray under the front passenger’s seat. The front passenger seat back folds flat and, in conjunction with the 60:40 split/fold rear seat backs, makes it possible to carry an item that’s eight feet tall without having to leave the rear hatch up. It’s almost as though someone laid out a chart of customer needs and desires, and dutifully checked each box as though conducting a science experiment.

The only true surprise and delight features were the ability to put the front passenger’s seat so far back that I could not touch the front bulkhead, and the fact that, with a slight bit of work, I could slide into place behind that seat when it was in this position and be reasonably comfortable.

The Chevy Trax is a very strong contender in the small crossover segment. It comes in three trim levels — LS, LT and LTZ — has a large touchscreen and 4GLTE connectivity standard, all-wheel drive can be ordered on every trim level for just $1,500, and checking every box on the highest trim level would only set you back $28,500. Even more surprising, the LS AWD we drove back-to-back against an LTZ AWD didn’t leave us feeling like paupers; it was just as quiet and capable and well resolved.

Those on a budget aren’t getting table scraps. For $20,995 you not only get the connectivity and touchscreen, but air conditioning, keyless entry, 10 airbags, a rearview camera system, power locks and outside mirrors, and power windows. It’s a strong package for the price.

What it isn’t, despite Chevy’s insistence that this vehicle is aimed squarely at young and young-at-heart buyers, is fun. The Trax is too inoffensive, too studied and too predictable to be seen as the “gotta have” entry in this market segment. And while there’s no need to replicate the studied unconventionality of the Nissan Juke, Chevy should consider adding a halo model to the lineup to alleviate the air of regimentation that surrounds the Trax. One with a bit more energy, higher contrast in its interior colors, and some subtle exterior changes that give it a more confident and extroverted look.

If it did, Chevy could move from having a success to having a bona fide hit.

— Christopher A. Sawyer