First drive review: Chevrolet Trax 1.4 turbo
What is it?
A head start for Chevrolet. The Trax shares its DNA with the new Vauxhall Mokka, but the American brand, enjoying something of a sales resurgence, previews its smallest ever SUV before its Paris show debut, and before we drive its European sibling.
Being so far head of the starting gun means that the car can only be driven with several provisos in mind. First, these are pre-production models (although only be a slender margin) and second, they are all in Canadian spec.
Not much of an issue you might think, but unlike Ford, Chevrolet still likes to tune its cars to what it regards as regional tastes, and that means that suspension settings, tyre choice, steering tune and even gear ratios are all going to subtly change before delivery to Europe begins.
Nevertheless, while the manufacturer may have only just begun work on building its variant for the old world, it is that market's ballooning appetite for compact SUVs which has made the Trax a no-brain introduction to Chevrolet showrooms.
The aim is to hit the high-sided B segment sweet spot where the likable Skoda Yeti and overrated Nissan Juke currently reside. To that end, the Trax, like most of the brand's offerings, is a largely orthodox piece of packaging.
The car follows hard on the heels of the well-received Aveo; appropriate, as it shares its Gamma II platform – albeit in lengthened, fattened and strengthened format, and with the option of four-wheel-drive versions.
Precise details on pricing and trim levels are yet to set in concrete, but it would be relatively safe to assume that Chevrolet will re-run its familiar LS, LT and LTZ lineup, that it will be well-equipped and almost certainly undercut whatever sticker its cousin at Vauxhall wears.
What is it like?
Well-judged but ultimately uninspiring to drive. The Canadian mules get a 138bhp 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol unit mated to a rather quaint six-speed torque-converter. This configuration will come to the UK, but not until 2014. Step-off enthusiasm around town is spritely (thanks to a cricket pitch-even 148lb ft of torque from 1850 to 4900rpm) but lacks much gumption elsewhere.
The vocal motor won't power the entry-level model in the UK – that's left to a 114bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine and a five-speed manual, but, given its power handicap, we wouldn't recommend that either. The cherry-pick (and doubtless popular option) is the worthy 128bhp 1.7-litre diesel that already appears in Cruze.
With a six-speed manual 'box it'll deliver a highly competitive 221lb ft of torque, 120g/km CO2 and 62mpg economy aboard the Trax. There's also the faint hope that an extra 70-odd pounds of peak twist will add some muscular verve to the SUV's progress.
Such optimism is not completely unfounded: Chevrolet reckons that the European versions, thanks to structural differences, airbag subtraction and the elimination of the spare wheel, will save around a 100kg on the lardy Canadian car.
A dynamic bump would be useful. The North American model is competent and undemanding, but beyond its plodding, well-insulated march at 55mph it begins to feel unreasonably cumbersome – as if you're already dynamically working the car over rather than gently pushing on a bit.
Chevrolet will say that its EU retune will see to all this, but, although better rubber (its all-terrain all-round here) and steering heft will help, there is a concern that by revising the dampers, bushings and mounts, the engineers may handicap the compliancy on a ride quality already occasionally lumpy in remedying poor road surfaces.
Fortunately for Trax, driver appeal always comes a distant second to usability in this segment, and here it's clear that the developmental homework has been done. The interior, unsurprisingly, has for the most part been pinched from the Aveo, but a revamp and rescale has added a much-needed maturity to the layout.
It's not half bad, and, better still, spaciousness seems suitably enhanced. Adults will fit in the back of the stretched wheelbase, and, with families in mind, there are no fewer than eight different seating configurations to play with, including the potential for folding forward the front passenger seat.
Chevrolet has also laced the cockpit with a rabbit warren of storage bins, and kept the boot capacious enough to swallow 356 litres of additional items. Added to all that is the option (or standard feature) of the MyLink infotainment system. The seven-inch touchscreen is the focal point of the dashboard, and with a smartphone attached, its interface, function and app potential (including a superb sat nav carry over) is a full generation ahead of any of its rivals.
Should I buy one?
As with much of Chevrolet's recent fare, there are understandable reasons why you might. Most are grounded in the rugged dependability of good sense: the car, for many people, is going to seem like the right size, the right shape, the right interior and (probably) the right price.
But there are holes in the game plan. The Trax doesn't quite look right – it has the truckish conservatism one might expect from its brand, but without the bigger, fatter 18-inch wheel to pull its styling taut it looks rather drab in a way the Skoda Yeti and Nissan Juke don't.
Choose to add those wheels, and there's every chance you are going to incapacitate the already fragile ride quality. Chevrolet might do this itself if it doesn't handle its suspension revisions with some sensitivity. And it still remains to be seen if the diesel engine fits the dinky SUV as well as we expect it might.
A lot of ifs and buts then. Probably too many to stamp the Trax's card one way or the other. But there's potential in this pre-prod preview, and, happily for Chevrolet, it feels like precisely where they need to be.
Chevrolet Trax 1.4 turbo LT
Price TBC; 0-62mph 9.8 seconds; Top speed 121mph; Economy 44.1mpg; CO2 149g/km; Kerbweight 1380kg; Engine 4cyls, 1364cc, petrol, front, transverse; Power 138bhp; Torque 148lb ft; Gearbox Six-speed automatic