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… in 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.
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.
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.
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.
Not as sexy as the Mazda CX-3.
No manual transmission available (HR-V offers a six-speed).
Back doors don’t open very wide – which makes getting into and out of the already tight second row even more challenging.
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.
That’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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I had the old Tracker that was a re-skinned Suzuki Grand Vitara. The I bought an actual Grand Vitara and I was quite happy with it. Recently I bought the Buick Encore, which is a badge engineered version of the Trax. In my opinion, it looks much better dressed up in a waterfall grille.
That said, the 1.4 liter turbo engine has been problematic though covered under warranty. Seals and gaskets mostly. It’s as if they didn’t feel the need to turn the wrench enough times when they built it. I’m a bit of a lead foot, so this engine may not stand up to my abusive behavior.
You are spot on about the less effective use of space though. I shopped a Honda CRV for my brother in Alaska that he flew down to pick up. The thing was pristine and very practical. I had a 1979 Accord back in the day that stayed in the family for 20 years before my sister put it out of its misery.
I’m also having issues with the entertainment system being either unresponsive or randomly rebooting.
What I love most though about my Encore is the excellent all-around visibility and surefooted-ness in the frequent rains we have. I’ve taken several road trips with it now and routinely get about 420 miles on a tank. Not as good as a Prius, but hardly a large expense either.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this size cross-over in hopes we see one with a VOLTEC drivetrain. It would meet all my needs in one vehicle.
A 1.4 engine, turbocharged no less, in a fairly heavy vehicle which will be used for dirt road conditions. Hmm…. what could possibly go wrong?
Seems like something to lease rather than own. Surely not something to own after the Warranty period expires.
Just wait… I have a Ford F-150 this week with the 2.7 liter twin turbo V6… !
Sounds like another vehicle to lease or to get rid of sooner than in the recent past.
Given adequate care and synthetic oil, the turbo might last ten years. Of course most of those trucks will get neither of these. After all, they are built Ford Tough.
There might be an opportunity for those of us who are willing to turn a wrench though. Depreciation could work in our favor once the word gets out that the engines suck. Perhaps replacing the turbos might be cost effective for us.
I can just imagine the marketing that Ford will have to use. Twin turbochargers sound real studly. Lots of power and great mileage sounds like a real winner for about as long as the monthly payments last. Sounds way better for the environment too. I’m joking of course.
eric, I’m amazed at how people evaluate vehicles, esp. those who couldn’t turn a wrench if their life depended on it.
Last year a “safety man” on a big compressor site bought a new Ford crewcab half ton to pull his travel trailer. I don’t know what type of trailer since my 31′ travel trailer had 1200 lbs. of tongue weight which would put that pickup flat on the ground. I think it must have been a small fifth wheel trailer, not a travel trailer. But he was real proud of it being brand new, said it pulled that trailer fine but got really thirsty doing so but got “pretty good mileage” otherwise. This was one of those 3.7 L Turbo 6’s.
People like that can never tell you exactly what the mileage is though. How’s your mileage? Oh, it’s good when you don’t pull something real heavy.
Well, that convinces me. Sheesh.
Ask the same question of people who wrench for themselves and they give exact mileage figures for what they do with one. And that is almost never a Ford driver. Dodge, yep, GM, yep, but Ford, no way Jose. I get my Ford serviced at the dealer(well, there just went that money you saved over the GM when you bought it). A couple friends who are good mechanics and have their own shops don’t work on Ford for much of anything under the hood since they don’t want to be in the body business.
I speak to people all the time about their pickups and and it’s rare for a Ford owner to work on one. Last week I spoke to a 26 year old guy who had a Dodge regular cab shortbed dually(the one that comes on the Mega Cab). He had built it himself. Some outfit in Utah sells all sorts of stuff to extend Dodge frames(frame pieces, fuel lines, brake lines, wiring harness, etc.)to convert MegaCab pickups into 8′ beds. He did one for a friend and got his old bed. I knew it had to be homebuilt but he did a really nice job.
Wish I had a pic of it, very unusual one of a kind. But I know lots of people with Dodge’s who work on their own and do engine swaps and such. I know lots of people who do same with GM’s and virtually nobody who does so with a Ford. Well, I guess when you have to remove the body and front clip to change head gaskets, alternators, turbo’s or even intake gaskets it gets to be a bit much.
Now I’m hearing Ford didn’t do their homework on making paint stick to their new aluminum bodies…..uh oh, class action suit in the offing here.
I have noticed you seem to not get any diesels. What’s up with that?
Chevy Captiva near Richmond VA
If the memory serves correctly, Chevy sells the Captiva (formerly Saturn VUE), which is smaller than Equinox, but slightly bigger than Trax. For some reason, Chevy never seem to advertise it (just like they did with the Saturn Astra).
I’m pretty sure the Captiva (built in Korea, like the Trax) is not sold in the U.S. – it’s an export market model.
Yes, it is available in U.S. – just talked to the dealer in Illinois, they have Captiva in stock. As a matter of fact, I see at least couple of them every day on my way to work.
Wow. And – weird!
Because I’m a got-damned doctor of automotive journalism and they are supposed to send me these things.
There is nothing on the GM media-access web site. I get all the Stuff about new cars – as well as the new cars themselves. Been doing this for 20-plus years.
No Captiva for me.
eric, here it is. It WAS sold here. http://www.gmfleet.com/chevrolet/captiva-sport-compact-crossover.html
The CX-3 seems to be the one to beat, per the early reviews. Not only is it better looking, it’s much sportier and has enough engine to keep it entertaining. Consumer Reports is quoting gas mileage as 27/32, but that might be a guess. The refer to the EPA combined as 29mpg, though.
Looking at the CX-5 vs. the other compact SUVs in its class, I’m guessing the CX-3 will be the pick of the litter in subcompact SUVs. My guess is that as pathetic as the Trax is on all points, they’re going to have to go for fire sale prices to get them to move off the lots. The Buick version has been an abysmal failure so far.
The old Tracker was basically a reskinned Suzuki. Those things were surprisingly rugged and reliable and still got pretty good gas mileage (low 30s on the highway). Amazing, in some ways, how little progress has been made thanks to ever expanding safety mandates and consequent weight gains.
The primary reason that automatics now get better gas mileage than the manual transmission has to do with the final drive ratio. The automatic tends to be equipped with a lower final drive ratio which results in considerably lower engine rpms at cruising speeds thus better highway mileage. I don’t know why this trend is gaining popularity but I’m sure there are financial incentives for manufacturers.
I have a BIL with a Chevy Sonic and he is quite unhappy with the actual gas consumption compared with the EPA estimates. My guess is the tranny downshifts and the turbo spools up frequently to maintain speed even on gently undulating roads. I think Trax would operate similarly and deal with headwinds that way as well.
Doesn’t Buick have a version of this?
Final drive ratio has always been a mileage improver and lots of cars 50 years ago had a rear end from an auto stuck in a manual.
Not that this is germane to that subject but back in the 60’s there was an old saying that nothing was faster than a Chevy with a Ford speedometer.
We raced a buddy’s 59 Ford v-8, a 292 or 312, don’t remember which with a Valiant sedan with a slant six. The Valiant nearly beat the Ford. The Ford driver was adamant about achieving something like 95mph in the quarter(no way Jose)while the Valiant driver, neck and neck, said he was doing slightly over 80mph. That sounded more like it since that Ford wouldn’t get out of its own way but made some noise trying.
Even though this seems like a great vehicle with a better drivetrain, the Honda HR-V will destroy everything in it’s class due to one often overlooked dynamic. Resale Value.
Even though Chevy produces just as good of a vehicle these days as Honda, the clovers don’t know any better..this drives up the resale value significantly. If I were in the market for a new mini crossover there wouldn’t even be a second thought about which one I would buy.
No low range, no manual and that silly low front air dam. It’s a city car for city people.
I have had three versions of the Tracker, a 1989 Sidekick and two 1991 Trackers. They were fantastic little runabouts and nearly as capable as a quad in the bush, but with a heater, so far better comfort.
The idea that North American Trax can’t have a diesel is ridiculous. Twice the fuel consumption vs. diesel must make the total pollution output close to equal. Either way, if VW can manage to make a diesel for NA, what is GMs excuse?
On diesel: VW manages, but there is a price premium. Which they can get away with, in part because VW is considered almost Audi.
GM offers a diesel in the Cruze, but the price premium is significant.
Mazda has – apparently – given up on bringing the Sky-D diesel to the U.S.
Just did a quick online build on the Cruze and the Jetta, gas vs. diesel.
Looks like GM is asking somewhere around $6000 extra for a diesel while VW only wants less than ~$1100.
Maybe GM requires a higher trim specification for their diesel?
Unfortunately, the Tiguan (much more than the Trax) seems to not offer a diesel either. 🙁
Only thing I know about Tiguan is their drivers/owners tend to slug along and keep traffic bunched up on two lane roads. I hate to see one. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the car, just the owner. C’est la vie say the old folks, just goes to show you never can tell.