Like certain sports teams, General Motors has been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I recall being enamored with the Orlando when I first saw it sitting stationary at an auto show, since I was rather impressed with the Cruze sedan upon which it is based.
So I went into the Trax gingerly. It’s based on the Sonic, another car that I really like, and I was fearful that once again, the best parts might have been left behind in the box. This time, no worries. The Trax isn’t perfect, but I found it to be a good little runabout for couples or small families.
While the Sonic hails from Michigan, the Trax is built in Mexico. It’s sold there, as well as here, but there are no plans to drop it into the U.S. market (despite its Florida-theme name, the Orlando isn’t found in American dealerships either).
It’s available in front- or all-wheel drive. The front-drivers range in four trim lines from $18,495 for the base LS, to a high of $27,380. That base model is the only one that can't be optioned with all-wheel drive, a feature which takes the next three trim levels from $25,155 to $29,330. My tester was the top-line LTZ AWD, further goosed with a sunroof, block heater, and cargo mat and cover, for a total of $30,695 before freight and taxes.
Regardless of trim line, there’s a sole engine offering: a turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder, producing 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, also found in the Cruze and Sonic. The base FWD LS can be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission, but all others get a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
The all-wheel system is automatic and on-demand, engaging the rear wheels when any loss of traction is detected, as well as when you first touch the throttle to get moving from a stop. During my week with the Trax, my area got pounded by a fierce winter storm—nasty by Ontario standards, anyway—but the little trucklet, aided with winter tires, had no trouble, since the system reacts quickly to any trouble.
As in the Sonic, the little engine is a fine fit. For most driving, it provides a fairly smooth stream of power rather than a burst of speed off the line, especially since the transmission’s shift points seem tuned more toward fuel economy. There’s enough for passing, and so while the Trax’s compact footprint makes it more suitable to urban affairs than long-haul highway trips, it handles higher speeds just fine. In fact, I credit much of that poor-weather surefootedness to the fact that it doesn’t turn skittish when you give it some throttle, as some turbo engines are prone to do.
The official fuel figures are 8.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.5 on the highway, but I couldn’t manage that. In combined driving in bitterly cold weather, I averaged 10.8 L/100 km.
I like the way it handles. The steering is light and smooth, it doesn’t lean in corners despite its height, and it has an extremely tight turning radius, all the better when you’re negotiating narrow streets and packed parking lots.
The compact footprint naturally limits the interior, so you won’t want to be putting three people into the rear seat too often, but the high roofline makes the Trax feel relatively spacious thanks to the headroom. My size-12-shoe husband complained that the brake and throttle pedals were too close together, but I didn’t have a problem getting my daintier boots from one to the other.
The seats, clad in “leatherette” on my top-line tester, were far more supportive and comfortable than I expected, and a two-hour trip passed without the stiff leg or tired tush that I’ve often experienced in some of these mini-utes.
Climate control duties are handled by three large, easy-to-use dials in the centre stack, as such things should always be. But I definitely don’t like the stereo above them. A seven-inch screen handles all of the music and connectivity functions, along with the rearview camera included on the 2LT and LTZ trim lines, but you must use the hard plastic touch spots to make things happen.
It takes a second or two of holding your finger on the spot to turn everything on (it doesn’t work very well with gloves), and to adjust the volume, you have to tap a spot on the plastic panel. For heaven’s sake, why? You look a lot goofier searching for the tiny chevron and tapping away trying to hit the right spot, than you would simply reaching over and spinning a dial to adjust the volume. I generally just ended up using the control on the steering wheel.
One more thing to note: while the Trax’s stereo sounds good and mated to my iPod quickly and easily through the Bluetooth that’s standard on all trim lines, there is no CD player.
The Trax is mindful of the defunct Pontiac Vibe (still survived by its sister Toyota Matrix) when it comes to stuffing items inside. The cargo capacity is 530 litres with the rear seats up, and 1371 with them down—by the tape measure, a length of 74 cm up, and 144 cm down.
I don’t like how they work, since you first have to flip up the rear seat cushion before the seatback will fold down. One-touch folding seats are far more convenient, but at least the Trax’s go down to form a flat floor, and the rear cushion is divided 60/40, which makes it easier to wrestle and also allows you to leave one chair up for a rear-seat passenger.
Overall, the Trax is a contradiction. When I drove it back-to-back with some of its competitors, I thought it came up short. Some of the others feel more powerful, handle a little better, and look more finished inside. And yet … when I drive the Trax on its own merits, I really like it.
I did think that my tester’s $30,695 seemed high; it didn’t feel like I had thirty grand sitting in the driveway. The 1LT will probably be the volume seller, at $23,205 in FWD and $25,155 in AWD, which is more in line.