On a normal day, car-crazy Californians are likely to see Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Fiskers and more Priuses (Prii?) than you can shake a three-pronged plug at. But they're never going to see a Chevrolet Trax unless a Canadian or Mexican drops by for afternoon tofu.
With the relatively cheap price of fuel in the Lower 48, General Motors feels the Trax would cut into sales of their successful (and profitable) Equinox, so it's not being sold in the United States.
Hah! Take that, War of 1812 losers.
After teetering on the brink of bankruptcy during the Great Recession, the bow tie company is back with a vengeance. Chevrolet sold 2.46 million vehicles between January and June of 2012. Cruze sales alone totalled over 400,000 units, surpassing Chev's perennial bestseller, the Silverado, for the first time ever.
Chevrolet has always been into SUVs. This year is the 75th anniversary of the Suburban, the vehicle that started it all and is still favoured by many clandestine government agencies for its size, intimidation factor and ability to transport several people in comfort, even when heavily armed.
But the small SUV market is the area to watch. Gas prices will continue to soar and customers aren't ready to give up their upright driving positions, comfort, all-wheel-drive capability and ample cargo capacity. In 2010, the Canadian small SUV market was about 5,800 units and grew to 7,500 in 2011. Competition will come from the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tuscon and the Kia Soul.
The Trax is quite compact: Its 2,555 mm wheelbase is 130 mm shorter and the track is four mm wider than the Cruze platform upon which it's loosely based. It's also 47 kg lighter than the Cruze with the front-wheel-drive Trax checking in at 1,380 kg. Tick the all-wheel-drive box on the order form and you?ll be carrying an extra 118 kg over the FWD model.
At present, only one engine will be available in the Frozen North, the 1.4 litre Ecotec turbo with 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. torque. The turbo isn't for neck snapping performance; it provides adequate 'go' while still delivering the fuel economy of the small displacement engine. I couldn?t measure fuel consumption but the Cruze I drove earlier summer delivered 7.4 to 7.9 L/100 km and the Trax should be in that ballpark.
Three trim levels are available, the LS model is Front Wheel Drive and comes with a six-speed manual transmission while the LT and LTZ models get a six-speed auto and will have the AWD option.
The Trax AWD system is interesting. Engineers thought that if the vehicle started from a stop in front wheel drive and then encountered slippery conditions, when the AWD kicked in, it might be noticeable and bothersome to the driver.
So, at every stop, the Trax starts out in AWD and if there's no slip detected on any of the wheels, it unobtrusively shifts itself into FWD at 3 to 5 km/h for less drag and optimum fuel economy. In the AWD model I drove, this was totally undetectable. Nice.
All models of Trax come with hill assist that won't allow the vehicle to roll backwards, which is nice if you?re taking off from a hill, like in San Francisco which is lousy with them. Steep ones too.
Overall length is a teensy 4,248 mm, 350 mm shorter than a Cruze. Combine that with quick steering and a tight turning radius and the Trax is incredibly easy to manoeuvre around town, through traffic and into tight parking spots.
SUV owners typically carry lots of 'stuff' and the Trax happily accommodates them with two glove boxes, various compartments above and on both sides of the centre stack as well as a sliding drawer under the passenger seat. With the rear seats folded, the Trax has 1,375 litres of available storage and the front passenger seat can even be folded flat offering additional room for longer items.
For those who like their coffee or Slurpees, six cupholders are accessibly by front seat occupants.
Hustling the Trax along some of California's finest twisty mountain roads (including the scenic Highway 1 north of San Francisco), it passed the Sport-o-meter test admirably. Body roll was minimal, the MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear suspension kept the Trax composed through high and low speed turns and the steering (although a bit numb), provided adequate feel and feedback.
Upper trim levels will have Chevy's Mylink electronic infotainment system available, which (among many other functions) will display contents from smartphones on the seven- inch full colour, touchscreen display.
Six airbags, electronic stability control, traction control, ABS, hill decent control and hill assist provide the necessary security blanket and are all standard on LT-trim vehicles.
Even though the models I drove were pre-production, fit and finish was pretty good. At press time, pricing hadn't been set but is expected within the next month or so and the Trax should be in dealer showrooms in December.
The Trax brings a lot more to the small SUV party than car-like handling, all-wheel drive and SUV practicality. It's compact, has ingenious storage features and looks great with a tight, muscular profile.
2013 Chevrolet Trax
ENGINE: 1.4-litre Ecotec turbo, DOHC, EFI
FUEL CONSUMPTION: N/A (estimated 7.6 / 8.0 L/100 km)
POWER (hp)/TORQUE (lb.-ft.): 138/149
COMPETITION: Honda Civic, Mazda CX5, Hyundai Tuscon, Kia Soul
WHAT'S BEST: Compact size, easy handling, ingenious storage
WHAT'S WORST: You need a 25-year-old on standby to figure out Mylink.
WHAT'S INTERESTING: AWD disengages at 5 km/h when not needed