LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—#NoBoringCars or not, some of us here at Automobile were rather excited to see Chevrolet’s new-for-2021 Trailblazer, a name that last adorned a bloated, boat-like SUV in the mid-aughts. (Anyone remember the 395 hp Trailblazer SS?) We’ve just had our first drive in this little looker, and we came away a little disappointed… but only a little. There’s a lot to like about the Trailblazer, but GM came up short in a couple of key areas.
Quick backgrounder: The new Trailblazer is Chevy’s second-smallest crossover SUV and a close relative of the Buick Encore GX. While it was initially intended for the Chinese market, Chevrolet has since decided to bring it to the US, squeezing it into the narrow space between the pint-sized Trax and the quart-sized Equinox. Chevrolet sees the Trailblazer as a competitor for Honda’s HR-V, Jeep’s Renegade, and Toyota’s C-HR. Given the Chevy’s boxy body and available contrasting-color roof, we can’t help but think of Hyundai’s little Venue and Nissan’s entry-level Kicks, which are aimed lower in the market, and the XC40 from Volvo, which aims higher. Prices range from $ 19,995 for the basic Trailblazer L up to $ 26,395 for the top-line Activ and RS models, plus options.
Trailblazer sports cool styling, cool engines
We like the Trailblazer’s youthful styling, which is a welcome diversion from the conservative clothing of Chevrolet’s other crossovers, but what intrigued us most was the engine lineup. Instead of the traditional four-cylinder engine, Chevrolet has gone for a pair of turbocharged three-cylinders, a 137-horsepower 1.2-liter for the L, LS and LT models, and a 155-horsepower 1.3-liter that is optional on the LT and standard on the Activ and RS. We’re intrigued by tiny engines—you know that old chestnut about driving slow cars fast—so we were eager to give these micro-motors a try. No surprise that Chevy started us on the larger motor, which came surrounded by a Trailblazer Activ.
It’s worth noting that nowhere in Chevrolet’s press materials is it mentioned how many cylinders the engine has, and those not in the know could almost be fooled into thinking these are four-cylinders. Three-pot engines are inherently vibration-prone, and while Chevy’s 1.3-liter turbo is nowhere near as smooth as Ford’s 1.0 EcoBoost, idle vibration is minimal, no worse than some of the less-refined four-bangers we’ve driven.
The Power of Three unleashed!
Chevrolet has gone to great lengths to unburden the 1.3-liter three-cylinder, using an electric water pump and an electro-hydraulic power brake system in place of the traditional vacuum booster, all to ensure that it can give its all to generating forward motion. And it works: Our test Trailblazer scooted away from traffic lights, merged onto fast-moving freeways without breaking a sweat, and had no problem keeping up with 75-mph traffic. Foot-to-the-floor acceleration shows the engine’s limitations, but we almost never had to put our foot to the floor.
Much of the credit goes to the nine-speed automatic with which the 1.3-liter is paired. The transmission shifts smoothly and quickly and does its best to keep the engine in its powerband. There is a manual mode—that god-awful GM system that requires you to move the shifter to “L” before the +/- toggle switch on the handle works—but we found that if we just left it in Drive, the transmission did a perfect job of managing the engine’s power. This involved some rather enthusiastic revving, but three-cylinders have a great sound, and we enjoyed the racy (if somewhat unrefined) snarl above 3,500 rpm.
With the engine revving its little heart out, we expected fuel economy to suffer, and it did. The Trailblazer is EPA-rated at 26 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 28 mpg combined, but we only averaged 23.6 mpg—and bear in mind that we never engaged the Trailblazer’s push-button all-wheel-drive system.
Refinement: Where the Trailblazer let us down
Fuel economy wasn’t our biggest complaint, though; we’ve reserved that for the suspension. The handling is fine—we don’t expect a small crossover to corner like a Supra, and the Trailblazer’s strong grip and accurate steering response are better than we expect from a vehicle in this class. No, what really turned us off was the refinement, or rather the lack thereof. Ride quality is acceptable only on the smoothest of pavement, but the Trailblazer crashes over bumps with unwarranted drama. Rough pavement had our Trailblazer shaking and quaking to the point that we began to wonder if the springs had gone off on a lunch break. How could a car developed by a company based in Detroit, where roads are paved like the surface of the Moon, not be able to handle pad paving?
Part of the problem is a lack of sound insulation, which amplifies (literally) the Trailblazer’s overreaction to bumps. The Trailblazer lets in a lot of road noise, even at city speeds, and the clunking and clanking from the suspension is just as poorly muffled—when we say it crashes over bumps, we aren’t just waxing poetic. It’s as if all the money that went into the engine, styling and interior was taken out of the anti-NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) budget.
Bear in mind that we drove the Activ model, which has different suspension tuning that (supposedly) allows for better control on unpaved roads. Off-roading requires a softer ride, and frankly we can’t imagine that a stiffer suspension would make things any better. Chevy says the Activ model is tuned “to enhance ride comfort on gravel terrain,” but given our experience on the uneven concrete of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, we had no desire to subject ourselves to a ride on a dirt road.
It’s a shame about the lack of suspension refinement, because in all other respects the Trailblazer puts in a good effort. We like the styling inside and out. With the notable exception of the temperature control dials, everything in the cabin feels robust and upscale. The controls are sensibly laid out and easy to use. The back seat is upright and roomy, and our test car had USB, USB-C and 120-volt outlets for the second row. The trunk is big and boxy and largely free of obstructions, there’s hidden storage under the trunk floor, and the fold-down back seats actually fold down flat. In terms of practicality and livability, the Trailblazer is exceptionally well thought out.
2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer versus the competition
Driving the Trailblazer, it was hard to keep Chevy’s intended competitive set in mind. Mostly, that’s a good thing: The Trailblazer has more personality than the Honda HR-V, and its brand of hip seems more natural and less contrived than the Toyota C-HR’s does. The Jeep Renegade out-cutes the Trailblazer, plus it has a better ride and real off-road skills. The way we see it, the Trailblazer’s toughest competitor comes from Hyundai: The brilliant Kona’s styling isn’t quite as youthful, but we think it’s a better vehicle in every other way. The closely-related Kia Seltos delivers most of the Kona’s advantages with a bigger (and somewhat more somber) interior. All five of these SUVs are significantly more refined and more comfortable than the Trailblazer, and while the novelty of cool styling will wear off, the annoyance of a rough, noisy ride won’t.
We’d also consider some of the Trailblazer’s lesser competitors, particularly the Hyundai Venue. It’s a little smaller inside and the interior isn’t quite as upscale, but the $ 23,000 Denim model looks just as cool sitting in the parking lot, and its simple 1.6-liter naturally aspirated engine gets great fuel economy without the feats of technological derring-do on which the Trailblazer’s 1.3-liter turbo relies.
There’s a lot that impressed us about the Trailblazer, particularly the styling, power, handling, and interior quality. We love the little 1.3-liter engine (and are eager to try the 1.2-liter, which comes paired with a CVT and front-wheel-drive), and would like to have more seat time to see if the real-world fuel economy improves with a longer drive. But the lack of refinement would be a deal-breaker for us. Too bad—the Trailblazer feels like it’s only a couple steps short of being a great little SUV.
|2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer Activ AWD Specifications|
|PRICE:||$ 26,395/$ 30,580 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE:||1.3L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3; 155 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 174 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|LAYOUT:||4-door 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE:||26/30 mpg city/highway|
|L x W x H:||173.7 x 71.2 x 65.7 in|
|0-60 MPH:||9.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|