2015 Chevy Trax Shows Timing is Everything

Inside you’re hard-pressed to tell by sight which trim pieces are hard plastic and which aren’t. Then again, given the available content and surprising cargo room—48.4-ft3 with the rear seat folded—the hard surfaces might not be noticed.

The old adage, “Last out, best dressed,” certainly applies to the 2015 Trax. A major delay in the program’s launch gave Al Manzour (shown) and his engineering team 12 months to significantly upgrade the small crossover’s safety, ride and handling, and NVH characteristics.

The Trax comes standard with 10 airbags including driver and front passenger frontal and knee airbags, thorax airbags for all outboard positions, and side curtain airbags.

The Chevy Trax is entering a market that is exploding. By 2018, 12 new small crossovers will enter the market. Already in this space are the Nissan Juke, Kia Soul, Mini Countryman, Mitsubishi Outlander, and the Trax’s cousin, the Buick Encore. Sitting on deck are Audi, BMW, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Jeep, Mercedes and others who are launching, ready to launch or contemplating adding a small crossover to their lineups. If Chevy was to get a foothold before the flood of new entries arrived, it had to act quickly. Taking advantage of mid-cycle changes being made to the Encore, it used this opportunity to bring a revised and fully competitive Trax into the U.S. market; one that withstands the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) shallow offset crash test, and was quieter and more refined than the Trax sold elsewhere around the world. There’s only one thing wrong with the story. Other than the chance to cost effectively update and improve the Trax sold in the U.S. and Canada, it’s not true.

In a refreshing burst of honesty that was repeated by multiple members of the Trax engineering team at the vehicle’s launch, Trax chief engineer Al Manzour states: “Originally, the Trax was scheduled to launch in late 2012 just behind the Buick Encore, but it was delayed to see if the sales we thought were in this segment actually were there and consistent.” Translation: The higher-ups at Chevy got cold feet, and the project was cancelled. It wasn’t the first time this had been done. Originally GM announced that it would sell the utilitarian Orlando crossover—which, like the Encore and Trax, is built on a modified Gamma platform—then cancelled the program because it wasn’t up to U.S. standard for ride, handling, performance, quietness, or comfort. Ironically, the same could have been said of the 2012 Trax.

“The engineering homeroom for the Gamma platform is South Korea,” says Manzour. “They take the lead, but each of the global regions feeds its needs and experience into the process to adapt the structure to global needs. Instead of taking the Trax as-is, we stepped in to bring up to the levels of safety and refinement the American buyer expects.” In order to meet the IIHS shallow offset crash requirements that meant upgrading, reinforcing or redesigning the hinge pillars, A-pillars, rockers and front torque box, but the improvements didn’t stop there. “We also improved the ride and handling,” says Manzour, “and increased the column-mounted electric power steering’s low-speed effort while improving its on-center feel.” Interestingly, says Manzour, the average American buyer equates heavier steering with robustness, and lighter steering with frailty. Given the Trax’s small footprint, Chevy couldn’t afford to have potential buyers thinking it felt unsubstantial, even if it does have 10 standard airbags.

In addition to these changes, the Trax borrowed many of the Encore’s “Quiet Tuning” tricks. According to Richard Lee, Program Engineering Manager, Trax: “The windshield and front doors are the same on the two cars, as is the front bulkhead.” This allowed the Chevy engineers to borrow the Encore’s thicker front glass, thicker dash mat and improved sound absorption materials at almost no engineering or development cost. According to Manzour and Lee, these changes greatly improved the Trax’s interior sound levels, and—when allied with the changes made to the ride and handling—improved the perceived quality and value. In other words, they were worth the wait.

Mechanically, the Trax is little different than the Encore. A turbocharged 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder with 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque is mated to GM’s 6T40 transverse six-speed automatic and drives the front wheels. It’s rated at 26 city/36 highway by the EPA in base, front-drive form. Drop an additional $1,500 and customers can add Active On-Demand all-wheel drive, no matter which trim level is ordered. Despite the fancy name, this Borg Warner-supplied system adds a power takeoff unit to the transmission, and sends torque down the driveshaft to the rear wheels. The minute the wheels begin to turn, 50% of the available torque is transferred to the rear wheels. As speeds increase, the torque sent to this axle decreases until it reaches zero percent at 37 mph. The reason is simple: Not only does this cut parasitic drag on the drivetrain and increase fuel efficiency, most “slip events” occur at relatively slow speeds, such as when accelerating from a stop, in stop-and-go situations, or when reversing out of a parking space. However, should the wheel sensors detect a speed difference between the front and rear axles above 37 mph, the all-wheel drive unit is electronically engaged to deal with the event, then disconnected until it is needed again. The StabiliTrak electronic stability system handles side-to-side slip, communicates with the AWD control unit, and features rollover mitigation.

The suspension is fairly conventional with MacPherson struts, an anti-roll bar and a six-point rigidly mounted cross member up front, and coil springs and twin-tube shock absorbers supporting the dual-skin, V-section torsion beam rear axle. Sixteen-inch tires are standard, with 18-in. tires on alloy wheels available as an option. Front-drive Trax have a ventilated front disc/rear drum braking combination, while all-wheel drive models replace the 9-in. rear drums with 10.6-in. solid discs. Corner brake control, brake assist, ABS, electronic brake force distribution and traction control are all standard.

The set of standard features also includes a commodious interior, lots of storage space (folding the 60/40 split rear seat and front passenger seat liberates enough room for an 8-ft. ladder or surfboard), a 7-in. color touchscreen with Chevy MyLink voice-activated infotainment, and a rearview camera. “This segment,” says Manzour, “requires fast-moving changes to styling, engineering and vehicle content, especially telematics. We will not be left behind.” Consequently, the Trax offers the option of OnStar 4G LTE connectivity that turns the vehicle into a WiFi hotspot, Siri Eyes Free for iPhone iOS6 and iOS7 users, and navigation through the BringGo navigation app with upgrades to follow at 12-18 month intervals. You can expect an Android connectivity solution to launch within that timeframe.