The Chevy Trailblazer is the fastest-selling car in America at the moment, so I felt it was my journalistic duty to figure out why. Rather, it was my duty to figure out if you’re all making some kind of mistake.
Full Disclosure: Chevrolet was kind enough to let me put some genuine miles on this Trailblazer, so I drove it from New York to North Carolina and back for a chunky 1,100 miles of urban and suburban escape. That’s about 37 gallons’ worth of road trip, if you’re curious.
Testing Conditions: Again, this tall hatchback/small SUV carried two people, two bikes, and five days’ worth of luggage from NYC to Raleigh and back. Average speed was just under 50 mph, so it was mostly a highway ride.
The Trailblazer is selling quickly for two reasons. The first is that Covid is wreaking havoc with global supply chains, and Chevy in America is having a hard time getting enough stock of this Korean-made machine to dealer lots over here.
The second is that it’s a crossover with a starting MSRP under $20,000. Not this Trailblazer. This one is a $30,000 car. Lemme explain why.
The base price only gets you into the base LT trim. This is the mid-tier Activ trim, which is meant to be off-roady. There is also an RS, which is the one that looks extra sporty.
There’s not a lot going on with the Activ that’s really any different from other trims, but you do get different bumpers, chunkier tires, and actual skidplates under the car. I was surprised about that one, but it turns out they’re standard in markets with very rough roads. All Trailblazers in Mexico, for instance, get the skidplates.
This particular Trailblazer Activ is a sweet spot on the ordering sheet. It has the nice engine, a 1.3-liter three-cylinder turbo good for 155 horsepower, 174 lb-ft of torque, and better fuel economy than the base 1.2-liter engine. It has a nine-speed auto and a button beside the gear lever that activates all-wheel drive.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with the Trailblazer. Certainly it’s roomy enough for a family, powerful enough, and it looks good.
But I can’t be all that happy for Americans rushing after these things when I just drove the Kia Seltos. That’s the third-most in-demand car in the country, and it is roomier than the Trailblazer, wider without being longer, more powerful without getting worse gas mileage, and it costs just about the same as the Trailblazer.
The nicest thing about the Trailblazer is its general practicality. I grew up in the ’90s. Cheap Chevrolets then were Cavaliers and Malibus. They were unkillable, but they were also sedans with room for people, but not really their stuff. The Trailblazer ate up two bikes and gear with ease, and the rear cargo area had a nice reversible cover that’s an easy-to-clean plastic on one side. This is a good shape for a family vehicle, with some good utilitarian touches.
The engine also sounds better than you’d ever think it would, and the car is generally nice to be in, which isn’t something I’d say of past Chevys I’ve taken out of the motor pool.
I wanted to get the good stuff out of the way because there’s a lot of shit in here that’s well, worse than it needs to be.
On the one hand, the Trailblazer is just a chunky 1.3-liter hatchback. But it’s a 1.3-liter hatchback that didn’t break 30 mpg in a week of driving. We averaged 29.8 over our 1,100 miles.
On the other hand, the Trailblazer is a tiny SUV. But it’s a tiny SUV that doesn’t have any serious off-road gear. There’s no low range, there’s no locking nothing. There’s just a single-clutch rear diff and a watts link (or is it Watt’s link?) on the rear suspension. You don’t get outstanding mpg, but you don’t get much for that sacrifice.
It’s not as roomy as the other $20,000-something Korean crossover, the Kia Seltos, and not meaningfully more practical in other ways.
It has handsome styling, but its chunky looks give it a giant blind spot over your shoulder.
It’s not a bad car by any means, it just should be better at sipping gas and taking up space.
Moreover, while this thing is nice for a car in the mid-20s, this particular test car came with $3,000 of options, including that paint ($695) making it a $30,230 car before the delivery fee. This is a lot of scratch.
IIHS hasn’t crash-tested the Traiblazer yet, but the Feds have. NHTSA gives the Traiblazer almost identical marks to the Kia Seltos, with three stars for passenger crash safety, four stars for overall frontal crash safety, four stars for rollover risk, and five stars everywhere else. Find NHTSA’s Traiblazer figures here and the Seltos ones here.
The Trailblazer has driver-assist features, but they’re not all helpful. The standard lane-keep assist, which steers the car for you to keep you in your lane, for instance, was genuinely bad. I tried it out on some soul-crushing straight section of I-95.
We slowly ambled to the lane lines on the right.
Then we slowly ambled to the lane lines on the left.
Then we slowly ambled back to the right, at which point the car gave up and told me to take control of the wheel.
It is better to just steer for yourself.
The rest of the tech suite was fine, except the CarPlay would periodically get confused whenever multiple phones were involved, sometimes jumping out of your directions, or playing music but not otherwise sync’ing, with no clear directions on what the hell was going on. This is probably the most genuinely unsafe part of the car. You do not want to be figuring out how to get your directions back on a touchscreen right before your exit comes up.
Normally I like most the base-base-base model, but you do want to go for the bigger engine that also gets better fuel economy. I like that the Activ gets some underbody protection, and I don’t mind that it’s needlessly AWD because it’s not on, sucking gas, unless you press a button to turn it on.
Drive a Seltos, honestly, it’s roomier. Hell, drive a Honda Fit or a Toyota Corolla, while you’re at it.
I am immensely glad that Americans seem extremely amped about a Chevy hatchback, but I wish it got better gas mileage.