The updated Trax looks handy in comparison with others of its ilk. But it might struggle to look so good when measured against another like-priced Holden.
For: Improved styling, smarter cabin.
Against: Still feels built down to a price, an Astra seems a better bet
REFRESH, re-engineer, refit and, if needbe, redesign and rebuild.
If that’s what it takes to revive a model’s flagging fortune, then Holden seems to be up for it.
So it seems, at least, when assessing the latest round of revisions meted the Trax.
The small SUV sub-sector has shown significant growth since 2015 and Trax has not missed out. Yet neither has it been running with the category big guns.
Something to with its age? The version of this Korean-sourced, front-drive that Holden had in circulation last year was a reprise of a car we’d known since 2013.
Even though a facelift in mid-2015 included a new flagship model introducing the significant inclusion of a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder found in the Cruze, it was falling behind.
Still, small remains big – and growing so fast even losers can be winners. So arrival of a 2017 model line with more revisions and styling changes and in which the 1.4 becomes the sole choice has Holden hoping they’ve now got a star in ascendance.
Still, it’s hardly working the room alone. While the Mitsubishi ASX – the category’s oldest contender (being two years older than Trax) - and Ford EcoSport might not cause much bother, there’s the Honda HR-V and Suzuki Vitara to consider, a new Subaru XV on the way and, above all else, Mazda’s pert and well-specced CX-3.
To discover if that confidence is well-placed, we’ve spent time in the LTZ flagship, which continues to be a $36,990 proposition.
Categorised as a crossover and perhaps considered by some as a sports utility, the Trax is actually really a tall front-drive hatchback.
Though an Opel variant in Europe packs four-wheel-drive, that’s not part of the Holden recipe. Every model is front-drive, with a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.
As the TV ad campaign suggests, Trax drivers are those who cannot see why anyone needs to hit the dirt when there’s a perfectly good sealed road to use.
This Trax is only a bit new. Think fresh outlook for a familiar recipe.
A more aggressively styled nose and lightly reworked tail provides vast visual improvement.
Holden will happily accept any plaudits but the real credit for introducing that sharp two-piece grille, sleeker headlights with standard LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and a new bumper should go to Chevrolet.
Trax is virtually a world product now (even if it has an Opel persona too) and this sharpened look was provided by the American arm of the business.
It’s a more matured look that makes a good impression at the right time. The old car’s snub-nosed approach was starting to look awkward and outdated.
Cabin enhancements also leave it more resolved and less of a mish-mash. The instrument cluster has an analogue tacho with a digital speedo and fuel gauge plus a trip computer and the centre stack adopts a larger touchscreen with better functionality, with the MyLink infotainment takes the well-sorted and welcome Apple CarPlay/Android Auto interface. The CX-3, HR-V and Qashqai don't have that, though the ASX and Vitara do.
Pairing the phone and streaming music was easy. I’m a big fan of the Siri-based voice control and like the size and format of Holden’s touch screen. It's a pity the update didn't reach to the Chevrolet level, where the car has 4G internet connectivity with the option of acting as a Wi-Fi hot spot.
The design of the fascia is a bit reminiscent of that in the new Astra, a continuity that does no harm. The contrast-stitched fake leather seats and padded panels aren’t my thing – cloth is better - but they do suit the spec level. Intent to make the cabin feel a bit snazzier and get this baby onto the hipster shortlist is undone by all those hard grey trim plastics.
There's decent storage for phones and other odds-and-ends, including multiple door pockets and sizeable cup-holders - though there's no centre console, just a folding driver's arm rest. The 230 volt powerpoint in the back of the centre console is a novelty but seems to be a response to the rare possibility someone might one day want to bring along an electrical appliance that would normally be left at home. All the devices I tend to take in a car are sorted for a USB point. Even the sunglasses holder seems a bit out of sorts now. My specs come in a case, which didn’t fit anywhere, including that storage tray under the front passenger seat.
There are ISOFIX points for a child seat, and full curtain and side-protecting airbags for both rows (plus dual-fronts). There are no rear air vents.
The Trax now has rear-parking radar and a reversing camera. The LT divests the entry car's 16-inch alloys for 18s, a size shared with the LTZ, and gets keyless entry and start, but you need to buy into the LTZ to access blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert and some visual difference in the form of turn-signal side mirrors and LED taillights.
The Trax is priced to compete with some reasonably commodious compact to medium cars but it doesn’t match them on interior space, at least not length-wise. Front and rear headroom is good because it is tall, but rear leg room less so. Also, though that rear seat provisions seatbelts for three, you couldn’t image a trio of adults fitting comfortably. The front seats aren’t that wide, either.
The rear seat also has a fold and tumble function that creates a large flat cargo area that starts at 356 litres and can grow to 785 litres with the 60:40 split rear seats fold 60:40 folded.
This car felt the heat – literally and figuratively.
Taking it long distance on two of the hottest days of the month was a stern test for the air con.
Even at full blast and on its chilliest setting, the system struggled to keep the cabin at comfortable temperature. You’d think a car that configures for Australia would do better. Memo GM: Please consider upgrading to a climate control system.
It wasn’t just the sun that gave the Trax the burn. The test coincided with the national media event for the Astra and, since it made sense to drive, Holden asked me to bring their car along.
A cost efficiency was also costly, because it effectively set the scene for a comparison that made the Trax look second-rate against another product in the same price range, a like-capacity engine and arguably chasing the same buyer (if you accept that Trax is just a bigger kind of hatch).
If crossover attitude is the primary thing then, yes, the Trax will possibly stand out more strongly. For a start, it looks pretty robust with those chunky lines and those 18-inch rims. And even though it doesn’t do the things the shape suggests it can do … well, that probably won’t be a problem.
The thing is, though, that there’s nothing about the package, at least in LTZ format, that shouts as being better than class average.
Dropping the old 1.8-litre engine will not be lamented; it was an asthmatic and uninspiring thing.
The 1.4 is smaller not just in capacity but also, seemingly in dimension – it occupies the lower half of the engine bay only, sitting so low that it’s quite a reach to just touch it.
However, smaller is better. This unit produces the same power 103kW (at 4900rpm) but makes 25 more Newton metres of torque, meaning 200Nm (at 1850rpm). It does require 95 octane petrol, whereas the old jigger was happy to drink 91, but seems reasonably efficient, even though our economy average of 8.7 litres per 100km was short of the factory-claimed 6.1.
Experienced in isolation, the Trax unit feels more muscular than its capacity suggests and seems to pull the 1390kg tare mass easily enough. Mid-range power is okay for overtaking and maintaining up hill speeds.
But then you meet Astra and a newer generation of four-cylinder engine that is simply better still, not just in the 1.6 versions that cost around the same as the LTZ Trax, but also in a 1.4 format that is considerably cheaper.
There’s more power - that entry 1.4, for instance, packs another 7kW and 40Nm over the Trax mill while the 1.6 is good for 147kW and 280Nm. However, the Euro choice’s mills are also thriftier, more refined and more flexible. They’d be a better choice for Trax, but chances of that happening are not high.
There’s little joy in revving the Trax unit, which is reasonably smooth under normal acceleration but it does get a bit thrashy when pushed beyond 3500rpm. At the legal speed limit, it sits at 2000rpm and most of the time engine noise is reasonably suppressed.
Interaction with the auto is interesting. The gearbox’s ‘Active-Shift’ function is a bit wishful; I found it could become a little confused about gear selection at times. You can hand shift it, but not for much gain. The smoothest operation comes from it being left to its own devices – unfortunately, it’s not that sharp-witted then.
There are other frustrations for those chasing driving pleasure. Trax has a more compliant ride than it used to but the overwhelming sense is that the engagement that GM’s European arm implemented so successfully into Astra was never given much consideration by the Korean division. They were thinking more about function than fun.
Trax is obedient but doesn’t want to pull any tricks. The 18-inch rims don’t quite lend the big car feel you expect. There’s quite a lot of grip from the Continental rubber, but the ride is a bit double-edged. There’s a sense of suppleness yet it still seems busy on ripply coarse chip.
Nimbleness isn’t absent, but it hasn’t its Euro cousin’s ability to rejoice in being driven as hard through corners. You get understeer and it also starts to lean. It’s a pity, that, because the electric-assisted steering is sharp and communicative enough to lend impression there’s eagerness to turn-in. Side winds do buffet it about which is because of its short (in length) but tall design.
The update delivers marked improvement in styling and specification; delivering this engine to the whole range is also a positive.
And yet …
Rare indeed is the circumstance when an orthodox car seems a better bet than an SUV. Unfortunately for Trax, a lack of off-roading aptitude means it is a sports utility that simply operates as a hatchback alternate with a higher seating position. And, in that role, it is simply second-best, by no small degree, to another like-sized Holden. I know which way my money would go.