Budget-conscious buyers don't have to settle for a used sport utility vehicle or a small sedan any more.
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A nimble, five-seat SUV — the 2015 Chevrolet Trax — is a new, commendable alternative, with a low starting retail price of $20,995, smart features, competitive fuel economy and strong crash test scores.
The five-door Trax also has nice, mainstream exterior styling, a back seat for adults and a comfortable, higher-than-a-car ride height for all passengers.
Based on Buick's small Encore SUV, the Trax uses the Encore platform and same 138-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Available in front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, the Trax recorded an exemplary five out of five stars overall in federal government crash tests, including five stars in both frontal and side crash tests.
Competitors such as the 2015 Nissan Juke and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport received only four stars overall.
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Chevrolet reports the Trax is the only vehicle in its class to come with 10 standard air bags, including knee air bags for front passenger and driver. Other standard safety features are electronic stability control and traction control.
A rearview camera is standard equipment, too.
The lowest starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2015 Trax with all-wheel drive is $22,495.
The base prices put the base Trax $80 below the $21,075 starting MSRP, including destination charge, of the competing 2015 Nissan Juke S with front-wheel drive. An all-wheel drive Trax is $430 less than the $22,925 starting retail price for base Juke with all-wheel drive.
Note the Juke has a more powerful, turbo four cylinder with 188 horsepower. It's mated to a fuel-conscious continuously variable transmission (CVT) that helps give the Juke an edge over the Trax's federal fuel economy ratings of 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on highways, for an average of 29 mpg.
In contrast, the front-wheel drive Juke, even with a more powerful engine, is rated at 28/32 mpg, for a 30-mpg average.
The Trax beats another competitor — the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport — in government fuel economy ratings and pricing of comparably equipped vehicles. Specifically, the Outlander Sport with 148-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder, CVT and front-wheel drive has a starting retail price of $21,620 and is rated by the federal government at 25/32 mpg, for an average of 28 mpg.
No one took a second look or asked about the test Trax, which was the pleasant-looking base model without roof rails and painted a bright blue. Some onlookers, when asked, thought the Trax looked a bit plain, and base, 16-inch tires with gray wheel covers didn't add any sparkle.
But the Trax tester performed above its price range.
The 1.4-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged, Ecotec four cylinder had no problem moving the relatively lightweight, 2,800-pound Trax along in all but the most demanding acceleration moves. In city traffic, in particular, the Trax responded well and kept abreast of other cars smoothly.
Passengers, in fact, didn't realize the Trax had a turbo, because the engine is not a sporty turbo thrust machine as much as it is a competent powerplant for this vehicle.
But, to be sure, torque of 148 peaks at a low 1,850 rpm, so hard acceleration demands on the highway caused loud buzz to erupt from the four cylinder.
Shift points were, for the most part, smooth, and the tester nearly achieved the government average of 29 mpg in driving that was 75 percent on the highway.
With a 14-gallon tank, the test Trax had a travel range of just over 400 miles. At today's average price for regular gasoline, a fill-up cost $33.43.
The front-wheel drive Trax handled surprisingly well, with a firm ride.
The MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear kept a brutish stretch of bumpy pavement away from passengers.
The Trax held its line without fuss in long, high-speed curves and pulled itself along on rain-soaked pavement.
And it was one of the easiest SUVs to parallel park, thanks to its small size and decently responsive electric power steering.
The biggest complaint was the noise that came into the cabin. Road noise, in particular, could become prominent on rough surfaces, and lengthy highway drives on concrete can be fatiguing.
But the driver seat had a pull-down inner armrest and provided good support for a nearly four-hour drive.
Dashboard plastics had a quality look. The front passenger folded flat to accommodate long cargo. Rear-seat legroom measures 35.7 inches.
Standard equipment includes Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and streaming audio which is accessed via a sizable, color display at the top of the middle of the dashboard, with easy controls also on the steering wheel.
Chevrolet includes its MyLink so, via a smartphone, passengers can access TuneIn and other audio apps.
Unique in the low-priced, small SUV segment, the Trax also comes with OnStar, which, for extra cost, can turn the SUV into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Last month, there were two safety recalls for the Trax, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
One involved 2,295 Trax and sibling Encore vehicles where the steering column assembly housing might make contact the circuit board for the electric power steering and cause a sudden loss of power steering assist.
The other recall involved tire information placards that did not provide the rim size for front and rear wheels, as required.