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2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer Test Drive Review
A new small crossover SUV sourced from South Korea, the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer offers stylish design and plenty of technology at an affordable price.
Concluding that it cannot compete for a shrinking share of the traditional car market, Chevrolet is going all-in on SUVs. The new 2021 Chevy Trailblazer is the latest addition to the automaker’s sport-ute lineup, slotting in beneath the popular Equinox as a new entry-point for younger and more cost-conscious consumers. It comes in L, LS, LT, Activ, and RS trim levels, the latter three available with an optional all-wheel-drive system.
Look and Feel
Patterned after the larger Blazer midsize crossover SUV, the subcompact Trailblazer is a handsome little thing. Adopting traditional cues like dark gray plastic trim around its entire lower perimeter, and copying the Hyundai Kona’s stacked triple front lights and the Kia Soul’s optional two-tone paint schemes, the Trailblazer’s styling is immediately likable.
Our test vehicle had Activ trim, which equips the Trailblazer with a more rugged appearance including front and rear skid plate trim for the bumpers, unique 17-inch aluminum wheels, “sport terrain” tires with all-season tread in the middle and knobby all-terrain-style tread on the outer edges, a larger grille, and standard two-tone paint.
Equipped with all-wheel drive (AWD) and the Convenience, Technology, and Driver Confidence option packages, our Trailblazer Activ window-stickered at $30,580, including a destination charge of $995. It had Mosaic Black paint, a Summit White roof, and Jet Black leatherette seats with Arizona (bronze) cabin accents.
Interior design is excellent, from the control layout and displays to the useful storage and natty detailing. In particular, we liked the white-stitched charcoal-colored cloth used on the door panels and to accent the seats; it reminded us of something Volvo would employ.
There is, however, plenty of hard shiny plastic inside of the Trailblazer. While this is acceptable at the SUV’s base msrp of $19,995, once the cost climbs past $30,000 it is harder to justify. At a minimum, Chevrolet needs to coat it with a matte finish. Or something.
A turbocharged 1.2-liter 3-cylinder engine is standard in the front-wheel-drive Trailblazer L, LS, and LT. It makes 137 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque and is offered only with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
All other versions of the SUV get a more powerful drivetrain featuring a turbocharged 1.3-liter 3-cylinder engine good for 155 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque. And when you opt for AWD, the CVT is swapped out for a 9-speed automatic.
That’s right: three cylinders. It sounds dire, but in use, the Activ AWD’s powertrain is agreeable. The torque kicks in at a low 1,600 rpm and is available all the way to 4,000 rpm, and it twists the steering wheel in your hands a bit unless you activate the AWD system by pressing the button on the center console. The 9-speed automatic supplies fast, smooth gear changes during part-throttle acceleration, and choosing Sport mode quickens the SUV’s responsiveness.
A Trailblazer is not going to win any drag races, but it supplies enough power under most driving conditions to keep the Trailblazer from holding up traffic. After a tight left-hand curve followed by an uphill section of the road, it labored to gain speed. Later, during a freeway climb up a mountain grade, the transmission held a lower gear and easily maintained speed. And turbocharging is always a benefit in vehicles used at altitude in places like Denver.
On the testing loop, the Trailblazer Activ AWD averaged fuel economy of 26.6 mpg, coming in a little short of the official EPA rating of 28 mpg in combined driving. This result is not due to aggressive driving, because while the Trailblazer exhibits excellent roll control, nicely weighted steering, perfectly calibrated brakes, a rather firm but unfiltered ride, and decent grip, it is not a vehicle that encourages rapid transit from where you are to where you want to be.
There are plenty of quirks to the Trailblazer’s driving dynamics. For example, in Normal mode, the transmission hesitates before delivering a downshift when the driver requests more power. Choosing Sport mode resolves this.
On-center steering feel is rather disconnected, and as you come to a halt it can suddenly go light and slack. This is not a danger, just a characteristic that regularly calls attention to itself.
Suspension impact harshness is a real issue with the Trailblazer, especially over sharper bumps and holes in the road. While the ride is firm, the little Chevy required extra care when traveling over speed humps, lest the front suspension fully extend with a loud “boom!” We had to keep speeds down a full 10 mph compared to a Nissan Rogue Sport.
Though it looks the part of an off-roader, the Trailblazer Activ is best kept to the gravel roads on which Chevy claims it excels. As we discovered during a quick jaunt on a short trail, care is necessary even with the Activ model’s underbody skid plate and improved ground clearance.
Also, if you spend lots of time on the freeway, know that the Trailblazer is loud inside. You might wish to examine the Trailblazer’s corporate twin, the Buick Encore GX, instead, which is “QuietTuned” to make the drive more enjoyable.
Form and Function
Some people prefer cloth seats. They’re nicer during the winter, for example. But Chevy only offers cloth seats with L and LS trim, which means you can’t get that material with the more powerful engine or with AWD. Bah.
The leatherette is nice enough, but this material tends to trap sweat. And since our test vehicle’s automatic climate control system had trouble keeping the Trailblazer’s cabin cool, we were never completely comfortable. Especially when the automatic engine stop/start system turns on, the AC immediately goes limp. But even when driving, it cycles between tepid air and cold air.
Our discomfort was no fault of the front seats. They’re fine, especially given the test vehicle’s 10-way power adjustment for the driver. And, though the front passenger seat lacks height adjustment, it provides good support.
The Trailblazer’s rear seat is another story. Though it is roomy for legs and feet, the cushion is as flat as a park bench and, in combination with an oddly reclined backrest position, the back seats are as welcoming as a bus stop shelter. Make that a bus stop shelter in Phoenix, in July, given the lack of air conditioning vents for rear passengers and the system’s overall tepid performance.
On a positive note, that flat back cushion translates into a flatter cargo floor when the seats are folded down. Doing so expands the cargo space from 25.3 cubic feet to 54.4 cubic feet, which is on par for the small SUV segment. Plus, the front passenger’s seat folds down, giving the Trailblazer 8.5 feet of cargo-toting length with the rear hatch closed.
Just keep in mind that the trunk measurement must include the space under the cargo floor. Otherwise, it makes no logical sense.
Two different infotainment systems are available in the new Trailblazer. The first is equipped with a 7-inch touchscreen display, simultaneous Bluetooth pairing for two smartphones at the same time, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, SiriusXM satellite radio, Teen Driver parental driving report card technology, and Chevrolet Connected Access services (subscription required) with a WiFi hotspot.
That’s a pretty good setup, but the upgraded version offered as an option for the Activ and RS trims is even better. It includes a larger 8-inch display plus wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, SiriusXM 360L satellite radio, and cloud-connected vehicle personalization functions.
Additionally, the Trailblazer offers both USB-A and USB-C charging ports, wireless smartphone charging, and a 7-speaker Bose premium sound system. Does Chevy have its target market pegged? We’d say so.
Our favorite thing about the infotainment system is the simple, intuitive interface. You don’t need to crack open the owner’s manual to understand this technology, and the row of physical controls represents a model user experience: knob for power and volume, flanked by tuning buttons, with Back and Home buttons anchoring either end. Perfection.
Our test vehicle also had the Bose premium sound system, which, once cranked up to half volume, was able to drown out the road racket, wind noise, and constantly blowing air conditioning fan.
Chevrolet also loads the Trailblazer up with standard safety features. In addition to 10 airbags, this SUV includes standard Chevy Safety Assist, the new name for the company’s collection of advanced driving assistance systems.
The Trailblazer includes forward-collision alert with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and a safe following distance indicator. Also, let’s not forget the standard rear-seat reminder system, Teen Driver technology, or subscription-based automatic collision notification service. And, depending on the trim level, you can opt for a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert and lane-change assistance, a high-definition version of the standard reversing camera, and adaptive cruise control.
Whew! That’s a ton of safety tech. So, how does it work?
While driving through a tight, sun-dappled S-curve near Santa Barbara, Calif., the forward collision warning mistook something for an obstacle ahead. Otherwise, it remained silent.
Later, on the 101 freeway, the adaptive cruise control revealed itself to be both over- and under-reactive. On the medium gap setting, when another vehicle changed lanes in front of the Trailblazer, the SUV would brake too much, irritating drivers piling up behind it. And when traffic ahead cleared, the SUV was slow to respond and accelerate back up to the pre-set speed.
Also, we found the lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist system to be inconsistent, letting the Trailblazer wander from a lane at times with a warning or corrective steering.
As this review is published, the jury remains out as far as crash-test ratings are concerned. With impressive performance on this front, the rating for the Safety section would improve.
With the 2021 Chevy Trailblazer, you do get plenty of style and technology in a decent-to-drive crossover SUV. Plus, Chevrolet includes your first maintenance visit free of charge and provides one month of free WiFi service, which is better than the proverbial kick in the teeth.
However, when you stack the Trailblazer up against arguably more appealing vehicles like the Hyundai Kona and Kia Seltos, each of which offers significant value and superior performance, the Chevy’s cost-effectiveness quotient suffers dilution. Even the Toyota C-HR includes two years or 25,000 miles of free maintenance, while other automakers are more generous with free trial periods to connected services and such.
Nevertheless, the all-new Trailblazer is a better vehicle than the aging Trax and will no doubt find favor with people seeking an affordable SUV with an “Activ” lifestyle image.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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