One of my oldest friends had bid farewell to her husband just weeks prior as he deployed overseas. They’d packed up the apartment in Miami and shipped most of it back to our hometown on California’s Central Coast with the help of the Air Force, but her, the kids, and her car needed to get across the country in the middle of the pandemic. They’d considered flying, but between the health risks and the cost of both plane tickets and shipping the car, she elected to drive. Two kids under seven, a 7-year-old Ford Escape, and 2,500 miles: What could go wrong?
“You’re gonna laugh, but we busted another hose,” read the Facebook Messenger notification on my lock screen. Uh oh. Time to mount a rescue expedition. I hope the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer in my driveway has enough space for three adults, two forward-facing car seats (with kids), and a cross-country move’s worth of luggage.
By the time we got the message, she and the kids were already on the tow truck and headed to a service station in the tiny town of Needles, California, on the Arizona border. It was already late in the afternoon, so we wouldn’t be rescuing them that night, but the Trailblazer was on standby.
The next day was one long holding pattern as the shop diagnosed a blown radiator, not a hose, but promised to have it replaced the following morning. Bed bugs and a 20-minute walk in 115-degree heat with two little kids and luggage wasn’t enough to get her to call in the cavalry. With everything that had gone wrong (did I forget to mention the car had blown a radiator hose in New Mexico, where they also discovered a bad tie rod, and had the rooftop cargo carrier come apart on the highway?), we hatched a backup plan.
The next morning, my wife and I grabbed our masks, hand sanitizer, snacks, drinks, and charging cords, and jumped in the Trailblazer. If the shop fixed her car, fine, we’d turn around. If not, we’d already be halfway there.
Trailblazer Tech and Options
According to Chevy, the Trailblazer, which is a size below the 2013 Ford Escape they were driving, is targeted at people buying Jeep Renegades, Toyota C-HRs, and Honda HR-Vs. The Trailblazer’s adjustable height cargo floor would be invaluable in maximizing space, but the flat-folding rear seats and the optional flat-folding front passenger seat were no good here. On the other hand, the surprisingly huge rear seat would be a godsend with an adult and two child seats back there. But would it be enough, especially on a 4 1/2-hour drive?
More than four hours on the interstate gave me plenty of time to get a read on the Trailblazer. Our tester was a fully loaded “Activ” model—yes, spelled incorrectly without the E—designed to look a little tougher and more off-roady. In addition to “Sport Terrain” Hankook tires (all-seasons with aggressive-looking sidewalls), some underbody protection, and a small lift, it gets a different damper tune that’s supposed to make it more comfortable off-road. To my well-calibrated backside, it simply felt like Chevy firmed up the ride to make it feel more like a truck. Although needlessly stiff, it did absorb big hits pretty well, but you hear them loud and clear. In fact, you hear everything the tires are doing. All the time. It’s too bad because the cabin otherwise does a superb job of keeping out wind and traffic noise.
At $32,995 as tested, it’s considerably more expensive than any of its competitors we recently ranked in our Cheap Wheels small SUV comparison, but at the moment, that was a good thing. It meant we had every bell and whistle at our disposal, and Chevy packed a lot of them into this little thing. Power liftgate, panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, wireless phone charging, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, USB-A and USB-C ports in the front and rear, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights with automatic high beams, a blind-spot warning system, and more were all packed on top of a basic package that includes forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and automatic lane keeping assistance, pedestrian sensing capability, and more standard. The money definitely went places.
The only missing features the comparison test-winning Kia Soul offers, for a lot less money, are multi-zone automatic climate control and built-in navigation. The former is nice to have when you and your spouse live at different body temperatures, but not common in the class. The latter I can only assume isn’t available because Chevy knows you’ll just use Google Maps on your phone anyway.
On the other hand, the Soul starts at $18,610 to the Trailblazer’s $19,995, and judging by manufacturer-supplied photos (and based on experience with entry-level Chevys), the base Trailblazer looks like the cheaper vehicle inside, completely devoid of color and full of button blanks. Up on the top tier trim levels (Activ and RS are two different versions of the highest trim level, one off-road oriented and one sport-oriented), at least, there are some nice contrasting colors and even real accent stitching on the dash. Still, a loaded Soul is $4,400 cheaper than a loaded Trailblazer.
Trailblazer Engine, Transmission, and All-Wheel Drive
Then again, the Soul doesn’t offer all-wheel drive (AWD) like our Trailblazer has—a $1,500 option. Getting both the AWD and the Activ trim level also meant we got the strongest engine, a 1.3-liter turbocharged inline three-cylinder paired to a nine-speed automatic instead of the standard continuously variable transmission. With 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft. of torque, it outmuscles everything in that comparison test, and you’d be totally forgiven for thinking it’s quicker than it is. This three-banger is a salty little thing.
After a beat of turbo lag and a noticeable amount of vibration just off idle—three-cylinders are naturally unbalanced and tuning-out all the vibrations is expensive and robs power—the boost rushes in, and there’s healthy low-end and mid-range torque that makes the car feel punchy and responsive. It runs out of breath on the top end, and the computer will never let you get within 1,000 RPM of the noted redline, but the gear ratios are neatly spaced and drop you right back into the torque with an upshift.
You don’t notice how slow the car actually is until you floor it getting on the freeway or try to make a pass at freeway speeds. Chevy estimates an 8.7-second 0-60 time, and it seems very optimistic. Our test facility is still closed due to the pandemic, but an unscientific stopwatch test registered more like 10 seconds. Even assuming human fallibility, 9.5 seconds feels like a realistic number. Not quick, but dead center of the competitive set. That’s no thanks to the checkered flag button, which just makes the steering heavier and holds gears longer.
Scooting around town, though, you’d never know it. Once you learn to give it more gas off the line to mask the turbo lag, the Trailblazer zips through city traffic. The nine-speed auto always has the right gear and only once gave us a stiff downshift. Otherwise, it disappears into the background, one less thing to worry about. That allows you to shift some brain power to feathering the brake pedal, which is both unusually firm and a bit grabby until you get used to it.
Although the AWD system does shunt some power to the rear wheels as you take off from a stop, it’s neither a performance system nor rock-crawling hardware. Instead, it’s a traction aid, which helps you get going confidently in slick or steep—or both—conditions. To game the fuel-economy testing for extra CAFE credit, Chevrolet insists on making it selectable via a button by the shifter instead of just having it come on automatically when needed like every other non-GM vehicle on the planet. Instead, it flashes a message to turn it on when the front wheels start spinning. Chevy notes that turning it off saves gas, which is why every other non-GM vehicle automatically turns off AWD when it’s not needed and automatically engages it when it is.
Back to The Story
The new radiator arrived just as we were leaving the house, but the string of bad luck already encountered told us to keep going, just in case. The closer we got, the better this decision looked. Repairs were taking much longer than promised, with no end in sight. By the time we arrived over four hours later, it still wasn’t done despite the old radiator having been removed the day before in preparation. Showtime.
Hoping against hope the old Ford would be fixed soon, we offered to take the kids off her hands, and she could meet us back at the house later. An overstuffed full-size suitcase and a self-contained travel toilet went in the trunk with a handful of other things, as well as two cars seats in the back. Wide-opening rear doors and well-positioned LATCH points made installing the car seats easy enough. The ample leg room meant the kids couldn’t quite kick the backs of our seats if we scooted just a little farther forward than normal. So far, so good.
Not five minutes down the road, we got the call. The shop couldn’t get the coolant lines to line up with the replacement radiator and were ordering now hoses to be delivered several days later. Back we went to cram an adult into the Trailblazer, too.
Although it wasn’t like having the whole row to yourself on an airplane, shifting the car seats closer to the doors actually made enough room for an adult to sit in the middle without being crushed. Between the wireless phone charger and the front and rear USB ports, everyone’s phone was getting charged. A rear A/C vent would’ve been nice for everyone in the back, but all told, no one was unbearably uncomfortable on the 4 1/2-hour ride home across the desert.
An exceptionally high roof was appreciated all around, giving both front and rear passengers a ton of headroom even with the panoramic sunroof, which typically impedes headroom. That and identical squarish windows for everyone gave me abnormally good outward visibility, while the electronic driver aids all worked nicely to ease my drive. I did find the seat bottom cushion a bit short, but no one else was bothered by it, and the seats were otherwise comfortable for the duration of the impromptu road trip. Tire noise aside, communicating between the front and back seats was no trouble.
Trailblazer Fuel Economy
More than 10 hours after we left, we pulled into the driveway, three people and a pile of luggage heavier. Between all the people and stuff inside, as well as my propensity to cruise at 80 mph, the car’s self-reported 23 mpg average wasn’t bad even if it was below the EPA estimates, which are on the low end of the competitive set at 26/30/28 mpg city/highway/combined with AWD and 28-29/31-33/29-31 mpg without. The most efficient car in that comparison got 31/36/33 mpg, for context.
Should You Buy A Trailblazer?
The conclusion of our crossover comparison test was an easy call: The Soul was head and shoulders over the Nissan Kicks, Hyundai Venue, and Toyota C-HR (in that order). Where might the Trailblazer fall if we did the test again? My vote matched the final result of that test exactly, and I’d put the Trailblazer in second. It gets pricey when its fully loaded; it’s missing an option or two; and it can be a little rough and a little loud at times. On the other hand, it’s spacious, pleasant to drive, and offers features like wireless phone casting and AWD the others don’t. Its misses are small, but its wins are big, and Chevy’s hit the segment right on the head.
|2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer AWD Activ|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||1.3L/155-hp/174-lb-ft turbo DOHC 12-valve I-3|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,300 lb (MT est)|
|L x W x H||173.7 x 71.2 x 65.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||9.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||26/30/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||130/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.70 lb/mile|