Chevrolet already has a tiny crossover in the subcompact space called the Trax, and while it’s not exactly a looker, it has seen respectable sales over the years. As the crossover boom marches on, Chevy believes there’s room for another small crossover with a bowtie to be sold alongside the Trax. Enter the 2021 Chevy Trailblazer.
Unlike the last time a Trailblazer graced Chevrolet dealerships, this new version isn’t a truck-based SUV, and there will be no Corvette-engined SS model in its future. Instead, similar to the reimagined Blazer, Chevy has repurposed one of its older names and slapped it on a vehicle wholly different than the one it’s named after. In this instance, that’s totally fine. We hold no special love for the original Trailblazer, and reusing the name could help this little ute get out of the gate with a spring in its step thanks to a small bit of customer name recognition.
The new Trailblazer is positioned in size between the Trax and the Equinox. In base trim, it’s 5.9 inches longer than the former and 9.6 inches shorter than the latter. It doesn’t look much larger than a Trax, and an Equinox dwarfs it in person. Similar to how Mazda has the small CX-3 and slightly larger CX-30, Chevy now has the small Trax and the slightly less small Trailblazer. It rides on a platform shared with its new Buick contemporary: the Encore GX, not to be confused with the Trax-based Encore. The Trailblazer and Encore GX share plenty underneath the sheetmetal, but per usual, the Buick is positioned as the premium option for mature adults while the Trailblazer is meant to be the youthful, adventurer’s car with its sporty-looking RS trim and faux off-road Activ trim.
Most of the time in this segment, the powertrain story is clearcut and simple. That’s not the case with the 2021 Trailblazer, as Chevy offers customers two different three-cylinder turbocharged engine options. The base engine is a 1.2-liter, and it produces 137 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. Chevy’s upgrade is a 1.3-liter that makes 155 hp and 174 lb-ft. Both engines come standard with front-wheel drive, in which case you get a CVT. All-wheel drive is available, but only paired with the 1.3-liter and hooked to a traditional nine-speed automatic transmission. So on top of two engine choices, the Trailblazer also features two transmissions.
We’d assume that the 1.2-liter would be the more efficient option seeing that it has less power and is a fraction smaller, but that assumption would be wrong! With front-wheel drive, the 1.2-liter Trailblazer is rated at 28 mpg city, 31 highway, and 29 combined. Jump up to the more powerful 1.3-liter with front-wheel drive, and the numbers are 29/33/31. Add all-wheel drive and the nine-speed auto to the equation, and fuel economy drops to 26/30/28. More power and better fuel economy is a win-win, but Chevy makes folks pay for it — the cheapest Trailblazer is $19,995; the cheapest front-drive 1.3-liter is $25,955. The 1.3-liter’s eco advantage comes from its electric turbo wastegate, electric oil pump, electric brake booster and offset crank. Even so, the Trailblazer at its best gets slightly better fuel economy than the most efficient Trax, which is a big plus for the larger vehicle.
The Trailblazer’s exterior styling is also a massive improvement over the Trax’s lumpy-potato-on-stilts look — Chevy designers told us they were given a fairly long leash to go nuts compared to other design projects. It resembles the Blazer with its thin running lights tucked up by the hood and upright, bold grille. Its design changes drastically depending on the trim level, with the RS and Activ trims the standouts — the L, LS and LT trims all look the same save for different wheels.
Similar to other RS trims from Chevy, this one is a styling package. It looks cool, but the RS is not inherently sportier than any other trim. That’s not the case with the Activ trim, which gets retuned shocks for better ride comfort on dirt, gravel and rougher terrain. It also gets special 17-inch wheels with “sport terrain” tires meant to appear tougher but maintain a regular all-season tread design for on-road comfort. Finally, there’s a smidge more ground clearance in front thanks to a restyled bumper, and Chevy added a little underbody protection. Those few tangible, mechanical changes are more than we expect from anybody besides Jeep in this class.
A 2021 Trailblazer Activ showed up in our driveway for a one-day test, and we were pleasantly surprised by its sharp looks. The contrasting white roof and mirror caps help, but it’s the sculpting down the sides, stylish LED lights, raked rear window and shape of the rear hatch that have us nodding in approval. Few tiny crossovers look legitimately good, but this one has enough style and character to stand out. On top of that, there’s nothing about the design that truly offends like the Toyota CH-R or Ford EcoSport.
Stepping inside is like hopping into the driver’s seat of most Chevy crossovers. All the black plastic switchgear is typical GM fare, meaning it's rather uninspiring to look at, but doesn’t feel cheap or especially low-rent. The Activ has some nice touches like a neat cloth pattern on the front doors and brown-painted dash trim. The RS gets a flat-bottom leather steering wheel and red interior accents.
The Trailblazer can be loaded up with all the tech we expect from a car these days. A seven-inch infotainment touchscreen comes standard, and an eight-inch is optional. Both feature wireless Apple CarPlay (that works quickly and easily) and wireless Android Auto, but can also accept a traditional wired connection. Those who use the wireless functionality (new for GM this year) will find the wireless phone charging pad handy, letting them store the phone in a cubby ahead of the shifter. The dash isn’t fully digital, but a small screen between the tach and speedo can cycle through a number of informational readouts.
The 10-way power seat in the Activ allows for a long range of movement and would be suitable for drivers much larger than your author’s 5-foot-10 frame. Those front seats are comfortable enough but don’t offer much support from the bolsters. Sitting in the back is pleasant from a pure space perspective with 39.4 inches of rear legroom (0.5 inch less than an Equinox), but it’s a step back in luxury. Fancy painted trim and accents don’t make it back here, but at least Chevy provides a couple USB outlets for backseat riders. Cargo space is impressive at 25.3 cubic-feet behind the second row and 54.4 cubic-feet with the seats down. That’s well ahead of the Trax and just behind the Equinox in maximum utility. The Trailblazer’s passenger seat also folds flat for extra-long items.
But will you enjoy driving all of your things around? Yes and no. Enthusiasts will be bored by the Trailblazer’s driving characteristics. The muted three-cylinder sadly doesn’t sound like much from the driver’s seat. And it’s fairly blah off the line, even with the 1.3-liter, nine-speed auto and all-wheel drive. Chevy doesn’t quote a time, but our butt dyno suggests a 0-60 of about 8.5 seconds. A not-insignificant amount of lag between foot down and forward thrust is to blame for some of its laziness.
There are a few drive modes: Normal, Sport, Snow and AWD. You’ll want AWD and Sport for spirited driving — requiring a button press to activate all-wheel drive still seems silly when most cars are able to figure out the most efficient method of doling out power on their own, but this is normal for GM crossovers. Sport mode lets the revs hang for too long after a quick blast up to speed with the nine-speed auto. The shifts come quickly enough to not be frustrating, but it’s not the smoothest transmission in any situation. This might be one situation where a CVT wouldn’t be so bad, but we haven’t yet gotten behind the wheel of a CVT-equipped Trailblazer to find out.
We can’t speak to the handling and ride characteristics of anything but the Activ (all other trims have different damper tuning), but this one errs on comfort over everything else. The steering is slow and numb, and the Trailblazer’s body motions don't encourage backroad fun. It’s not cumbersome, but it’s no Mazda CX-30. These comfort-tuned dampers do a swell job of making the Trailblazer ride better than expected, though. Rough city streets are handled with aplomb, and it does a bang-up job making sure harsh impacts don’t intrude into the cabin. We sent it down some dirt roads with similar results, noting that it was plenty comfortable and sopped up imperfections better than we’d expect from a car with its size and wheelbase. If a comfortable ride is your priority, go for the Activ. We imagine the others will be a tad sharper in the twisties, but there’s no way the little crossover will be mistaken for something sporty.
Unlike most cars we write First Drive reviews for, the Trailblazer is on sale already. It’s priced from $19,995 for the rental-spec L trim, and spans all the way up to $27,895 for the RS or Activ. Our loaded test car stickered for $30,580. At that price, we’re hard-pressed to want anything other than the CX-30, though it’s worth noting that the Mazda is not as utilitarian as the Trailblazer. A Kia Seltos, Hyundai Kona and Subaru Crosstrek should likewise be in the pint-size crossover conversation. From a pure styling perspective, the Trailblazer stands out. The three-cylinder is unique, too, but unfortunately adds nothing to the driving experience.
So the Trailblazer isn’t trailblazing anything in this space. It’s another small crossover that is decent at most things, but doesn’t stand out in any significant way. We like how it rides; we like the tech, and the RS/Activ trims are legitimately desirable packages. But perhaps what’s most important is that Chevy finally has a tiny crossover that’s easy on the eyes.