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Once upon a time, the Chevrolet Trailblazer was a body-on-frame, midsize SUV. The old-school Trailblazer was a beefy thing, available with a V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. But as shoppers' needs have evolved, so have the SUVs themselves. After more than a decade, the Trailblazer is back in the form of a kinder, gentler, subcompact crossover.
The 2021 Chevy Trailblazer is offered in LS, LT, Activ and RS trims. The Activ is the one pictured here, which has a rugged-ish look, while the RS is a little sportier. Like the Buick Encore GX with which it shares a platform, the Trailblazer is available with either a 1.2-liter turbo I3 and a continuously variable transmission, or a 1.3-liter turbo I3 with either a CVT or a nine-speed automatic. For this review, I'm focusing on the uplevel 1.3T and nine-speed combo.
The Trailblazer is larger than the Chevy Trax, but with its sub-$20,000 starting price, is actually the least expensive SUV in the company's lineup. It shares a lot of its design with its big brother, the Blazer, and to good effect. The dual-port grille and squinty headlights look great, but don't be fooled by what Chevy calls the "simulated" skid plate down below. Still, I like the sculpted hood and I am always here for a two-tone paint scheme. Personally, I think the Trailblazer looks best in RS guise.
Chevy's 1.3-liter I3 is surprisingly perky. Sure, it only makes 155 horsepower, but it's the 174 pound-feet of torque that really helps with acceleration. It comes on early at 1,600 rpm and stays flat until 4,000 rpm, making highway merging almost effortless. The nine-speed automatic transmission is tuned more for fuel economy than anything else, upshifting early to maximize efficiency. During my time with the car, I averaged 29.1 miles per gallon, which is on the better side of the EPA's ratings of 26 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined for this engine.
That's not to say the Trailblazer is fun to drive, though. Get it on backroads and the soft suspension and generous body roll will make you think twice about making any quick directional changes, and it's easy to upset the overall smoothness on uneven stretches of pavement. Then again, nothing in this small SUV class is all that rewarding to drive, save for the Mazda CX-3. I think most folks will find that the Trailblazer does an adequate job day to day, with lots of usable low-end power and easy-to-drive dynamics.
There is a Sport mode in the Trailblazer, which Chevy says changes the transmission's shift logic, giving the steering a heavier feel. This also activates the all-wheel-drive setting -- which is something the driver can turn on and off with a button -- though the difference here is hard to feel. The transmission holds revs a bit longer under aggressive acceleration, but it doesn't really change the Trailblazer's overall demeanor. If you live in a cold-weather climate, a Snow mode makes the throttle less aggressive, potentially resulting in less wheelspin when setting off from a stop.
The Trailblazer comes standard with Chevy's Safety Assist package, which includes forward-collision warning and braking, front pedestrian braking, lane-keeping assist, a following distance indicator and automatic high beams. Adaptive cruise control is part of a $620 package and blind-spot monitoring is part of a separate $345 package. That's weird, considering both those options are standard on the Toyota CH-R. If you want more tech like a hands-on steering assist feature, check out the Kia Seltos. Regardless of their price, the driver assistance features work as advertised, keeping me at a set distance from a lead car, warning me of other vehicles in my blind spot and producing a ding while gently bringing me back into the lane if I start to drift out.
Inside the Trailblazer, a standard 7-inch touchscreen runs Chevy's Infotainment 3 system, but my tester has the upgraded 8-inch screen. It responds rapidly to my inputs and I love how easy and intuitive it is to use. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are here, and with wireless connectivity in upper trim levels. Both the driver and passenger can connect their phones to the system with a nifty dual-Bluetooth interface. Charging is taken care of by USB Type-A and Type-C ports, plus a 12-volt outlet up front. Wireless charging is available, as are additional USB-A and USB-C ports for rear-seat passengers.
Parents will rest easy with Chevy's standard Teen Driver feature, a black box of sorts that records driving behavior when a particular key fob is used, and can even set a speed limiter and prohibit the audio volume from going too high. It's a feature that my rebellious high school self would hate, but the grumpy grown woman I've become takes gleeful joy in knowing younger drivers can't be hooligans.
Much as I like the onboard tech, I'm less impressed by the rest of the Trailblazer's interior. Sure, the materials are mostly fine and I like how much storage space is available, but the design lacks the spunk of the Nissan Kicks, the sophistication of the Mazda CX-3 or the quirky details of the Kia Seltos. What's more, the backup camera quality is middling, though drivers can opt for a high-definition camera as part of a $1,720 technology package (Come on, just make this standard!). Overall, function definitely takes priority over form here.
The Trailblazer's cargo space puts it in the middle of the class, at 25.3 cubic feet behind the second row of seats, expanding to 54.4 cubes when folded. Fold down the front passenger seat and you can accommodate items up to 8.5 feet long, like kayaks or lumber. If you need more space, however, you should look at the Kia Seltos, with 26.6 and 63 cubic feet respectively, or the Honda HR-V, with 24.3/58.8.
The 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer starts at $19,995 including $995 for destination. However, my LT tester ups the starting price to $25,600, and once the options are tacked on, I'm looking at $28,180 including destination. For that price I can get a nicely equipped Kia Seltos or Honda HR-V, or I can get a loaded Nissan Kicks with nearly $7,000 to spare.
The Trailblazer is a nice addition to the subcompact SUV segment with its lively powertrain and bold exterior styling. But considering how well-rounded so many of its competitors are, unfortunately for the Trailblazer, that might not be enough.