Make no mistake, this jacked-up Barina-based city soft-roader is a crucial car for the Lion brand as it makes a madcap chase to become the number one-selling car company in the nation by 2020, three years after it ends local manufacturing of the Commodore and Cruze. Small SUVs are, after all, one of the few areas of the market showing positive growth right now.
This new engine makes the same 103kW of power as the carryover non-turbo 1.8 that sits under the bonnet of entry versions, but it also makes 200Nm of torque — up 25Nm — which is crucially available consistently from just 1850rpm all the way up to 5000rpm.
What this means is you get the most out of the engine more often, allowing for peppier response and plenty of low-down oomph to pull up hills or instigate a quick lane-change or overtake.
The new 1.4-litre Holden Trax is available exclusively in high-spec LTZ guise, with a six-speed automatic transmission, priced from $29,990 plus on-road costs. This is $1500 more than the 1.8-litre LTZ, though as well as the better engine it also gets a sunroof thrown in for good measure.
This puts the flagship Trax firmly into the mix against entry versions of much bigger rivals such as the Mazda CX-5 and Nissan X-Trail, though Holden will tell you what it loses in space-for-the-money terms it makes up for in specification.
Of course Holden will still offer a fig leaf to more cost-conscious buyers by continuing both LS and LTZ versions with the 1.8-litre engine priced from $23,990.
Of course, much about the Trax is already familiar. There are no changes to the range here beyond the new engine and the re-calibrated automatic transmission to which it is exclusively paired, so let’s begin with that.
We found the existing 1.8 version to be a little thrashy and asthmatic, despite it producing its 175Nm from a not overly high 3800rpm. The Trax is one of the heavier contenders in the class, however, which naturally affects fuel use and NVH levels, and caused the six-speed auto to hunt about for the right ratio, denting smoothness.
Happily, the 1.4 iTi (for Intelligent Turbo Induction) is a better bet. It’s still not the final word in refinement, but it is far less gruff than the circa-1990s 1.8 atmo unit. Its broader spread of torque makes it a more relaxing drive, with the extra punch notable when pushing out of corners, launching an overtake or tackling hills.
There is also little sign of turbo lag, with throttle response always crisp and abetted by a swift kick-down from the self-shifter, which otherwise runs about in the highest ratio it can to curb fuel use. You will rarely see a gearbox cycle through the gears to get to sixth at 70km/h in ore haste than this Australian-calibrated one.
Holden claims combined-cycle fuel use of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres, which is only 0.7L/100km better than the 1.8. But you can bet your bottom dollar the fact that you rarely need to sink the slipper into the gutsier 1.4 means the real-world savings will be higher.
The turbo engine does need 95 RON fuel though compared with the 1.8’s cheaper taste for 91 RON.
That said, with a kerb weight of about 1370kg — 250kg heavier than a Suzuki S-Cross or Peugeot 2008 — the Trax remains a bit of a porker, meaning raw speed is out of the equation. It’s punchy enough, but don’t go equating ‘turbo’ with ‘sport’.
We do have to call out the daft manual-mode too, which is operated by a weird switch on the gear shifter rather than by a more familiar gate or paddles.
As a value equation, the Holden Trax continues to come with a fair list of equipment, though satellite-navigation is an omission we’d like to see amended. BringGo nav which uses your smartphone's internet connection is synced with the MyLink infotainment system, but you’ll have to shell out for it in up-front and data usage costs. (See full pricing and specifications here).
Standard kit includes 18-inch alloy wheels, the aforementioned MyLink with seven-inch touchscreen, embedded Pandora, Stitcher and BringGo apps, iPhone Siri eyes free mode, Bluetooth and USB audio connectivity, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio control, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, driver's arm-rest, sunroof, heated front seats, front fog-lights, a trip computer and a storage tray under the front passenger seat.
All versions also get six airbags and a five-star ANCAP rating.
The cabin has much to like: the MyLink system is extremely intuitive and clever, the app integration is market-leading at this price point and the Bluetooth pairs up in a heartbeat. The Sportec (vinyl) front seats are actually not at all nasty, but rather soft and comfortable, and the ergonomics pretty spot-on.
However, the Holden Trax is not what you would call premium. It wears its Barina origins on its sleeves, though nice touches such as a more finely-resolved motorbike-inspired instrument panel add some glitz, and the big door pockets improve practicality.
Still, the mismatched plastics have a somewhat cheap feel, there are plenty of scratchy surfaces (that said, they’re bound to be easy to clean) and small touches such as the dashtop cubby lidded with a flimsy cover create the perception that this car is very much built to a price.
Winning points back is the spacious rear seat bench that folds 60:40, which offer plenty of head and legroom for full-sized adults, and slightly loss foot room beneath the front seats. There are also plenty of hidey holes like those that flank the fascia, and four big cup-holders up front.
We also like the 240V socket in the rear, though need to deduct points for the lack of rear vents.
It’s also vital these mini SUVs offer more than just a higher ride height than the city cars on which they are based. The Holden Trax has a bigger boot than the Barina’s – 76 litres extra for 356L (which more than triples again with rear seats folded).
That’s slightly more than the EcoSport’s boot (346L), but is also plenty of litres short of the 2008 (410L), ASX (416L), S-Cross (430L) and Qashqai (430L as well).
Because the 1.4 engine weighs almost the same as the 1.8, Holden has left the suspension and damper tune unchanged. The front/rear suspensions setup remains a MacPherson strut up front and a Compound Crank Axle,
Holden says the rear axle mounting bushes were tuned locally to reduce interior noise on course chip road surfaces, this being a prominent feature of Australian roads. The front struts and rear shocks were also tuned locally.
Despite their low-profile 18-inch wheels wrapped in premium 215/55R Continental tyres, relatively little noise permeates through the cabin — certainly less than some small SUVs we’ve driven.
Likewise, the ride makes up for the occasional hint of choppiness over rapid-fire corrugations by being very refined in urban conditions, and the firm(ish) damping ensure the car stays surprisingly flat and composed through corners without being thrown off-course by imperfections.
To simplify, it’s a much better handler than you might think.
Furthermore, its sharpened electric steering (Holden removed the dead spot on-centre for our tune, giving faster turn-in and more immediate response) plus the Trax’s stiff bodyshell and what feels like a well-balanced chassis, makes this a pretty sharp little tool through the twisty stuff.
As with all Holdens, the Trax is also cheap to own and run. Each of the first four annual services (or up to 60,000km) will cost $185 a pop.
So then, the 1.4 Trax LTZ does exactly what we’d hoped it would. The price premium over the 1.8 LTZ pitches this car perilously close to $30k, and the cabin remains a little low-rent, but as an all-round driving experience it’s a sharper yet more comfortable and quiet tool than many, and offers good levels of practicality and style to boot.