Good things come in small packages. Good things like pikelets, mini Oreos, Grant Denyer and sub-compact SUVs. Well that’s if my daughter, TV ratings and new car sales are to be believed.
Showing the strongest unit growth of any new car category this year, these high-rise hatchbacks have become the latest ‘must have’ line-up inclusion for many manufacturers.
Keen to see why sub-compact SUVs were becoming so popular, I spent the week with one of the best selling offerings, the Holden Trax…
Based on the Barina, the Trax joined Holden’s range in late 2013. While it seems that Holden’s timing has been right on the money, the Trax isn’t the local manufacturer’s first foray into the category.
Holden tried to get in on the subcompact SUV action back in the 80s and early 2000s with a couple of rebadged Suzukis. Remember the Holden Drover (Suzuki Sierra) and original Holden Cruze (Suzuki Ignis)? Neither does anyone else – which is why the Trax, a GM global model, is a bit of a pleasant surprise.
My first impressions are really good.
The little Holden, with its bright Boracay blue paint and cheerful ‘face’ gives an immediate impression of being a fun car. The dimensions work very well, particularly with our top-spec LTZ’s 18-inch wheels, making it look quite solid and tough … if in a slightly cartoonish way.
Fitting then, that the Trax is used as a Decepticon Transformer in Michael Bay’s latest popcorn explosion orgy – Transformers: Age of Extinction. The Trax might not have the same school yard appeal as a bright yellow Chevrolet Camaro, but changing into a robot is generally considered pretty cool – just ask the Citroen C4.
Inside, the Holden Trax LTZ features leather seats and clear but simple controls. Cost saving is evident, but doesn’t detract from the use of the car. For instance only the driver’s window switch lights up at night, and the main instrument display, featuring a large tachometer dial and monochrome digital display, looks like it was lifted from a motorcycle (which actually suits the Trax’s character rather well). The dashboard and trim materials look good and feel nice enough, and all models feature Holden’s in-dash seven-inch LCD touchscreen with MyLink.
This MyLink version has a much nicer interface than the one in the Holden Cruze and Malibu, and handles control of Bluetooth phone and all audio functions. You can connect a mobile phone to the port in the glove box for internet audio and navigation apps, or even just plug a USB drive in to watch an image slideshow (still not quite sure when this is ever useful) or watch a movie. The up/down tap-buttons and touchscreen slider for volume control is a pain though. Please, car interface designers, rotary dials are better for this – please use them.
As the week progresses, running about town in the Trax is a lot more enjoyable than I expected.
Immediately easy to drive, the chunky little guy rides well, firm enough to feel both direct and comfortable. From school to the office to the shops, the Trax was shaping up to be a fun little urban runabout. Miss Five could climb in and out easily and she loved the touchscreen, particularly the ability to listen to (but not watch) a movie on the way to school.
The much touted Siri ‘Eyes Free’ function that uses a button on the steering wheel to engage voice commands via your iPhone is a nice addition, but far from perfect. There is a long delay between your press and Siri’s answer, and given the nature of voice recognition, dear Siri tends to frustrate more than assist.
My biggest issue was asking for location information and having Siri trigger maps and navigation on the phone, and not through the MyLink navigation app. It is an annoying inconsistency that shows we are still a long way off a completely ‘connected’ car.
In the overall scheme of things though, complaining that my $30,000 car’s voice recognition interpretation was sub par, is pretty much leading the charge when it comes to first-world problems. But still – manufacturers, if you are going to integrate technology, integrate it fully or don’t bother.
Jumping into the Holden Trax to head to regular meetings during the week is an effortless affair. Saying it is fun seems like a stretch, but there was something easy and enjoyable about the Trax. It soaked up everything I threw at it within my usual 10km radius of the CBD.
So with a funky design and lots of equipment, the Trax has plenty to offer but given the diminished size, should this pint size Tonka truck still be called an SUV?
From memory, the first car I recall being referred to as an SUV in Australia was the original BMW X5 back in 1999. Prior to this, any jacked-up wagon was simply called a four-wheel drive. Basically because they were, well, four-wheel drive.
SUV became a lifestyle moniker. It described a vehicle that provided the agility and performance of a road car (sport) coupled with the size and flexibility you needed to enjoy your chosen pursuits (utility).
Years pass, categories diversify, and now we have sub-compacts like the Trax. Are they really true to being an SUV? Lets break it down.
Sport. Powered by a 103kW/175Nm 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, the Holden Trax doesn’t set the world on fire with performance. Don’t get me wrong, it is perfectly adequate around town, and does feel very car like… but is perhaps more sports fan than an actual athlete. We averaged 9.8L/100km for the week, so it’s not the most frugal option either (however, its 7.6L/100km claim would be more acceptable if achieved). Call it a lowercase ‘s’.
Utility. The 356-litre boot is reasonably spacious for day-to-day use and does have some little storage bins on the side, but you wont fit large cases (or a large dog) in there comfortably. The parcel shelf is the solid removable kind, rather than a retractable blind, which can be a pain to store if you regularly travel with pooch in the boot.
The Trax’s ‘adventure’ dynamics are hampered by a long front overhang and low front air dam – making it look cool, but it wouldn’t fare well off the tarmac, regardless of only being front-wheel drive.
Inside materials are hardwearing and durable, making them easy to keep clean. Folding the seats down is a clumsy two-step process where the back bench has to be raised (only if the front seats are far enough forward) to lower the 60/40 split-fold rear. Again, a lowercase ‘u’.
But if the Trax isn’t an SUV by the letter, then what is it? This isn’t a bad car at all, in fact it is very enjoyable to punt around in and as the week wore on I became quite attached.
Perhaps the categories we assign vehicles are just that – categories. Nomenclature for a modern and complex market that helps to identify rather than define.
Take the car on its merits and combine it with your lifestyle pursuits and you have something more inline with fashion than mechanics. There’s even a perfect metaphor for subcompact SUVs: sneakers.
For about $100 you can go out and buy a pair of casual sneakers in almost any configuration you can think of. Sneakers used to be all about sport, but now you can choose to look rugged, athletic or runway, and yet not be particularly good at any of them. But you still buy them and still wear them because you aren’t climbing mountains or modelling Stella every day. Your shoes do a good job of supporting your normal urbane life and help you express who you are and how you want to look.
In this way, the Holden Trax is like my Nike Dunks. Comfy. Cool. Easy to jump into. They look sporty and adventure oriented … but are not. They aren’t even that supportive or remotely waterproof, and that’s never been a problem.
Sub-compact SUV sales are growing, not from capability but from trend. The Trax is part of the new black – a pair of sneakers for the road.
For not much ‘car’ money, I can look sporty and adventurous, feel comfortable and basically go about my day (of not being sporty or adventurous) and feel pretty happy about doing so.
And while the LTZ we tested commands a $28,490 list price, and gets fog lights, a 6-speed automatic transmission, the bigger wheels and some other goodies, the Trax LS is currently available for $24,990 drive-away – with three-years free servicing, a five-year warranty and a $1000 factory bonus. In anyone’s book that’s plenty of value and a good amount of confidence and support to back it up.
So after my week with the Holden Trax, I feel the little guy can earn his capital letters back – not so much as a ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ but as a robust little runabout with plenty of Stylish, Urban, Value.