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Payne review: Re-imagined Chevy Trailblazer takes on class-king Mazda CX-30


Henry Payne   | The Detroit News

The Chevrolet Blazer has been roasted in ... well, a blaze of criticism for not being like the new Ford Bronco. Unlike the wildly anticipated Ford, the mid-size Chevy isn’t sparking passion because it has forsaken its roots as a rugged truck-based SUV.  

Its sibling  — the subcompact 2021 Chevy Trailblazer — is feeling the heat, too. The original 1999 Trailblazer was a premium trim of the Blazer. "We want our old ladder-frame, rugged Trailblazer back," cries the internet peanut gallery.

“Chevy just ruined the Trailblazer name, too,” huffs Top Speed.

“The 2021 Chevy Trailblazer is a total letdown,” stomps Motor Biscuit.

“The Trailblazer nameplate has been used on a unibody crossover instead of a body-on-frame off-roader as it was in its previous iteration,” moans CarBuzz.

I get it. The new Trailblazer is different. Peter Gabriel left Genesis to go solo and who the heck is this Phil Collins guy? Kirstie Alley followed Shelley Long and now "Cheers" is ruined! Drew Carey replaced Bob Barker?

To be honest, I know as much about those cultural earthquakes as I do the old Trailblazer. Which is to say, very little. I never drove one.

So instead of comparing “Trailblazer: The Sequel” to the original, I’m going to compare it to its current competitive set. Namely the Mazda CX-30, the best subcompact crossover I’ve driven.

Because that’s what the Chevy Trailblazer is now: A smaller SUV squeezed between the entry-level Trax and the compact Equinox. With its stylish design and high-tech interior, it’s supposed to whet your thirst for the Blazer, should you covet a $40,000 mid-size ute.

The Trailblazer makes a very compelling case for itself. Indeed, along with the CX-30, my fellow jurors voted the Trailblazer a semifinalist for 2021 North American Utility of the Year.

Consider the high-volume LT trim I’ve been flogging. At $28,180, the all-wheel drive Trailblazer comes nicely equipped, just like the comparable, all-wheel drive $29,195 Mazda CX-30 Premium trim. That’s not something I’m used to.

Starting with the Chevy Traverse I tested back in 2017, the current generation of Chevy sport utilities has been stingy with standard safety features. Features like adaptive cruise-control aren’t standard on a Traverse until you reach the $55,590 High Country trim. Japanese manufacturers like Mazda, Subaru and Honda, on the other hand, have loaded their cars with standard cruise-control, automatic headlights, blind-spot assist and more.

So essential have these features become that Mrs. Payne won’t consider a vehicle unless it has adaptive cruise and all-wheel drive for under $30,000.

Trailblazer has learned the lesson.

While not offering adaptive cruise or blind-spot assist standard (both come standard on the Mazda Preferred trim, and all Japanese/Korean competitors offer at least one of the two standard), the LT offers these important features for just $620 and $345 respectively. That's an affordable complement to standard goodies like lane-keep assist, automatic emergency-braking, automatic high-beams, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and 4G Wi-Fi. Cruising along busy eight-lane I-96, these features quickly become essential to navigate traffic.

Chevy executes handsome interiors with technology shared across model lines as diverse as Cadillac and Corvette.

While I’m drawn to the Mazda’s premium interior with its high infotainment screen and remote rotary-controller, the Chevy’s touchscreen is much more intuitive. Menus are easier to navigate; radio stations easier to store. The attention to detail in both cars belies their subcompact status.

On the outside, I’ve never been a fan of Chevy's too-busy split-grille fascias. But the Trailblazer (along with big brother Blazer) is one of the brand’s more coherent creations. Maybe because Trailblazer is starting to look a lot like Hyundais, which have developed along similar lines with their mid-fascia headlights (upper “eyebrow” lights are running lights). Check out the new Hyundai Venue. Separated at birth.

Upper trims of the Trailblazer get nifty touches like a white Mini Cooper-esque roof (so does Hyundai). But my LT and its sporty, 17-inch wheels looked great.

That said, the Mazda CX-30 is still prom queen with its long nose, swept headlights and elegant lines. Even the overwrought fender cladding (SUV virtue-signaling) didn’t spoil my white tester with its gray 18-inch wheels.

Mazda has also been cream of class in handling; I flogged it with the confidence only a BMW X1 can rival. But GM engineers have developed a disciplined cross-brand culture of tight, lightweight chassis from the best-in-luxe Cadillac CT4 to the lightweight Chevy Silverado to the nimble Equinox.

Trailblazer is no different, and it proved fun to drive as I lake-hopped across Oakland County from Loon to Wolverine to Orchard Lake.

The Chevy’s 155-horse 1.3-liter turbo-3 banger (exclusive with all-wheel drive) can’t rival the Mazda’s 186-horse mill, but the 174 pound-feet of torque (versus CX-30’s 186) is the real value here and pulls like a mule at low revs where you want it. Both engines are attached to buttery transmissions – 6-speed Mazda, 9-speed Chevy.

Loading more bling to go with its zing, my $29,195 CX-30 had a panoramic roof and leatherette seats that the Trailblazer can only dream of. Plus, the Mazda has the best 360-degree safety system (so you can monitor other cars around you) this side of Tesla.

Trailblazer counters with impressive creature-comforts. After all, SUVs are bought for utility first, driving dynamics second. Trailblazer shares with siblings Trax and Buick Encore one of my favorite interior tricks – the fold-flat front seat. This ingenious tool (when combined with flattened middle-row seats) not only allows the wee Trailblazer to carry long toboggans or surfboards from hatch to glovebox — it’s also is an instant ottoman should you require the rear seat to get work done on a trip.

With three more inches of rear legroom — and 10 more cubic feet of rear cargo — the Chevy is much more accommodating of your friends when you ask them along for some trailblazing.

Speaking of trailblazing, it’s also worth noting how difficult the Trailblazer makes its for the brand’s electric ambitions: For a significant $10,000-plus less, the Trailblazer has 137 more miles of range than an equivalent $39,790 Chevy Bolt EV (396 vs. 259), more cargo room and all-wheel drive for Michigan’s’ long winters.

Nostalgia for old autos is natural. But when compared to the best the current market has to offer in subcompact SUVs and EVs, Trailblazer is a worthy sequel.

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive five-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $19,995, including $995 destination charge ($28,185 AWD LT as tested)

Powerplant: 1.2-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder; 1.3-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder

Power: 137 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (1.2-liter); 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque (1.3-liter)

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission; 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity, 1,000 pounds

Weight: 3,252 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/30 highway/28 combined (as tested)

Report card

Highs: AWD option; good interior room

Lows: Good value, but still lacks standard options offered in competitors

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Mazda CX-30

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger subcompact SUV

Price: $23,000 including $1,100 destination charge ($29,195 AWD Premium as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing capacity, 1,500 pounds

Weight: 3,388 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (as tested)

Report card

Highs: Sharp handling; premium looks

Lows: Heavy black cladding; tight rear legroom 

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.