Car reviews - Holden - Trax - range
Well-sorted, cosseting ride on 16-inch wheels, good feel from electric power steering, sharply priced
Room for improvement
Lacklustre 1.8-litre engine, manual versions lack a sixth gear, screen resolution on BringGo sat-nav app too fine
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15 Aug 2013
THERE’S a wombat rambling across the road in front of us, almost oblivious to the long line of small soft-roaders banked up as they wait for the small, furry beast to get a wriggle on.
We’re on a dirt road somewhere in the Bunyip State Forest on Melbourne’s outer-eastern fringes, taking the Holden Trax – a plumped-up, Barina-based soft-roader that combines city proportions with country promise – for its first official Australian outing.
Had that wombat bothered to stop and look, it would have noticed a similarly snub-nosed, high-haunched, muscular-looking beast that Holden hopes will attract buyers in one of the most hotly contested new-vehicle segments on the Australian market – city SUVs.
It takes on 14 other nameplates in a part of the market that is growing at a rate of almost 17 per cent so far this year, led by Hyundai’s i30-based ix35.
That means almost one in five new vehicles rolling out of showrooms is a high-riding city car.
It has the looks to attract buyers. But does its front-wheel-drive-only layout, and the legacy of its Barina-sourced origins, give it a rough start?Although based on the Korean-sourced Barina, and showing a strong connection inside, outside the Trax looks like a different beast.
The shovelnose grille sits a lot higher than on the Barina, and opening up the clamshell bonnet reveals the same 1.8-litre four-cylinder powerplant as used in the locally made Holden Cruze buried deep in the engine bay with a huge, suitcase-sized air gap above it.
The Trax’s wombat-eque nose, ironically, was an Australian design adapted for the world. However, while the rest of the world also gets access to all-wheel-drive underpinnings, Trax misses out because we don’t have snow-bound winters, and anyway, pushing drive to the rear wheels as well as the fronts only hurts fuel consumption, courtesy of the extra weight.
Its slab sides are broken up by a black plastic strip running along the Trax’s sills and wheelarches – a common soft-roader trick to make it appear to stand taller than it does – squared-off front- and rear-quarter guards, and a well-defined shoulder running down its side profile.
Inside, it’s a high-riding Barina. Apart from a hill descent control button that helps the Trax creep down steep slopes – like any owner will take this thing seriously off-road – it has all the same small-item hiding holes, including the clever split glovebox that turns the top part into a mobile phone docking station.
The leather-rimmed steering wheel also includes audio and cruise controls.
The Barina tie-in runs to the hard plastics that fill the cabin, and the same motorcycle-style instrument binnacle with its analogue rev meter and digital speedo, but with a binnacle that tries to integrate it with the Trax’s dash rather than let it float free like in the Barina.
The Trax even gets the same Barina-sourced multimedia interface via a seven-inch LCD screen – mounted below the air vents, so the driver’s eye has to move a long way from the road to see it.
It’s an older interface than the one used in the recently launched VF Commodore, but in our eyes it looks a lot better, with a clean, word-based layout rather than using chunky icons.
This was our first sighting of Bringgo, a smartphone-based satellite navigation app that shows up on the Trax’s screen but will cost owners a one-off fee of either $51.99 if they never want to update the maps, or $64.99 if they want the latest roads updated over the lifetime of the service’s use.
It downloads maps to the phone, so doesn’t rely exclusively on the phone’s data connection, but it does integrate a Google search that uses the smartphone’s data connection. It looks sharp and crisp on the Trax’s screen, but its high resolution and small fonts means reading street names and the like is somewhat of a task.
The front seats in both the cloth-coated $23,490 entry-level LS and the leather-clad $27,990 LTZ range-topper are comfortable but narrow, a legacy of the Trax’s skinny stance on the road. In the manual version particularly, you’ll be clashing elbows at times with the front-seat passenger. Not only that, you’ll be groping their thigh each time you grab for the handbrake.
The upmarket LTZ also gets heated front seats, but they only have two settings – off and on – rather than the more common four-setting warmers.
The rear seats are comfortable enough, with plenty of legroom and generous toe room under the front seats. Small-item storage is also generous with a couple of door pockets, although the centre-rear seat is best utilised for its fold-down armrest with integrated cupholders rather than cramming in a fifth passenger.
The rear seats split-fold to turn the narrow, shallow boot space into a more useable area. Thankfully, the extra ride height lifts the soft-touch opening tailgate high, although shorter owners will probably curse the lack of a pull-down strap.
Trax owners get a foldable key with which to start the engine. It is more interesting than what is under the bonnet.
The 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, used globally in GM products in a number of third-world markets and under the bonnet of the entry-level locally made Cruze, carries over the same criticisms in the Cruze.
It produces 103kW of power at 6300rpm, and 175Nm of torque from 3800rpm, meaning it works best with a few revs on board.
As revs build, though, it becomes coarse and noisy. From idle, it feels a bit asthmatic, despite the Trax saving about 100 kilograms of weight compared with the Cruze.
A better option may have been the turbocharged 1.6-litre engine that would have sat under the bonnet of the closely related Opel Mokka, which was due here early next year if it wasn’t for Opel’s lack of faith in establishing a long-term sales foothold in Australia.
Everyone we talked to at Holden repeated the same line: It’s still too early to say whether the loss of the premium Mokka leaves room for a more potent, and more richly appointed Trax.
The lack of low-down torque is more apparent behind the wheel of the five-speed manual version of the Trax, which bogs down from a standing start. The base model has no trip computer, either, so we can’t record its fuel use on test, but on the freeway at 100km/h on our loop through eastern Victoria the engine was sitting at a surprisingly high 2800rpm in fifth gear.
The petrol engine averages 7.0 litres per 100 kilometres when mated to the manual transmission. In contrast, the auto is meant to average 7.6L/100km. On our mainly rural route, we averaged about 8.3L/100km despite a lot of highway running. Incidentally, the six-speed auto keeps the engine humming along at just under 2000rpm at 100km/h.
In some respects, then, the $2200 more expensive automatic is better for the highway, and is also better at hiding the engine’s dearth of low-down pull. It will flick back a gear at the first sign of an incline, but won’t hunt through the range like transmission tunes of old.
As well as that nose, Australian buyers get a ride and handling package tuned specifically for our wide, brown land.
The electrically assisted steering, the automatic gearbox and even the suspension bushes and dampers are unique to our market – as are the tyres.
Holden has fitted the Trax with expensive-for-a-cheap-car Continental ContiPremiumContact 2 tyres in an effort to provide a ride and handling that will suit Australian tastes.
The base-model Trax runs on 16-inch alloys, which provides a much quieter ride than the Trax running on the 18s. Combined with the suspension tweaks, though, both the base and range-topping variants ride exceptionally well, helped by the grippy rubber and a well-controlled bodyroll that is more apparent on the 16-inch rims than on the 18s.
Backing that up is a power steering tune that doesn’t turn the steering wheel into a remote control.
The Trax uses an electric motor mounted on the column to help turn the front wheels, mainly in the name of cost savings but also because it saves weight over a rack-mounted motor.
It feels good on centre, and provides a degree of confidence behind the wheel that is unusual in this class.
Holden may be on a winner with the Trax. It’s cheap, although that is reflected once you jump in behind the wheel, but it offers something its main opposition struggles with – decent roadholding and rolling comfort.
It may be a latecomer to the segment, but the Trax has what it takes to become the trendsetter.
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