FIRST DRIVE: CHEVROLET TRAX

CHEVROLET is quick to raise its hand to claim ownership of the SUV concept. Long ago in a galaxy far, far away (let’s call it 1930s America) the company developed the huge off-road capable Suburban, but things have moved on and these days SUVs this side of the Atlantic are a little smaller.

Sales in the sub-compact SUV sector have been booming. You can already buy a Chevrolet compact SUV in the shape of the Captiva, but the spirit of downsizing is strong in Europe and the latest breed of high-riding, good-looking soft-roaders are little longer than superminis.

This sector of the market is the Trax’s back yard, although you wouldn’t guess at a glance. It’s chunky, muscular and imposing, with a deep side profile thanks to low ride height and a high roof line. Frankly it looks brilliant, and certainly bigger than it is. But in reality it slots into parking spaces as easily as a hamster into that gap beneath the sofa.

What Chevrolet has tried to do with the Trax is give buyers maximum value in a product that feels a little bit premium. That comes in several strands, starting with the sort of chiselled looks that endow it with the elusive X(pensive) factor.

Then there’s the sheer amount of space Chevrolet has carved out of the shell. A modest boot is backed up by a huge under-floor storage well that could (and can) hold a spare wheel, with special compartmentalised storage boxes available for the main boot area too. But then inside there are three – yes, three – useful pockets in both front doors, a large open-faced storage bin, two glove boxes, two storage slots on the dashboard, an under-seat drawer and four cup holders. The everyday usefulness of the design is staggering.

Rear passengers get a surprising amount of legroom, too. Even journeys of 150 miles or more are perfectly possible with two adults in the back. An additional touch is the 230-volt power socket between the front two seats, which means kids can take their electronic devices and charge them from the car.

The materials quality is somewhere in the middle of the road. It’s solid enough and premium enough under the fingertips, and although one or two little sections let it down where injection moulding lines are more visible than they could be, it’s unlikely to draw any strong objections.

As for the driving experience, the Trax comes apparently prepared for anything, with four-wheel drive an option and technology like hill descent control designed to ensure a safe journey off the beaten track. But the truth is that the Trax, however many wheels it sends power to, is very much built for the streets. The front skirt is aggressively low and catches on ruts, dips and rocks if you do venture off the beaten track. Chevy would be better to reduce the unnecessary tech and sell the car for less.

The ride is generally good, tuned chiefly for slower suspension movements like those from rolling, uneven yumps in the road. Scarred and pitted surfaces do introduce jiggling and vibrations through the cabin – as with the majority of cars.

At launch there will be a basic 1.6-litre petrol engine and two turbocharged upgrades; a 1.4 petrol and a 1.7 diesel. The latter can trace its roots back to Moses and despite its decent performance it can’t hide just how noisy it is, so the star performer is the 1.4, which has a hearty midrange with a cheeky background growl and returns respectable fuel economy if driven to the in-built gear change indicator.

With the petrol engine the Trax is a thoroughly likeable car for many reasons. It convincingly bridges the gap between practicality and panache, even if some of its electronic off-road gadgetry is superfluous. These days new cars have to stand up to closer scrutiny than ever, and the Trax does so with style.

FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Chevrolet Trax 1.4 LT AWD, £19,795 on the road.
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol producing 138bhp and 147lb.ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual gearbox driving all four wheels (on demand).
Performance: Top speed 121mph, 0-62mph in 9.8 seconds.
Fuel economy: 44.1mpg.
Co2 rating: 149g/km.