The plan was simple. Fly into New York City at some ungodly hour, a time when only drunks and degenerates are still awake. Drive to Massachusetts. The wedding, my buddy Jay’s, with whom I grew up in Boy Scouts, started that evening. Drive back to New York. Fly back to LA at 9pm. Land at some ungodly terrible hour, thereby earning my jet-set stripes: from the Best Coast to the Beast Coast, sneering at flyover country the entire way. How trendy!
People were freaking out about the impending blizzard that I was flying into: twenty feet of snow, roads clogged with snowdrifts, cars abandoned in the street, New Yorkers huddled around barrels for warmth. Cats and dogs living together, you know. But it was not to be. By the time our flight landed, the mercury had risen to a positively balmy 35 degrees—any impending doom snow had conveniently turned itself to rain. The sort of thing East Coasters just shrug off underneath our Burlington Coat Factory peacoats. It was 5am. The world was aglow in amber, and the air was crisp yet warm, and I was landing with probably two hours of sleep—but there was to be no sleep til Brooklyn, so I climbed into the bright orange Trax LTZ AWD and set off.
The Trax is a quiet little thing, for the most part. The engine doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-banger musters 138 slightly frazzled horses. But there’s precious little sound deadening from below. And in the waning hours before the snowplows, every invisible chunk of ice explodes in the wheelwells like a landmine, ka-pinging across the cabin…
There’s an expansive view out of the windshield, coupled with an absurdly upright seating position where your legs will form perfect 90-degree angles, just the way your Catholic schoolteachers intended. But the headlights, for some reason, are painfully dim. And small side mirrors are strangely shaped, and 18-wheelers to disappear in the Trax’s blind spots—somewhere out there is one such truck, headed to Massachusetts, who helped remake Duel within the span of an on-ramp.
The Trax’s steering is full of feedback, building resistance evenly, a pleasant surprise. So too is the ride, nicely controlled and cushy. You can shift your own gears, but you wouldn’t want to. The Hydra-Matic 6T40 automatic moves slowly through six gears, via a dorky button on the side of the shifter: all the power and control, in your thumb! GM loves that, for some reason, in the Trax’s only transmission. Rowing your own is so passé.
For smartphone obsessives, there is one USB port tucked away in the upper glovebox. There’s no good place to put your phone where you can see it. This is a problem, because Chevy’s MyLink runs navigation from a smartphone app. It’s called BringGo. And it costs 99 cents, which might not seem much, but still smacks of nitpicky hidden fees: “I already paid for the car, now I gotta pay for this?”
The lack of phone visibility is a strike against the supposedly car-hating #millennials to whom GM must grovel. The rest of the interior is straightforward, yet strangely forced: no armrest, sure, but two weird cubbyholes on either side of the center vents, which look like vents themselves, but are instead destined to store loose change and loose rectangles of Trident gum and not much else. Sonic-ish motorcycle-aping gauges make a welcome appearance. The steering wheel is wrapped in smooth leather, but the seats are faux leather, grippy cloth evidently too plebian for eager-to-impress, moneyed types buying Chevrolet’s cheapest CUV. The Bose sound system, however, is bitchin’—sharp and punchy, especially for 90s hip-hop.
By 8am I was in Carroll Gardens, getting a coffee and a #saturdaymorningbagelrun sandwich with whitefish and smoked salmon, which shall all go on the record, Your Honor. (It was an “everything” bagel. No more questions.) For this urban-hopping business, the Trax is quite good. It’s easy to park and has a great turning radius, both boons to the snowed-in New Yorker who has a full 24-hour weekend solely reserved for standing in line to get brunch—the two-hour wait for the still-hungover Manhattan- or Brooklynite, compounded into various Bennies and unlimited mimosas, an epicurean wonder that lasts until 2pm and a good three meals.
I didn’t have time for this. I still had three good hours of driving, in shaky weather, to get through. So around 10am I jumped back into the Trax and headed up I-95 through Connecticut, where the snow was still falling. But the storm gathered a second wind by Massachusetts, and the fresh powder was racing the snowplows on the freeways—and, truth be told, the Trax doesn’t inspire very much confidence when the snow starts falling…
The front wheels tug at every little bit of slush, following like an excited bloodhound, and the steering wheel pulls accordingly. The AWD system is fairly rudimentary, sending half the torque to the rear wheels only when needed. (At $1,500, it’s Chevrolet’s cheapest AWD option.) LTZ also adds heated seats. So even if one were to buy a Trax as a winter beater, as I suspect an adolescent New Englander will in ten years to deliver pizzas to used-car lots, one minor detail prevents it from being weather-ready: the wipers don’t flip up. I readily noticed this when pulling into a parking lot of Harrington Farm, in the foothills of Wa-Wa-Wachusett Mountain, packed full of Subarus with their blades turned skyward like anti-aircraft guns. How more New England does that get?
“We ah gathahed heah today,” said the officiant, “heaht to heaht, foah the union of Jess and Jay—” Jay, it must be noted, had become an Eagle Scout with me, who once owned a Pontiac GTO and a Subaru Legacy Spec B, in that order. I’m never going to own anything front-wheel drive, he swore over margaritas the week before. That to me sounded like a good goal to have—to have and to hold, in sickness and in health.
The next day, I drove back to New York. I filled up on the way back and found 24 miles per gallon, most of which was bounding down freeways. (The AWD Trax is rated at 24/31 mpg, city/highway.) That’s what happens, I suppose, when Connecticut drivers will curb-stomp you below 75mph while the AWD system adds 400 pounds to a car resembling a squishy shoebox.
That Sunday night, I flew on a redeye to Los Angeles. (“JFK->LAX: #TodaysOffice,” and all that.) The next day, the real blizzard hit.
Before I left, I eyeballed the sticker on my LTZ, AWD Trax: $27,995.
Twenty-eight thousand Tricky Dick Fun Buxx for a plasticky, uncharismatic Sonic that resembles a children’s toy and deserves to be $5,000 cheaper, at most—that’s what it comes down to. That’s what you get for over $300 per month. It just so happens that immediately after my time with the Trax, two other young, #hip, #activelifestyle #millennials spent time with it. Jablansky drove a red one. Patrick George of Jalopnik drove an orange one. The exact same one as me, down to the window sticker, but Texas-plated. “You can do better,” George noted, before concluding: ” I’m sure the Trax will sell in respectable numbers, possibly even great ones. But I can’t say it’s a great choice to make.”
Jablansky spoke in similar terms. “Gutless,” he said, “and way overpriced. The Trax is dumpy, like a summer camp girlfriend: she’s durable but kind of flimsy. But Becca didn’t have AWD.”
We all know the refrain, from our mouths to God’s ears: “there are no bad cars anymore.” No, there are no bad cars: twenty, thirty years ago, the only people brave enough to drive a Korean-built car through a snowstorm would be serial killers, presumably on the way to their next victims. But believe me, there is plenty of mediocrity, sheer and yawning mediocrity, and plenty of mediocre cars that leave no impression in its users, nothing particularly negative and certainly nothing positive. Mediocrity is the enemy of the car enthusiast, but it is also the bane of the daily driver. It is insidious to spend the second most amount of money anyone will shell out in a lifetime, on a car that doesn’t do anything particularly well.
Competent but never confidence inspiring, the Trax reflects the notion that sometimes, mediocrity is more expensive than you ever expected.