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2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer first drive: The name returns but the small crossover marks its own path

July 13, 2020

The 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer blazes no new trail but it reorients Chevy for the modern crossover era. 

For those of a certain beautiful age (yes, you are), the Trailblazer may evoke the rough-and-tumble days of pickup truck-type SUVs such as the Ford Bronco, or in its later days, a 4Runner wannabe. 

Forget all that. What once grew out of the Blazer at the turn of the century, is now smaller than the Blazer, which returned for 2019 after spending 14 years lost in the automotive wilderness. And much like the revival of the Blazer and the forthcoming Ford Bronco and the forthcoming GMC Hummer, the return of the Trailblazer evoked the lofty speculation and fantastic hype. When the baby Blazer debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment over yet another small crossover. 

The five-seater with a pair of three-cylinder engines and available all-wheel drive squares off against the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Hyundai Kona, Kia Seltos, and so many other smalls. Even within Chevy’s lineup, small crossover shoppers can choose between the unremarkable Trax and the more ambitious, slightly larger Trailblazer. Starting at just under $20,000 and reaching toward $30,000 the Trailblazer tracks a more ambitious path than the entry-level Trax, which Chevy says will still be offered. For now. Every automaker has at least one small crossover, does Chevy really need two? Does the Equinox make it three?

My skepticism was short-lived. The Trailblazer is a good car, more functional than the Trax and more attractive than the Equinox. 

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Styled after the larger Blazer, the baby Blazer wears rounded black cladding over the wheel arches and along the bumpers and rockers. Every small crossover follows the Subaru Outback’s lead on this one, and many of them are overdone, like the Hyundai Kona and Kia Seltos. Balance blesses the Trailblazer. Engineers pushed the wheels to the corners like a large sedan, yet the broad nose and steep front fascia looks like a truck. Add integrated fog lights and the suggestion of a front and rear skid plate then ruggedness be thine, Trailblazer. Narrow LED headlights give it some Dirty Harry menace and wrap around to a body line that drops at the rear door into the rear wheel. Integrated roof rails and integrated rear spoiler box off the rear like an SUV.  

The melding of design influences didn’t stick out in one particular way, but the boxy edges dwarfing subtle curves cut a handsome shape on my suburban street. There’s nothing great about it, no singular stunning element, but altogether it’s both sporty and refined, muscular but curvy, balanced yet distinct. 

LT tested

Available in five trims, the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer gives shoppers several compelling options. 

I had the mid-grade LT trim with the uprated 1.3-liter turbo-3 engine and all-wheel drive. It was $26,595 including $995 destination, but topped out at $28,180 with options.  The LT model came with automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, active lane control, automatic high beams, and Chevy’s Teen Driver safety reporting system. Convenience features included heated front seats, keyless entry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. 

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

The Blazer’s influence carried over inside. Shod in black soft touch materials with cloth seats and chrome accent pieces, the interior felt modestly refined. The hard plastic handles and dash pieces common in other models were replaced in the Trailblazer with a solid upper dash and softer, textured lower dash. Chrome-framed vents and trim pieces add a classy, thoughtful touch.  

Able to fit four adults in comfort, the Trailblazer is both well packaged and well equipped. My daughter’s goalie hockey bag easily fit in the cargo area, even while she sat in the 25 cubic feet of cargo space to lace up her skates. By comparison, the Trax has less than 19 cubic feet, same as the Jeep Renegade, and the Honda HR-V has just over 24 cubic feet. That space expands to more than 54 cubic feet with the 60/40-split rear seats folded down, enough to transport items that are 8.5 feet long, according to Chevy. A clever two-tiered storage floor can be notched up to create an even load floor with the seats down, or it can be lowered about three inches above the spare emergency tire for more storage when the seats are up. Side panels can be removed to stow golf bags across the back, while the driver gets a bonus ball for shuttling the entire foursome to and from the course. 

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

These small details are indicative of the thoughtfulness throughout the Trailblazer. Up front, a small shelf above the glovebox lets passengers rest their phones. Twin vents above the 7.0-inch touchscreen headline a neat and orderly center stack. Below the band of controls are USB-A and USB-C ports and a storage pocket large enough for phones, sunglasses, or toll transponders. 

The only part of the packaging that feels cramped is the line of drive buttons between the storage pocket and the gear shifter. The stamp-sized buttons are not inconvenient, but the orange light that indicates if the feature is active is as small as a grain of sea salt and dim enough to only notice at dark. Icons in the instrument cluster remind you of their existence.

Turbocharged three-cylinder

Behind the wheel, the Chevy Trailblazer meanders along the trail more than blazing one. The 1.3-liter turbo-3 engine in my tester marked a $1,400 upgrade over the pokey turbocharged 1.2-liter inline-3. On paper, the 1.3-liter’s 155 hp and 174 pound-feet of torque available at 1,600 rpm isn’t much greater than the 137 hp and 166 lb-ft of the 1.2-liter. Mashing the pedal at onramps delivers enough power to pass a semi, but it’s built more for efficiency than power. It can be buzzy at highway speeds, but with a 9-speed automatic exclusive to the 1.3-liter with all-wheel drive it rides smooth and shifts expectedly. It also gets an EPA-rated 28 mpg combined, which is 4 mpg more than the 1.4-liter Chevy Trax with AWD. It’s also two seconds quicker to 60 mph, according to Chevy. 

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Performance is not the Trailblazer’s forte. Sport mode delays shift points for a slightly punchier feel, but those three cylinders are content on going, not going fast, like the Three Blind Mice. 

Most small crossover shoppers value these other qualities, as well as the The Chevy Trailblazer rides high, even with the 10-way power adjustable driver seat in the lowest position, and there is excellent forward vision through the steep, broad windshield. The dull steering can feel like directing a boat at low speeds, and on turns the Trailblazer has enough body roll to fit right in at the beach.  

These minor quibbles don’t diminish the overall impression cast by the 2021 Trailblazer. 

The proportions, packaging, features, and design make the Trailblazer easy to recommend. That goes much further than any hype.


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