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Cheap SUV Comparison Test: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer vs. Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30

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  6. Cheap SUV Comparison Test: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer vs. Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30

Want a cheap SUV that’s shiny and new and you won’t be sick of after a couple of years?

Kia Seltos Full Overview

How do you do, fellow kids? Yes, we know, it’s really hard to become an adult these days. Jobs are scarce, and America is hemorrhaging employment every month. Meanwhile, there are mountains of student debt to pay off. Things seem pretty grim; making a monthly new car payment must seem like a fantasy.

However, for those in the work-at-home-office brigade doing well enough to entertain the possibility of dismissing the used car blues and getting something sparkly and new, we present three cheap, sporty-looking, kinda-sorta SUVs that deliver style, people-hauling capability (be it quarantined or vaccinated friends), and room for your stuff while making a decent value play.

These aren’t really SUVs in the purest, or purist’s, sense. Sure, they offer all-wheel drive and slightly better ground clearance than a sedan. But you aren’t going to conquer Moab in any of these. You can call them SUVs because they’re shaped like one, but best treat them all more like a lifted hatchback with decent traction control. They should schuss you to the ski lodge without too much problem, but that’s about it.

The three latest entries in the subcompact crossover field are the Chevrolet Trailblazer, Kia Seltos, and Mazda CX-30. This is the most crowded, competitive segment in the auto industry, and when you are dealing with a package this tidy and price-sensitive, there is a temptation to dismiss them as all of a piece. However, to bastardize George Orwell, some subcompact crossovers are more equal than others. So which is the best small SUV?

THE ENTRANTS

The Chevy Trailblazer comes with rugged good looks and a choice between two three-cylinder turbocharged engines; for this test we picked the optional 1.3-liter that delivers 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque—a seemingly respectable amount for an engine and vehicle this small. Its power routes to a nine-speed automatic transmission, which is the only pairing available with all-wheel drive. And although Trailblazer prices start at just shy of $20,000, this trim level starts at seven grand more, and our as-tested model optioned up to a startling $32,350. Yes, just a couple of sentences above, we said this would be a test of affordable small SUVs. More on that in a bit.

If the development of the Kia Seltos were a movie, it would be called Honey, I Shrunk The Telluride. The same smart thinking that made the Telluride our 2020 SUV of the Year appears here in slimmed-down form, with a choice of a 146-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a continuously variable transmission or a 175-hp 1.6-liter turbo-four mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Pricing for the Seltos S in front-drive trim starts at $23,110, though our as-tested SX Turbo AWD came across at $29,485.

Rounding out the field is the Mazda CX-30, not to be confused with its similar-sized cousin, the CX-3 crossover. Getting into the alphanumeric nonsense would take too long here, so just know the CX-30 is basically a hiked-up Mazda 3 hatchback. It comes with a 2.5-liter inline-four that punches out 186 hp and sends it through an old-timey six-speed automatic. Although you can get into the CX-30 for about 22 grand, our loaded 2020 Premium Pack trim was priced at $31,425 at time of testing.

DRIVING

Right out the gate, most judges preferred the Kia’s driving feel over the other two competitors, on freeway stretches and on winding roads alike. Not that it’s plush like some luxury car; remember, we’re talking basic transport here, so it’s a matter of degrees of discomfort. (Note to self: good name for next emo band side project.) But the Seltos is no kidney puncher. It delivers a relatively smooth ride and reasonably nimble handling.

“Within the first 100 feet you can feel the quality of engineering in the Seltos,” features editor Scott Evans said. “It drives very nicely. It turns in sharply and handles body motions well. It rides well over choppy, bumpy roads. This is just a pleasant car to drive.”

Associate online editor Nick Yekikian described the Seltos as “far more athletic than you would ever imagine,” though he noted its dual-clutch transmission still suffers the occasional low-speed lurch as clutch engages when accelerating from a stop.

Although the Mazda’s steering feels progressive and seems to hold a curve pretty well, the CX-30 relies on a surprisingly gutless engine and outdated six-speed to get moving. Once up to speed, the tall, widely spaced gearing results in transmission hunting on long inclines, often requiring a double or triple downshift to get find the naturally aspirated engine’s narrower powerband.

Meanwhile, the CX-30’s jittery suspension over routine bobbles results in midcorner bump steer; blame that on the Mazda 3 replacing its traditional independent rear suspension with a proletarian torsion beam. And brake feel? How about having to put your foot nearly to the firewall for anything more than a routine stop, as Buyer’s Guide director Zach Gale found.

Mazda has long stood out for the driving experience, but Evans said he struggled to find any “Mazdaness” in it. “I am shocked at how stiffly it rides. Since it’s not exceptionally sporty, I don’t know why it needs to ride like this.” Perhaps MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said it best: “Mazda has lost half of its ‘zoom-zoom.’ Now it’s just, ‘zoom’.”

For all of its Camaro-meets-doorstop looks, the Trailblazer is no dragster. Sure, it gets up to 40 mph pretty snappily, but above that, “the engine just doesn’t have any guts, making passing a test in planning,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said. On the plus side, he noted, “The nine-speed swaps cogs quickly, which, coupled with short ratios, makes the most of what the inline-three has.” Nevertheless, its 0-60-mph acceleration of 9.3 seconds was the slowest of the batch. And that’s with the “big” engine.

Cortina was not a fan of the Trailblazer’s ride. “Driving over broken pavement or ruts, the body shakes like a soaked Chihuahua,” he said. Yekikian said it “drives with all the precision of a pool noodle.” Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman found the steering “floppy without being sloppy, if that makes any sense.” Brake modulation and brake feel are pretty spongy after some initial very firm bite at parking lot speeds. As for back roads, the Trailblazer exhibited the most body roll and squealed its tires the easiest. In other words, it doesn’t walk the Camaro-look talk.

Because mere dozens of people will ever take these vehicles off-roading in a way that would challenge anything more than a Toyota Camry, we didn’t test for off-road capability. However, we note the Seltos was alone in offering an all-wheel-drive mode switch for slippery conditions that locks the torque at a 50/50 front/rear split. Meanwhile, the Trailblazer defaults to front-drive mode and requires pushing a button to even engage all four wheels. “I promise you will not blaze any trails in this thing,” Yekikian said.

CATEGORY WINNER: Kia Seltos

EXTERIOR DESIGN

The Trailblazer’s exterior styling has plenty of character for a segment where a milk carton is the default design. If you simply want to make a cool statement upon arrival, the Trailblazer delivers. To keep the canine metaphors going, our head of editorial, Ed Loh, likened its stance to “a little bulldog posing on the stand at the Westminster Dog Show.”

Evans noted the Mazda “looks more interesting and premium than anything else in the class.” As a clear derivative of the Mazda 3, Lieberman added, the CX-30 looks very much “like a car with a slight lift, rather than an SUV.” Photo editor William Walker—who has an eye for such things—pointed out an odd but intentional S-shaped deformity in the front-door sheetmetal, where convex and concave surfaces meet. Under the correct lighting, they appear warped, and not in a good way. It cannot be unseen.

Alas, poor Seltos. We’re sure plenty of Kia designers worked long nights to inject the crossover with some personality. But the end product looks like groupthink and compromise, and although it’s handsome and stylish, the final result is rather bland.

CATEGORY WINNER: Chevrolet Trailblazer

INTERIOR

This category isn’t even close, but read on anyway.

Mazda’s play to be a premium brand really shows inside. Its minimalist-cool vibe will reward readers of Dwell magazine who aspire to shop at Design Within Reach. Cortina noted the Mazda interior felt nicer than those of the Mercedes-Benz GLA and GLB. Seabaugh found the material quality quite good, adding that “the contrasting leather dressed up with white stitching and metallic accents do a great luxury impression.”

However, one big Mazda drawback is passenger space: “Another Mazda with a compromised back seat compared to the rest of the class. Sigh …” exhaled Gale after exiting. And it wasn’t just our skyscraping Buyer’s Guide director who had issues trying not to bonk his head on the door frame while getting into and out of the back seat. The sense of claustrophobia is heightened by the roar of the engine and tires in the cabin. If it’s you and a friend, you’re fine. Start adding headcount, and things get tight.

Hopping into the Trailblazer, you see the mini-Camaro ethos continuing inside. It works, though the top trim features a riot of interior material colors that almost match. But the pleasant shock of finding a spacious back seat after the Mazda’s mole hole is a real treat.

“It’s an impressively spacious vehicle, probably because it’s rather large for this class,” Evans said. “There’s a ton of rear seat room and a large cargo area. If you’re shopping purely on practicality, this one rises to the top.” The Chevy is so roomy inside that even the addition of a massive headroom-ruining sunroof still doesn’t make it feel cramped, Loh said.

Beyond capaciousness, however, the Trailblazer’s interior plastics are hard and feel cheap once you get past the steering wheel and elbow rests. And surely this interior was designed in gray and gloomy Detroit winter, because the faux-chrome instrument surrounds catch every gleam of sunlight and reflect them directly into your eyes. This editor had “floaters” for 10 minutes after exiting the Trailblazer.

The Seltos splits the middle. It’s pretty spacious for people and cargo. Then again, the front seats’ elevation is commanding for such a small vehicle. The Seltos is also pretty refined, but the seat vinyl and materials “graining” feel a bit lower-grade than in the Mazda. In the blazing California desert summer, the Seltos’ air conditioning is much stronger than the Mazda’s but can’t match the Trailblazer’s jet blast. The Kia interior is good. Just not the best.

CATEGORY WINNER: Mazda CX-30

INFOTAINMENT

Driving a modern car is full of distractions, and the Seltos’ functional and intuitive user interface allows you to stay focused on the road. Switching between Apple CarPlay and the Kia’s native software on the optional 10.3-inch touchscreen is seamless. Until we say otherwise, consider Kia (and sister brands Hyundai and Genesis) to have the best infotainment interfaces.

The Trailblazer follows the typical Chevy infotainment UX: straightforward and easy to learn. However, Evans was baffled by how the car was equipped. “It has wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto but no navigation or multizone climate control,” he said. “It seems odd some of these features aren’t even offered.”

Mazda, meanwhile, needs to simplify its multimedia system. The screen is too small and too far away from the driver’s vision. There are too many submenus to perform basic tasks like changing satellite radio stations. And although this CX-30 came with an allegedly premium Bose stereo, it was tuned poorly for the car and sounded like an AM radio ripped out of a 1970s station wagon.

CATEGORY WINNER: Kia Seltos

VALUE

Some of you will see these as-tested prices and blanch. After all, how many people can afford to spend $30K on their first new car? Just remember, we drove cars that came loaded up from the manufacturer. Not everyone needs all-wheel drive, a panoramic sunroof, a premium sound system, or the upmarket engine in the case of the Seltos or Trailblazer. Dial back those elements, and you can shave five to seven grand off of the price. Now you’re back in the game.

One note: We also drove a base model Seltos that came in around $23,000. And although the instrumentation, buttons, and dials were decontented from the upmarket version and a bit cruder, it’s not like they feel cheap. The CVT functions very well in delivering the base 2.0-liter engine’s power. It is a supremely competent cheap car, and it’s a screaming deal at the price point. It’s just that if you have the money to buy the upscale version, the Seltos gets even better.

Conversely, after a day spent driving the top-trim Trailblazer, Seabaugh professed it to be quite good for a $25,000 SUV. Then he looked at the Monroney sticker: “THIS IS $32,000?!?” Yes, in all-caps. Sometimes your incredulity needs to be shouted. About the only good thing about the Chevy’s price-value equation, Lieberman added, is that it’s cheaper than its Buick Encore GX sibling, which most judges said was an even worse driving experience in the past.

The Mazda aims for a premium space, daring to compare itself against the likes of a Lexus UX or Audi Q3 (yeah, not so much … ), so good luck finding a base model at a dealership. But the upmarket price does come with the best interior of the batch, so perhaps its higher entry price is worth it. In fact, our in-house vehicle evaluation service, IntelliChoice, ranks the Mazda ahead of the Seltos and Trailblazer in terms of retained value.

CATEGORY WINNER: Mazda CX-30

SAFETY

The Mazda CX-30 is rated as a Top Safety Pick+ (the highest score) by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It scored 5/5 stars from NHTSA in all front and side crash tests, and it earned 4/5 stars in rollover testing. However, its driver assistance tech features are laggy in their reaction times, and when they do make their presence known, they’re more annoying than helpful. One example: The startling, false forward-collision warning alert triggered by a shadow from a car the next lane over.

Although the Kia Seltos has equally good crashworthiness scores as the Mazda, its headlights are rated Poor by IIHS, which knocks it down several pegs in those ratings. The Seltos got 5/5 stars for side crash and front driver crash tests from NHTSA but 4/5 stars for front passenger and rollover tests. As far as driver assist systems go, the Seltos has excellent lane keeping systems that are more akin to “lane centering,” and its smart cruise distance keeping in surging traffic feels like it came from a more expensive car. This is what happens when the Genesis luxury division quickly sends its technology downmarket.

The Chevrolet Trailblazer scored 5/5 stars for side crash and front driver crash tests from NHTSA but a worrying 3/5 for the front passenger crash test. The Chevy had not been tested by IIHS at press time. Lane keeping consists of ping-ponging between line markers, while the cruise control won’t maintain its set speed on a downhill grade. One area where design conflicts with safety: Because the C- and D-pillars are combined into one solid swath of sheetmetal, the Trailblazer has no rear quarter window. That results in a giant blind spot that can hide an entire car.

All three SUVs scored 4/5 stars on the NHTSA rollover test. Braking distances from 60 to 0 mph for all three vehicles came in right around 120 feet, which is respectable.

CATEGORY WINNER: Mazda CX-30

OVERALL

It’s not like the Chevy Trailblazer is a bad first car. Indeed, its interior roominess is outstanding for its size, but you get underwhelming ride and handling. And to equip the Trailblazer properly, you could get a mid-trim SUV from the next segment up, like a Honda CR-V.

The Mazda CX-30 is stylish and snazzy, and it has great crashworthiness and predicted retained value. But its driving dynamics don’t match the design premise. And it offers the smallest interior of the batch, which limits your weekend choices.

Which brings us to the Kia Seltos. It’s by far the best driver, has the best infotainment interface for connected folks, is packaged smartly inside, ain’t bad to look at, and delivers value in both base and upgraded trim levels. Hence our finishing order.

3rd Chevrolet Trailblazer

PROS: Roomy interior, racy design, sensible infotainment


CONS: Awful powertrain, outrageous pricing, ungainly ride and handling

2nd Mazda CX-30

PROS: Upscale interior, crashworthiness, steering feel


CONS: Underpowered, claustrophobic, unintuitive infotainment

1st Kia Seltos

PROS: Responsive ride and handling, smart packaging, good value,


CONS: Interior plastics, occasional shift shock, meh design

Looks good! More details?

POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS AWD 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo T-GDI 2020 Mazda CX-30 AWD (Premium)
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, AWD
ENGINE TYPE Turbocharged I-3, alum block/head Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head I-4, alum block/head
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 16 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 81.6 cu in/1,338 cc 97.1 cu in/1,591 cc 151.8 cu in/2,488 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.3:1 10.0:1 13.0:1
POWER (SAE NET) 155 hp @ 5,600 rpm 175 hp @ 6,000 rpm 186 hp @ 6,000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 174 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm 195 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
REDLINE 6,800 rpm 6,500 rpm 6,500 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 21.6 lb/hp 18.5 lb/hp 18.0 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic 7-speed twin-clutch auto 6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.17:1/1.97:1 4.63:1 (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th), 3.61:1 (3rd, 6th, 7th, R)/2.58:1 4.10:1/2.45:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs
STEERING RATIO 15.4:1 12.8:1 15.9:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.5 2.5 2.8
BRAKES, F; R 11.8-in vented disc; 10.4-in disc, ABS 16.0-in vented disc; 15.0-in disc, ABS 11.6-in vented, disc; 11.9-in disc, ABS
WHEELS 7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum 7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum 7.0 x 18-in cast aluminum
TIRES 225/55R18 98H (M+S) Hankook Kinergy GT 235/45R18 94V Kumo Majesty 9 Solus TA91 215/55R18 95H (M+S) Bridgestone Turanza EL440
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 103.9 in 103.5 in 104.5 in
TRACK, F/R 60.9/61.3 in 62.0/62.4 in 61.6/61.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 173.5 x 71.2 x 65.7 in 172.0 x 70.9 x 63.6 in 173.0 x 70.7 x 61.7 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 7.7 in 7.3 in 7.9 in
APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE 17.8/27.7 deg 28.0/28.0 deg 17.6/27.5 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 37.4 ft 34.8 ft 34.8 ft
CURB WEIGHT 3,349 lb 3,243 lb 3,352 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 60/40% 59/41% 60/40%
TOWING CAPACITY 1,000 lb Not rated Not rated
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 38.3/36.8 in 40.0/38.4 in 37.8/38.3 in
LEGROOM, F/R 40.9/39.4 in 41.4/38.0 in 41.7/36.3 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 55.4/53.8 in 55.5/54.7 in 55.6/53.2 in
CARGO VOLUME BEH F/R 54.4/25.3 cu ft 62.8/26.6 cu ft 45.2/20.2 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.9 sec 2.7 sec 2.7 sec
0-40 4.4 3.9 4.3
0-50 6.7 5.6 6.1
0-60 9.3 7.4 8.3
0-70 12.5 9.9 11.0
0-80 16.9 13.1 14.2
0-90 21.9 17.2 18.0
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 5.3 3.9 4.4
QUARTER MILE 17.0 sec @ 80.5 mph 15.9 sec @ 86.9 mph 16.3 sec @ 86.3 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 121 ft 117 ft 125 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.80 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.3 sec @ 0.57 g (avg) 27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg) 27.9 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,750 rpm 2,000 rpm 1,800 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $27,995 $29,010 $30,700
PRICE AS TESTED $32,350 $29,485 $31,425
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/Yes
AIRBAGS 10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain 8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 miles 10 yrs/100,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY 13.2 gal 13.2 gal 12.7 gal
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 26/30/28 mpg 25/30/27 mpg 25/32/27 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 130/112 kW-hrs/100 miles 135/112 kW-hrs/100 miles 135/105 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.70 lb/mile 0.72 lb/mile 0.70 lb/mile
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular Unleaded regular Unleaded regular

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