Chevy's newest nameplate is just for us ... and about 140 other countries
San Francisco, Calif. — This is weird. I'm in California, which last time I checked was still attached to the USA, attending the press launch of an entirely new car from Chevrolet, which I'm pretty sure is still as American as apple pie. Except — and this is the weird part — there are no American journalists here, and the car I'm here to drive will not be sold in America.

When you see the 2013 Chevrolet Trax you begin to understand, kinda. This is a very small CUV, and among many "right-thinking" Americans the notion of "very small CUV" is still an oxymoron.

But there's also a more complicated backstory. Hard as it may be for us to get our North American heads around, Chevrolet today is a truly international brand. The Bowtie sells more vehicles outside the USA than within it. The Trax won't be sold Stateside, but it will be offered in Canada and in some 140 other countries where small CUVs are the Next Big Thing.

Hence, the preview I'm attending is an international event for auto writers from Canada and Western Europe (tomorrow the Russians and the Mexicans get their turn). And in the same way as international press previews for new German cars usually happen in Germany, the ride-and-drive debut of this new American car is happening in America. The car's public unveiling, meanwhile, is taking place at the Paris auto show pretty much as we speak.

It's small, but not that small

2013 Chevrolet Trax LTZ(Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

Chevrolet already has a "compact" CUV, but the Equinox is significantly larger than almost everything else in the segment. That leaves room for the new Trax, which is a lot smaller than Equinox, albeit still not quite small enough to be called a subcompact.

To give some perspective, its overall length of 4,280 mm makes it 80 mm longer than a VW Golf and a smidgin shorter than a Mitsubishi RVR, which is the titchiest of the compact-CUV crop. Chevrolet also lists as rivals the Hyundai Tucson, as well as the FWD-only Kia Soul, the AWD Suzuki SX4 Crossover, and the hard-to-categorise Nissan Juke (which can be had with AWD but is more performance than off-road-oriented). "I struggle as an engineer to see much cross-shopping between Juke and Trax," said Jim Federico, GM's global chief of small-car engineering.

Not mentioned by Chevrolet is perhaps its greatest challenge, the slightly larger but eminently affordable and all-American Jeep Patriot.

Of course there is one other CUV that matches the Trax in almost every detail except appearance: the new Buick Encore, which is built on the same global-small-car architecture as the Trax. In turn, both are based on a reworked and ruggedized version of the Chevrolet Sonic substructure.

Manual transmission only on the base model

2013 Chevrolet Trax LTZ(Photo: Jeremy Sinek)

We're not close to knowing Trax pricing yet, but expect it to be a bunch more affordable than the premium-and-loaded Encore, which we now know will start in the mid-$20Ks. A low entry price will be enabled by offering the base LS with front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed automatic is optional on LS and standard on the LT and LTZ trims. Optional on the latter two is AWD; it's basically an on-demand system, but the car is programmed to always start from rest in AWD mode, to avoid that slip-then-grip feel when launching on slick surfaces.

In all cases the engine is a 1.4-litre turbo, already familiar from Cruze and Sonic, rated at 138 peak horsepower, and 148 lb.-ft of torque peaking at a low 1,850 rpm. Importantly for its intended clientele, the turbo can run on regular gasoline.

Other key ingredients include standard subcompact fare like electric power steering, plus MacPherson strut front and semi-independent compound-crank rear suspensions. Braking is front-disc/rear-drums on FWD models and four-wheel-discs on AWDs. Even the base wheel is a fairly generous 16 inches, while 18-inchers support the LTZ.