2009 Chevrolet Traverse LT Review
By Roger Boylan
Smug pundits were trumpeting the SUV’s demise as recently as last summer. During the recent $4-a-gallon gas crisis, the nation’s newspaper of record hardly let a day go by without exulting over the woes of some wretched small-town SUV dealer stuck with a backlog, subtext: “We told you so, sucker.” And yet! When I look around there seem to be as many SUVs on the road today as there were back in their bad old heyday. (In a spirit of full disclosure, let me boldly say right from the start that I’ve always liked SUVs; I’ve owned two and rented or borrowed dozens, which is not to say that I’m in favor of gas guzzling, or eternal dependence on the Saudis.) Admittedly, I live in Texas, where the love of bigness is a matter of regional identity; but even on a national level, the big family hauler is still with us. Here comes Chevrolet, for example, with its latest offering, the 2009 Traverse, a seven- or eight-passenger behemoth that may be (and is) called a “crossover” or “family vehicle” but that seems like an SUV to me, and I’ve just finished test-driving one for a week. The Traverse is Chevy’s newborn sibling in the Acadia-Outlook-Enclave family, known as the “Lambda” platform siblings. There are three trim levels, 1LT, 2LT, and LTZ. Mine was the 2LT, with front-wheel-drive (AWD is available), 18-inch alloy wheels, an 8-way power driver seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear parking sensors, remote vehicle start, Bluetooth, 3-zone automatic climate control, a 10-speaker Bose system, rear audio system controls, 7-passenger seating with second-row captain’s chairs, a power lift gate, and a rearview camera integrated into the rearview mirror (I loved the last item). All this you can have for a seriously negotiable sticker price of $39K, but the base Chevy Traverse 1LT’s starting price of $28K is by far the lowest of the four Lambda siblings. It’s also, in my humble opinion, the best-looking of the litter. Its bulk is rendered almost sleek by swoopy styling that owes much to the new Malibu; it’s more of a dolphin than a whale, at least seen from the side.
As for the driving experience, I’ll sum up by saying the Traverse is easy to like but hard to love. Easy to like because it does pretty much everything a vehicle in its class should do, and does most of it very well, notably stopping and going. The engine, a 3.6 liter V6, is the same one found in the sparkling Cadillac CTS, albeit with a little less horsepower than the Caddy’s 304 (281 in the Traverse I tested). With the help of the seamless 6-speed automatic transmission, the engine performs silently and strongly, without too much of a fuel penalty: 24 mpg on the highway is claimed, although after five days of my 35-mile stop-and-go commute I found the beast to be a little thirstier than that, at 22 mpg or so on the rare open road and about 14 in town; at least it sups on regular. GM claims 8 sec. for the 0-60 sprint, an impressive figure for a vehicle this size.
I had no opportunity to run my own precise time trial, but I think the manufacturer’s claim is reasonable. I found the Traverse to be very athletic when called upon, as when I needed to merge onto the freeway in the face of a forward-barreling 18-wheeler suddenly changing lanes. I dropped the hammer; the Traverse leaped forward. That was the first time I’d actually heard the engine which, except under very hard acceleration, runs as silently and stealthily as a submarine’s. That speaks well both for Chevy’s engine tuning and its vehicle soundproofing. (I heard no creaks or rattles, either.) And when the high-speed driving is done and you need to bring her home, the brakes are ready–almost too ready, as their only flaw is a slight hint of grab when you hit them hard. But I found no fade, even after five or six tries.
Then there’s the interior space: in a word, vast, suitable for a family of 7 with 4 captain’s chairs fore and amidships, as in my test car, or 8 with an optional second-row bench seat. The leather-clad seats are extremely comfortable, and clearly designed to make traversing the continental divide easy on the haunches. Also, storage space abounds inside; indeed, sometimes one hiding place morphs into another, as with the center console armrest that, when raised, reveals a deep cubby hole beneath a sliding door. Cupholders are numerous and capacious, in the classic GM way; cupholders are even built into the door pockets, and there are enough in the second and third rows to hold all the Big Gulps of the Seven Dwarfs. Easily flipped forward, the two rearward rows of seats lie flat to create an immense cargo area of nearly 120 cu. ft., sufficient for said dwarfs and a couple of their giant friends.
So far, so good. But there’s a worm in this big shiny apple: the HVAC controls. They’re buttons, not knobs as they should be (although, annoyingly, they’re in the shape of knobs, as if to tantalize the unwary driver). They’re small, illogical, counter-intuitive, and fidgety. The tedious process of figuring out how they work distracts dangerously from the business of driving. Furthermore, they sent me back to the driver’s manual with embarrassing frequency. This may be a comment on my mental acuity or lack thereof, but I firmly believe the driver’s manual should be for information on specialty features or consultation during emergencies, not for instructions on the basic functions of an automobile, most of which have been pretty well standardized over the past hundred years. But the whiz kids from Chevy apparently decided the boring old-fashioned knobs that have worked so well for so many years aren’t good enough, they need something original and distinctive: Buttons! Scrap ’em, Chevy. They look bad, they don’t work well, and they’re a safety hazard.
It’s doubly unfortunate, because the dashboard in which these pestilential buttons are placed is otherwise very functional and well laid-out, notwithstanding the somewhat dreary cream-and-beige color scheme in my test car that my wife likened to that of a pre-fab home on wheels. Faux aluminum abounds, but we’ve become accustomed to that. The plastic on the dashboard is hard but sufficiently removed from the driver to mitigate its cheap appearance. The center stack is accessible and displays a reasonable degree of placement logic. Yet another cubby sits atop the whole; the gauges are simple and clear and well-illuminated at night, with a soft greenish back glow. Leg room is ample, and the pilot and co-pilot–and this is the triumphant virtue of the SUV species–behold the world as from the deck of a ship.
All in all, the Traverse, whether you call it a crossover or an SUV, does its job admirably. Would I recommend it to the family in need of a kid- and cargo-hauler? Absolutely. But as I said at the outset it’s hard to love; despite (or maybe because of) all its virtues, it personifies automotive anonymity. It’s impossible to imagine your common or garden automotive enthusiast hanging around the local Chevy lot at night just to catch a glimpse of the newest Traverse; it’s just not that kind of car. I’m more and more interested in only that kind of car, so I don’t see a Traverse in my future. But as I tool around in my personality-laden charactermobile, I’m sure I’ll see plenty of Chevy Traverses in the driveways of affluent suburban America, ready to traverse that old continental divide or factory outlet mall with equal aplomb.
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