GM's marketing staff insists the 2009 Chevrolet Traverse is a "no-compromise" vehicle - but we beg to differ. That, however, is a compliment - with the seating capacity of a minivan, the towing capacity of a mid-size SUV, and the ride prowess of a large car, the Traverse may well be the ideal compromise for customers accustomed to large SUVs.
That may bode well for Chevy dealers. Not only does the Traverse loosely fit into the holes left by the departed Uplander minivan and Trailblazer SUV (finished after a brief '09 run), the capabilities - and better fuel economy - of the new crossover may help it attract customers who normally would shop for Tahoes and Suburbans.
Like the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook, the Traverse rides upon GM's Lambda platform. Although GM engineers note the Chevy crossover shares more body structure with the Enclave than the Acadia or Outlook, the Traverse sports a considerable amount of unique sheetmetal.
In fact, the only Enclave-like cues are seen on the Traverse's chiseled quarter windows, fender kink and boat-tail hatch; even these subtly differ from those on its Buick sibling. Rear fenders rise upward with a distinct coke-bottle shape; the taillamps sport Chevy's trademark dual round lamps (albeit set in chiseled surrounds). Thanks to a lower license plate mount, the Traverse has a unique tailgate.
Up front, designers attempted to cop cues from the successful Malibu sedan as much as possible. Sure, the elongated headlamps evoke memories of the ungainly Uplander, but other cues - notably the smooth integration of the split-bar grille - tie the Traverse to Chevy's current design language. Panel gaps seem to be consistent (even on the pre-production vehicles we drove) and remarkably tight; GM claims gaps on the Traverse measure a scant 3.5 mm - reportedly equal to or better than most Lexus offerings.
The Malibu influence continues within, where an oversized version of the sedan's "dual-cockpit" dashboard can be seen. Materials are on par with those of other recent GM products (think Malibu), and while they may be a bit hard to the touch, their overall feel is solid. Our vehicles were all pre-production testers, meaning a few gaps - especially a large chasm between the dashboard and the front passenger's door panel - are reportedly being improved before production.
As with the other Lambda crossovers, seating for eight across three rows is standard on the Traverse; bucket seats in the second row are optional on LT and LTZ trims, along with a second-row center console. Those buckets may seem a bit narrow upon entry, but actually provide a decent amount of comfort - even for adults.
Mechanically, the biggest change with the Traverse currently lurks underhood, where a 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6 - essentially the same engine found in Cadillac's CTS - lies coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. Like its siblings, the Traverse is set up primarily for front-wheel drive (approximately 65 percent of the model mix); all-wheel drive is optional.
In Lambda-spec, the direct-injection V-6 produces 281 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque in LS and LT forms; LTZ models - breathing via a dual exhaust system - yield 288 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. That's better than the older 3.6-liter V-6 found in the 2008 Acadia, Enclave, and Outlook, which managed to deliver 275 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque (2009 models will get the same direct-injected V-6 as the Traverse). Yes, those figures are down from the 304 hp and 273 lb-ft in the CTS, as a result, we're told, of a restrictive airbox and a longer exhaust.
Compared to the Enclave/Acadia/Outlook trio, we found the new engine adds a bit more power and torque to the Traverse's launch, but we were more impressed with the revised calibration of the six-speed. No longer does the gearbox seem to hunt around under acceleration; rather, it quickly - and smoothly - downshifts to move you around. Even when towing - a possibility, given the 5200-lb trailer capacity - the transaxle doesn't seem to jump around too sporadically.
Although the suspension was specifically tuned to deal with the Traverse's mass and tires, the ride isn't completely dissimilar to that of GM's other Lambdas. There's perhaps a little less float compared to the Enclave, but the Traverse drives like any of the other GM crossovers. That's not a bad thing, given it soaks up broken surfaces fairly well and manages to have sharp turn in - at least for a large utility. We did note a bit of wind noise at 70 mph - more so than in the deathly silent Toyota Highlander, for example - but overall, the Traverse remains calm and collected in everyday driving.
One compromise buyers may have to make is in the area of fuel economy. Even with the Traverse sporting a sleek exterior (it has a drag coefficient of 0.33) and the direct-injection engine, it still weighs in at just under 5000 lbs, prompting mileage to take a bit of a hit. The front-wheel-drive Traverse is rated for 17/24 city/highway mpg. Although that's thirsty, it's slightly better than the 16/24 offered by the similar 2009 Ford Flex - and it's certainly an improvement over a full-size SUV.
We're told pricing - and content levels - should be close to that of the Outlook (somewhere in the low $30k range) when the Traverse hits showrooms this fall. Given the nearly identical pricing, specifications and drive qualities to the other Lambdas, we'd expect buyers to cross-shop among the four by means of style - again, so they don't have to compromise.