2009 Chevrolet Traverse

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Low price, roomy interior, towing capacity, pep

The Bad: Heavy, relatively poor fuel economy

The Bottom Line: A stylish people-hauler takes on Toyota's Highlander and Honda's Pilot

Up Front

The new '09 Chevy Traverse is a prime example of the problems General Motors (GM) faces as it struggles to survive. The Traverse is a very attractive vehicle, a well-designed crossover SUV with available all-wheel-drive, many handy features including three-row seating for up to eight people, and excellent fit and finish. Its one of the models GM execs cite when they contend the company can now compete with the best that Honda (HMC), Toyota (TM) and Nissan (NSANY) have to offer.

But is the $30,000 Traverse the vehicle GM should be coming out with in the midst of a financial crisis? Not really, unless you figure the price of gasoline is going to stay under $2 per gallon indefinitely. Chevy claims the Traverse gets the best mileage in its segment, but it weighs 5,000 lbs. and even with front-wheel drive is only rated to get 17 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. Knock off 1 mpg if you go with all-wheel drive.

Worse, from GM's standpoint, the Traverse is very similar to three other crossover vehicles the company already sells, the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and Saturn Outlook, which means GM has to spend money on four dealer networks and marketing programs, instead of one. The extra cost puts GM at a distinct disadvantage to rivals such as the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Subaru Tribeca, Nissan Murano, Mazda CX-9, and Ford Flex. In this day and age, making four slightly different versions of the same vehicle seems anachronistic.

That said, if you're shopping for a stylish, versatile SUV with excellent car-pooling capabilities, the Traverse is definitely worth a look. If GM were forced to pare down from four models to one, the Traverse would probably be the keeper. Its styling is based on the hot-selling Chevy Malibu sedan, and it has a much bigger dealer network and a different mix of standard features that make it less expensive than its siblings. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), the Traverse's average selling price is just $30,973, well under the average of $38,599 for the '09 Buick Enclave, $34,396 for the GMC Acadia, and $32,615 for the Outlook. Plus, through Feb. 2, GM is offering a $750 cash rebate on all four '09 models.

In the most basic LS trim, the Traverse starts at $29,990 with front-wheel drive and $31,990 with all-wheel drive. The LS has hardly any available options, but comes standard with power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, a telescoping and tilting steering wheel, a CD player, satellite radio, remote keyless entry and OnStar assistance with a year of free service

The mid-range LT comes in two versions, the most basic of which starts at $32,665 with front-wheel drive and adds a back-up alarm, eight-way power driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, remote starting, and 18-inch (instead of 17-inch) wheels. The fancier version of the LT starts at $35,190 and adds second-row captain seats, a ten-speaker Bose sound system, a back-up camera, Bluetooth capability, rear-seat audio controls, and a power rear liftgate.

The LTZ, which starts at $40,700, adds 20-inch wheels, heated and cooled leather seats, driver's seat memory, a navigation system with voice control and traffic information, and second-row captain seats. Major options include front and rear seat sunroofs ($1,400), a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,295) and a towing package ($495).

The only available engine is a 3.6-liter V6. It's the same engine found in the '09 versions of the Enclave, Acadia, and Outlook, and is slightly peppier than the V6 previously offered on those models. In the Traverse's LS and LT trim lines, which have a single exhaust pipe, the engine is rated at 281 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque. However, the fancier LTZ trim line has a dual exhaust system and the numbers rise to 288 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque. The only transmission available is a six-speed automatic.

Safety is a strong point. The Traverse earned the government's top Five Star rating in all crash test categories except rollovers, where it got Four Stars. Standard safety features include front, side, and head-protecting side curtain airbags, traction control and tire pressure monitors. Another strong point is the Traverse's 5,200-lbs. towing capacity, 700 lbs. more than in the Enclave, Acadia, Pilot, and Ford Flex, and 200 lbs. more than the Highlander's.

Though the Traverse has been out only for a few months, it's already outselling its sibling models. Chevy sold 4,935 Traverses in December, while the Acadia's sales fell 48.8% vs the same month a year earlier, to just 3,711. The Enclave's sales were off 30.4%, to 3,290, and the Outlook's off 57.1%, to 1,354.

GM's total unit sales fell 31.4% to 221,983 in December and 22.9%, to 3 million, for all of 2008.

Behind the Wheel

If I were convinced that gasoline prices were going to remain low (I'm not), I'd love to own a Traverse. It has all the virtues that made the original Buick Enclave a hit. The driver sits up high, and has a feeling of power. And you have all the roominess and hauling capacity of a minivan without the nerdy image.

The V6 provides plenty of power for a family vehicle. The version of the engine in GM's '09 models has direct fuel injection, which improves both performance and fuel economy slightly. GM says maximum torque is available from 2,500 revolutions per minute up to 6,000 rpm, so there's a surprisingly strong response when you punch the gas. If anything, the new Traverse is a tad faster than the '07 Enclave I test-drove: I timed the Traverse at 7.8 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, a couple of tenths of a second faster than the Enclave.

The Traverse's interior is plainer than the Enclave's, but equally spacious and practical. The controls and navigation system are well marked and easy to use. The second- and third-row seats fold down in a split pattern, which creates space for long objects such as skis while leaving passenger seating in both rows. Folding down both rows of rear seats creates a cavernous, 118-cubic-foot hauling space. Even with both rows of seats up, there's 24.4 cu. ft. of space, considerably more than in the Pilot and Highlander.

The Traverse's second-row seats move back and forth, making it easy to create adequate knee space in both rows of rear seats. The second-row captain seats are quite comfortable, and you can add a handy center console between the two seats for an extra $300. There's enough space in the third row for two average-size adults to be comfortable, at least on short rides.

With all-wheel drive, the Traverse is a terrific winter vehicle. I test-drove my LTZ extensively on snowy and icy roads and it handled impeccably. Even when I drove it off-road into six inches of snow, I had no problems powering through. The wipers and defroster cleared the front and rear windows quickly, most of the time without me having to scrape the windows first. You can also activate the heated washer system, which runs through a cycle that clears off heavy snow and ice accumulation. The remote starting feature is marvelous. At one point, I started up my test car from the shuttle bus after an evening of skiing. The Traverse was nice and toasty inside by the time I got to it.

Buy it or Bag It?

There's still a surprising amount of demand for crossover SUVs. Even in dismal December, the auto industry's worst month in decades, combined sales of the Traverse, Enclave, Acadia, and Outlook totaled more than 13,000. Whether you go with the Traverse over one of its siblings will probably depend on whether or not you want a lower-priced budget version of the vehicle with fewer features, whether you like the Chevy's more modest styling (the Enclave is gaudier and the Acadia more macho-looking), and whether there's a good Chevy dealer near you.

The Traverse's $30,973 average price makes it cheaper than all of its main competitors, according to PIN, including the '09 Toyota Highlander ($33,597), Ford's (F) new Flex ($33,452), Honda Pilot ($32,655), Nissan Murano ($31,380), Subaru Tribeca ($31,822), and Mazda CX-9 ($33,559). (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

If you're on a tight budget, arguably the best cheaper alternative model is Kia's (KIMTY) '09 Borrego at an average selling price of $28,277.

There's nary a dog in the bunch. However, if you're considering any of these rival models, test-drive the Traverse before buying. You may be surprised by how good it is.

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