It’s a stretch to make any rock and roll connection with a midsize crossover SUV, but you’re going to have to stick with us for a bit. We’ll get there.
The Traverse is all new for 2018, after its introduction at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Make no mistake: This is a vitally important vehicle for Chevrolet.
Unless you’re Eddie Wilson, hiding out incognito for 18 years while your once famous band hopes in vain for your imminent return, you couldn’t have possibly missed that the mid-size crossover is hot. Last year at this time, Chevy was selling about 165,000 vehicles a month. Of those, nearly 11,000 — about six percent of every vehicle the brand sells — carries the Traverse nameplate.
Chevrolet has an arsenal of vehicles that sit somewhere on the broad “sport utility vehicle” spectrum. Rising in size, Chevy offers the Trax, the Equniox, the Traverse, the Tahoe and the Suburban, filling in just about every crack there is with a four-door, tailgated, all- or four-wheel drive vehicle.
The Traverse is the largest, until you get to the truck-based Tahoe. If you’ve got a picture of what a Traverse is in your mind, you need to see the updated 2018. In all honesty, the Traverse was kind of a homely vehicle that seemed to exist for people who (A) felt like they needed a seven-passenger vehicle with all-wheel drive and (B) still retained some loyalty to the brand.
The 2018 is not that Traverse. In photos and in person, it’s truly a smartly styled vehicle, with everything you need in a seven-passenger people-hauler, and nothing you don’t. Unlike some vehicles in this class, trying to convince you it’s some kind of a road-burner, with a supercharged V-8 and dual exhaust. The Traverse RS we spent several hundred miles in comes with one engine choice, which is the polar opposite of a supercharged V-8: A mild turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
The Traverse RS is also no trying to convince you it’s an off-roader, boasting about tall approach and departure angles while the marketing department knows full well the most off-roading you’re going to do is the dirt path leading to a rustic golf course. In fact, it’s SO not trying to convince you it’s an off-roader that it doesn’t offer four-wheel drive or even all-wheel drive in this trim. (There are five other Traverse trims — LS, LT with cloth or leather, Premier and High Country that do.)
Our gig here was to load a guitar, an acoustic bass and their cases, plus our luggage, in the back of the Traverse RS and drive from our hotel — the Sunset Marquis — to Joshua Tree.
This is where the rock and roll really comes in. The Sunset Marquis is an unmistakably rock and roll hotel. As we were touring the hotel with the general manager, Joe Bonamassa walked by pushing a cart full of vintage guitars he had on display in a mini museum at the hotel. As I left a sit-down with Chevy’s marketing team the next morning, I looked up to see Bruce Springsteen’s guitar player, and more importanly for me, the proprietor of the best radio station on XM, Little Steven Van Zandt hastily making his way to the concierge.
Why we’re loading guitars in the back of the Traverse is the other half of the rock and roll equation. We’re driving these crossovers to Joshua Tree to record some music. The crew of folks that came along for this event are all musicians in one form or another. There’s me, who plays three-chord rock and roll in a garage band that occasionally gets some stage time. Then at the other end of the spectrum is Peter Hughes, who writes for AutoWeek, but whose main gig is as the bass player in the band The Mountain Goats. In between Peter and I are a half dozen automotive writers who all kind of wish that all wish that they could play music for a living.
So our first experience with this Traverse RS is the cargo area. I’ve had amps in all kinds of cars, but guitars and cases always seem to find their way into the back seat, because they’re long and ungainly. We folded both sides of the split, folding third row, but really, we could’ve left half of it up and had plenty of room to stow the two guitars, plus our luggage on the unfolded side. The cargo area — even with the third row deployed — is enormous. You’ve got 23 cubic feet with people sitting in the third row.
The ginormous Tahoe doesn’t even come close to that volume. There’s only 15 cubic feet of storage with the third row in place. What’s even more remarkable is the space with all the seats folded. The big Tahoe offers 94.7 cubic feet of storage at a maximum. The Traverse beats it with 98.2 cubic feet. How big a vehicle do you really need?
Where the Tahoe would shine would be the highway, with its big V-8, but the Traverse RS proves itself to be a mile-eater. It’s comfortable and composed on the road. And if someone had told you that the interior of a Chevrolet was going to be this nice 25 years ago, GM might have avoided its financial troubles.
Cruising along flat interstates at highway speed is one thing. Ripping through twisting, undulating hills in the desert is another, and that was the real surprise. The Traverse is a 4,362 pound behemoth. It has just two liters to push it down the road. 2,000 cubic centimeters just shouldn’t move it. That’s 53 cubic centimeters smaller than the engine in the Kawasaki VN2000.
Yet, move it it does, and pretty admirably. The turbocharged 2.0-liter provides 257hp, but more importantly, it delivers 295-lb.ft. of torque. The V-6 most have grown accustomed to in this class does provide 310hp, but it offers much less torque at 266-lb.ft.
The transmission in the Traverse RS makes the best use of that torque at all speeds, too. With nine speeds to dial through, it keeps the engine spinning at that 3,000 RPM sweet spot where the 2.0-liter provides its peak torque. It’s not what you’d call “fast,” but if you drove it without knowing it was a tiny four-cylinder, you’d swear a V-6 was doing the work.
Without doing all kinds of research, we’re going to put that Traverse RS right up there as a displacement-to-weight ratio champion. Each liter has to move 2,181 pounds. Ford’s Explorer has a turbocharged four, too and that vehicle weighs a hundred more pounds. But it also has 300 additional cubic centimeters of displacement on its side.
As we cruised along the interstate, Peter Hughes and I had some time to talk, and we eventually settled on the subject of minivans. As parents, band members and haulers of junk, we had both come to appreciate the utility of the minivan. The more I thought about this Traverse RS, the more sense it made as exactly the same kind of vehicle. It’s for moms and dads who usually have to haul a couple of kids, who occasionally pick up stuff at Home Depot, and who once in a while get to load up guitars, amps, PAs and drum kits to run out in the desert and make some music.
If you’re the type of person who could never see yourself behind the wheel of a minivan, the Traverse RS might be just what you’re looking for. The only real difference which set of wheels the four-cylinder engine is driving.
Here’s a little something extra:
Our crew of musicians ended up at Pink Satellite Studios in Joshua Tree. It’s an amazing recording studio pointed straight at the sun as it falls behind the mountains to the west. Just a day before, our band worked out three songs that we committed to ones and zeros in this state-of-the-art facility.