Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

General Motors Corp. unveils the ’09 Chevrolet Traverse, an 8-passenger cross/utility vehicle and a much-anticipated fourth variant off the auto maker’s successful Lambda platform at the Chicago auto show today.

Production begins in the third quarter at GM’s Spring Hill, TN, assembly plant.

The Traverse joins three other GM Lambda-based midsize CUVs already on the market – the ’08 GMC Acadia, ’08 Buick Enclave and ’08 Saturn Outlook, which GM builds at its Delta Twp., MI, plant.

The Delta Twp. trio has enjoyed considerable sales success, accounting for 136,209 deliveries in 2007, according to Ward’s data.

Related document: U.S. Light Vehicle Sales - December 2007

Demand has been particularly brisk for the luxurious Enclave, which launched in June – six months after the truck-inspired Acadia and family-oriented Outlook. More than 50% of Enclave sales are conquest buyers trading in a vehicle from another auto maker, GM says.

In December, the Enclave accounted for as many sales as did GM’s Terazza minivan, Rainier SUV and Rendezvous CUV, together, in the year-ago period. The Enclave also sells for a $10,000 premium compared with the discontinued models.

The Chevy Traverse is expected to slot in at the low end of GM’s CUV portfolio, with some de-contenting and a lower price point than the Enclave, Acadia and Outlook.

Erich Merkle, an analyst and vice president-forecasting at IRN Inc., expects a base price for the Traverse of less than $25,000, or roughly $3,000 less than a base Outlook and more than $5,000 below the base Acadia and Enclave. The Enclave with options can run as much as $35,000.

Merkle cites the Traverse tailgate-window wiper blade as one example.

“The rear wiper on the Enclave has a bit of a dogleg, so it follows the curvature the glass, one of the small details GM tried to pay attention to with that vehicle. You don’t see that on the Traverse. It’s just one little item but enough to take some cost out.”

Nevertheless, coupled with Chevy’s massive dealer network, Merkle expects the Traverse to enjoy the same success as its stablemates. “Chevrolet needs a (CUV),” he says. “It can’t be left out of what is unquestionably the hottest segment.”

The Traverse receives a slight performance boost over its stablemates by borrowing the critically acclaimed V-6 engine available in the ’08 Cadillac CTS and STS sedans. A logical assumption would be GM’s other CUVs will adapt the engine, as well.

However, Chevy officials point first and foremost to the newest CUV’s distinctive design. Following the ’08 Chevy Malibu’s lead, which won car of the year honors at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Traverse tries to score with styling and available features typically reserved for more-expensive vehicles.

Michael Burton, director of design for the Traverse’s exterior, points to the vehicle’s headlamps as one example.

“More than merely projector beam units, they are integrated in stylized housings that are rich and detailed, reinforcing the high-tech features found throughout the Traverse,” Burton says in a statement ahead of the unveiling.

Available in LS, LT and top-of-the-range LTZ models, GM says the Traverse also includes available upscale touches.

These include deep-set grille inserts with chrome-ringed trim, turn signals integrated into outside mirrors, expressive taillamps, a rear spoiler integrated over the tailgate window, and roof rails designed to enhance the sleek appearance when a roof rack is not in place.

GM also will offer dual, bright exhaust outlets; a Panoramic, power-operated sunroof; and 20-in. ultra-bright aluminum wheels.

Taut body lines and a wheels-to-the-corners styling creates minimal overhangs and makes the Traverse appear smaller, GM says, while a dual cockpit design captures some of the brand’s heritage. The instrument panel is mounted in what GM calls a “low and away” position, which it says enhances outward visibility.

Other interior highlights, which echo GM’s other midsize CUVs, include seating for seven to eight adults and a 60/40-split third-row bench seat that leaves a fair bit of storage capacity at the very rear of the vehicle.

Optimized by direct-injection technology and variable valve timing, the 3.6L engine provides the Traverse with up to 286 hp and 255 lb.-ft. (345 Nm) of torque when combined with dual exhaust.

GM’s new 6-speed automatic transmission with front-wheel drive comes standard, although all-wheel drive is available. That means the DIG V-6 gives Traverse buyers about 11 more ponies than the Enclave, Acadia and Outlook, as well as roughly 4 lb.-ft. (5 Nm) more torque.

Although a Chevy spokesman insists it’s too early to discuss fuel economy, he does say consumers can expect segment-leading numbers.

One advantage of direct injection is greater performance than port injection without sacrificing fuel economy. For example, when the Cadillac CTS adopted DIG for its redesign, its 3.6L engine jumped from 252 to 304 hp while fuel efficiency remained the same.

Front-wheel-drive versions of the Enclave, Acadia and Outlook achieve an average 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km), the Environmental Protection Agency says.