Before we were allowed behind the wheel of the Chevrolet Traverse - the latest seven-seater to arrive in the UAE - we listened to the chief designer, Michael Burton, describe in great detail the processes involved in getting the Traverse from the sketchbook to the road. A balance between aesthetics and engineering reality has got to be struck, and Burton says there can be arguments and negotiations aplenty, especially when the engineers tell the designers their ideas will cost too much money.
In these austere economic times, it is not surprising that the boffins at General Motors urge the designers to exhibit caution. Then again, the question may be asked as to why GM is launching a seven-seater family crossover on the eve of probably being bailed out by the US government? And what is the point of this car when it is only the cars that run on the smell of an oily rag that have any hope of selling?
I guess the simple answer is because, at least, the Traverse has a market in the Middle East. Even in this land of cheap petrol, the market is crowded and it is getting harder to distinguish between the seven-seaters - heck knows, I've pretty much driven every one on the market now. So what is the unique selling point of the Traverse? Burton says it is a return to good Chevrolet design with the double grille making it instantly recognisable as a Chevy (will it become known as the Chevy Travy in years to come?).
Even Burton admitted that Chevrolet had lost its way in terms of design, and the new line-up aimed to bring back some cohesion to the brand. So, the result of endless sketches, clay models and debate between designers, engineers and bean counters is a family-friendly car that looks much nicer from the front than the back. From the front end, we have an imposing-looking car that seeks to distinguish itself from General Motors' GMC range of chunky soccer mum-mobiles with the double grille, eye-catching headlamps and more elegant, curved lines than GMC vehicles. Along the side, it's as attractive as a big seven-seater can be with streamlined side windows, the barely-there pillars not obstructing the clean lines.
From behind, I was not as much of a fan. The proportions just don't seem right and it has that designed-by-a-committee look about it. The tail lights seem too small, the expanse of metal at the back seems too big. And, like most other American cars, it has the way too annoying feature of indicator lights in red, instead of orange. When you are driving in convoy, as I was, and the driver in front has a casual relationship with indicators and an erratic relationship with the brake pedal, distinction between whether the driver is turning, changing lanes or stamping on the brake pedal like a deranged flamenco dancer would be appreciated. Seriously, I wish American car makers would stop this.
Right, ranting aside, I made sure I nabbed the top-of-the-line model for the test drive. I figure if you're going to be practical and buy a large family bus, you may as well strive for a few luxuries. My co-driver and I were soon on the road in a metallic sage green Traverse with the sunroof open, as it was a beautiful day. Two women I'd never met in my life were in the back of the car and seemed happy with the room in the middle row of seats.
The Traverse was comfortable, we found a radio station we could agree on, it was spacious and the suspension was typical of the comfy, spongy suspension one expects on a vehicle that behaves rather like a lounge room on wheels. But when I put my foot down on the open road, the automatic gearbox was somewhat disappointing. The Traverse is not really aimed at serious dune bashers and as such, there are no low-range gears, so the car cannot venture too far off-road. But that is no reason for such a harsh gearbox. The gear changes, especially at 100kph and above, were rough, imprecise and struggled to keep up with the increase in speed - and I wasn't exactly driving like Lewis Hamilton. Even so, the 3.6-litre V6 has plenty of poke and if it could be married to a better gearbox, there would be a lot more joy to be had from an open road drive.
As we pulled in for a driver change, I looked down and noticed an orange light just near the gear selector. The pair in the back were not wearing seat belts. I admonished them in no uncertain terms and was told there was no need in the back seat. I reminded them of the dangers of not wearing a seat belt in the back, but to no avail. At least the Traverse had air bags at every turn, I suppose. I spent the next leg of the drive as a passenger in the back. It was indeed a roomy back seat with plenty of personal space for all the passengers - always a good thing if there is a sullen teenager in the family who is not in the mood for playing with annoying younger siblings.
Overall, the Chevrolet Traverse impresses as a roomy car with plenty of space for a family. But I urge GM to sort out the gearbox and the back end design for the 2010 model and then it may be a little more worthy of donning the Chevy bow tie. email@example.com