Chevy Traverse a pretty decent crossover SUV

— -- Badge engineering:Ironic term for creating a "new" vehicle by putting a different badge on a similar vehicle, rather than by extensive (and costly) reengineering.

Despite General Motors' pledge to knock it off, GM's Chevrolet Traverse crossover SUV, on sale last month, is the latest example of this practice. It is similar to, and could rob sales from, GM's GMC Acadia (Test Drive, Dec. 21, 2006), Saturn Outlook (May 4, 2007) and Buick Enclave (Sept. 14, 2007). What's next? A Cadillac Cribber?

Derision notwithstanding, let's be clear: Traverse is basically a good crossover SUV. It hardly could be otherwise as a near-clone of the others, which are quite good. But two Traverse testers had flaws not seen in the others.

The first tester, a front-wheel-drive LT, had misaligned interior trim and a tailgate-open warning light that stayed on 15-20 seconds after it closed. The second, a high-end LTZ all-wheel-drive, was built after all teething problems were solved, Chevy says. It had properly aligned trim and a proper tailgate warning, but was noisier, less comfortable and shifted worse.

The others are built in Lansing, Mich. Traverse is built at the old Saturn plant at Spring Hill, Tenn. — the only vehicle built there.

LTZ's engine noise was especially troubling, because the FWD tester was luxuriously quiet, both its engine and all-around. The LTZ had dual exhaust and, thus, a bit more power, but the whining and groaning up front had nothing to do with exhausts. Chevy's baffled.

LTZ's leather seats felt as if they had too much lumbar bulge, even fully retracted. LTZ seats have tubes built in for a cooling feature, but were designed to feel just like the non-cooled leathers in LT, Chevy says, scratching its head on that one, too.

LTZ's transmission, the six-speed automatic used in all Traverse and similar crossovers, might have needed more miles to adapt to driver preferences, Chevy says. Let's hope it's that simple. Otherwise the transmission's stumbles and jerks and inconsistencies are a deal-breaker.

To its credit, Traverse is:

•Best-looking of the GM bunch. It gets the Buick's upswept rear windowsill for a jaunty look (styling that just appears contrived on the Buick). Unfortunately, that slices rear visibility. You can get a backup camera to help. Plus, backup warning beeps and lights keep you from depending solely on the camera.

•The best blend of ride and handling. "A unique Chevy ride package," says Sue Wilson, vehicle line director for Traverse. Testers rode smoothly, weren't sloppy in corners.

•Unusually powerful. Traverse and its GM relatives have an updated, 3.6-liter V-6 rated 281 (FWD) or 288 (AWD) horsepower vs. rivals' 250 to 270 hp. GM calls the new engine SIDI — spark ignition direct injection. It shoots gasoline directly into the cylinder. SIDI keeps the fuel cooler longer so the engine's pistons can squeeze it tighter without knocking and pinging. Tightly squeezed fuel generates more force, and, thus, power, when it ignites.

More technically, SIDI engines have higher compression ratios (11.4-to-1, up from 10.2-to-1 last year), without requiring premium fuel.

But as happens with badge engineering, faults are propagated. For instance:

•Stiff pricing. A Honda Pilot (Test Drive, May 8) with everything is $40,625, some $6,000 less than the top-dog Traverse. Chevy rightly would argue that Traverse has a lot more power, a little more room and somewhat better mileage ratings.

•Clumsy seats. Second-row seats are stiff and noisy to slide and fold and take two awkward motions to return to original position. The second and third rows sit too close to the floor, though the seats are comfortable.

•Mediocre mileage. Government ratings are a skosh higher than for the '08 GMC/Saturn/Buick versions, but real-life fuel economy is par for medium to large crossovers — 15 mpg or so in the burbs; 17 if you mix in some freeway.

Chrysler's Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen hybrid SUVs come loaded for about $1,000 less than a loaded Traverse. They get 18 to 20 mpg in all types of real-world driving — and tow more, too.

If you don't crave the classy interior and sporty feel of Mazda's CX-9, nor need the reassurance of Honda's name; if you want bigger than Toyota Highlander but less distinctive than Ford Flex; if Chrysler's hybrids are too truck-y; if GMC seems pretentious, Buick bulbous, Saturn mysterious …

… then the good looks, improved powertrain and straightforward presentation of styling and features make Traverse quite appealing.

About the 2009 Chevrolet Traverse

•What? Another version of General Motors' so-called lambda SUVs. Like GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave, Traverse is a full-size (ignore GM's midsize designation; they're as big as Tahoes), four-door, crossover SUV that seats seven or eight, and comes with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD).

•When? Out since mid-September.

•Why? Good question. GM had three similar models doing well, but Chevy is its high-volume brand and didn't have one.

•How much? You thought Chevy was a lower-price brand? Base FWD LS starts at $28,990 with $735 shipping. LTZ AWD with all options is $46,800. Test vehicles: $39,465 FWD LT, $45,250 AWD LTZ.

•How powerful? More than most rivals. 3.6-liter V-6 is rated 288 horsepower at 6,300 rpm with dual exhaust (281 hp with single), 270 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm with dual exhaust (266 lbs.-ft. at 3,400 with single). Six-speed automatic transmission has manual-shift mode.

AWD starts with 90% of power to front wheels, can shift up to 100% to rears.

•How lavish? Sufficiently. Standard is the normal safety gear and such features as climate control; AM/FM/CD/MP3; cruise control; power steering, brakes, locks, windows, mirrors; trip computer.

•How big? Full size. Traverse is 3 inches longer than, as wide as, has more cargo space than a full-size Tahoe SUV and takes a foot wider to turn around.

It is 205 inches long, 78.4 in. wide, 72.8 in. tall on a 116-in. wheelbase and weighs 4,720 lbs. (FWD), 4,925 lbs. (AWD).

Passenger space is listed as 153.1 cubic feet. Cargo space in cubic feet: behind third row, 24.4; third row folded, 68.8; second and third rows folded, 116.4. Turning circle listed as 40.4 feet.

Rated to tow 5,200 lbs., carry 1,694 lbs. (FWD) or 1,544 lbs. (AWD) of people and cargo.

•How thirsty? FWD is rated 17 mpg in town, 24 on highway, 19 in combined driving. AWD is 16/23/19. FWD test vehicle's trip computer showed 14.9 mpg in suburban driving; AWD, 16.9 mpg in suburb-freeway mix. Regular fuel is specified.

•Overall:Teething problems but otherwise good.