With the full-size SUV market all but dead, General Motors and Ford are counting on large crossovers (and a few pennies from Washington) to keep them afloat. Sure, small cars are all the rage, but some people need space for six-plus people and their luggage— and will not buy anything with uncool sliding doors. Also, while large crossovers aren’t as profitable as large SUVs were in the 1990s, they are far more profitable than a Cobalt or Focus. The Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Flex recently arrived at dealers. Which is more likely to save its maker’s bacon?
The 4500-pound, 202-inch-long Flex is Ford’s second attempt at a large crossover. The brilliantly packaged Freestyle flopped; its styling rendered it invisible to most, and overly wagonish to others. A new powertrain, additional exterior chrome and a new name (Taurus X, no relation to Malcolm) haven’t helped. So Ford has given the Flex— based on the same Volvo-derived D3 platform— an exterior that people can’t fail to notice. With a radically boxy shape, grooved sides and the option of a contrasting roof color, Ford has sought to transfer the attention-getting, cult-inspiring, contra-flow coolness of the Scion xB and MINI Cooper to a far larger package. Props to Ford for taking a risk and not just giving us more of the same. But this “bold move”™ doesn’t seem to be working: most people simply see a Family Truckster.
GM has taken no such risks with the exterior of the 4,800-pound, 205-inch-long Traverse, the fourth variant of the corporation’s Lambda platform (next up: Cadillac). So far we’ve seen organic curves (Buick Enclave), mildly square and SUVish (Acadia) and mildly square and VWish (Outlook). To this mix the new Chevrolet adds something more chiseled than the Enclave but more sporty and car-like than the other two, with more rake to the hood, an upswept rear side window and a grille lifted off the Malibu sedan. Like the other Lambdas, the Traverse is conventionally attractive, with better proportions and a stronger stance than the Flex.
Given its financial sickliness, no one would have blamed Ford for borrowing freely from the Freestyle when crafting the Flex’s interior. But they didn’t. Nor have they ventured far outside the box for the inside of this box. Instead, the Flex’s cabin has an understated upscale ambiance that’s part VW, part Land Rover. Well, at least in the upper level trims it does. The SE trim, bereft of convincing planks of plasti-wood on the doors and cursed with oddly puckered cloth on the seats, is base in all senses of the word.
The Traverse’s interior isn’t as inviting. Chevy attempted to transfer the theme from the Malibu, with silver plastic trim forming a wave across the instrument panel and thick, oddly-shaped rings of faux chrome around the instruments. But the Malibu’s retro flavor and nifty piping didn’t survive the transfer. Worse: as in the Acadia and Enclave, too many elements, surfaces and hues are in play, and they don’t play well together. Also as in other Lambdas, the padded vinyl on the doors does a unusually poor job of passing for leather (especially in the lighter shades) and the seats look insubstantial and insufficiently contoured, especially in cloth.
With the Freestyle, Ford sought to lure people out of SUVs with a seating position about six inches higher than a car’s. The seats are about as far above the pavement in the Flex, but they’re surrounded by much taller, more rectilinear bodywork. So the driver seat feels low and the view over the hood is more Crown Vic than crossover. No problem— there’s more headroom than in some cathedrals. So unless you play center in the NBA, go ahead and crank up the power seat. And a supremely comfortable seat it is: broad and cushy but contoured to provide support in all the right places for long stretches of Interstate. The similarly superb second-row seats are mounted high off the floor. So kids can easily see out (making them less likely to spew) and adults will appreciate the thigh support. The third row seat is mounted even farther from the ground but, as in all direct competitors, it is nevertheless uncomfortably low to the floor.
The driving position in the Traverse is higher, close to that of a traditional SUV, and there’s more glass in its greenhouse. So the view forward is more open and you’re obviously piloting a large crossover. But the Chevrolet’s front seats, while passable, cannot hold a candle to the thrones in the Flex. The second row (captains or bench, as in the Flex) lags even farther behind. Although the Traverse’s exterior is a few inches longer, taller and broader, it inexplicably has 7.5 fewer inches of legroom in a second row mounted too low to the floor for adult comfort. In the third row, which is easily accessible in either vehicle, the Traverse scores a win, with enough additional shoulder room (seven inches) to fit a third passenger and better support than in the second row (go figure).
With all seats in their full upright positions, either vehicle can carry more than the typical three-row crossover (but less than the typical minivan— the price of fashion). Fold the second and third rows, and the Chevy’s bigger body can swallow over 30 additional cubes of cargo (for a total of 116). But the front passenger seat folds only in the Flex, so if you want to carry your favorite nine-foot-long object with the tailgate closed, it’s the one. The Chevrolet has the advantage of sheer size, but Ford has successfully countered with clever packaging.
The powertrains have similar specs, with a 262-horspower 3.5-liter (Ford) or 281-horsepower 3.6-liter (Chevy) DOHC V6 driving the front or (optionally) all four wheels through a jointly developed six-speed slushbox. And similar EPA ratings: 17/24. Subjectively, the Chevy’s powertrain is more pleasing. The front-wheel-drive Traverse’s steering doesn’t get squirrelly like the Flex’s during hard acceleration. Its engine, with snappier throttle responses courtesy of direct injection (new to all Lambdas for 2009). It’s also quieter at idle and sounds marginally better when pushed. Despite full complements of cams and valves, neither engine makes lusty noises or begs to be revved— is this so hard? Still, in typical driving, both accelerate effortlessly around town thanks to the six-speed automatic’s short initial gearing and provide passable passing power on the highway.
The biggest GM powertrain advantage: gear selection. Neither transmission does a good job of picking and holding the best gear when left to its own devices during semi-aggressive driving. But with the Ford, you don’t have much of a choice. You can lock out sixth by pressing a button and downshift (eventually) from D to L via the clunky shifter, and that’s it. Which of the six gears is L? Dealer’s choice, and the dealer is neither a quick chooser nor a judicious one. When selecting L, be prepared for either too little oomph, an embarrassing amount of engine roar or a few seconds of the the former followed by the latter. With the Traverse, on the other hand, a thumb-actuated rocker on the shift knob selects the range of gears the transmission can select among, with the top selectable gear displayed in the instrument cluster. Though no paddle-shifted DSG, it’s still far better than the Flex’s system. Holding third for that upcoming curve is as simple as a few flicks of the thumb.
Taken through that curve at six-tenths (if you want to autocross your people hauler, get a Mazda CX-9), both behave well for such tall, massive vehicles, with modest amounts of lean and far less bobbling about than in an olde school SUV. Push harder, and the low-grip 18-inch tread on the outside front corner yowls into understeer. (The 20s on the Traverse LTZ should hold out for longer.) The Chevrolet, despite its additional height and weight, is the more willing partner, with a chassis that simply feels right through the seat of the pants and nicely weighted, relatively chatty steering. In contrast, the Flex’s uncomfortably numb electric-assist steering wheel feels much the same when turned ninety-degrees as it does when pointed dead ahead. The superceded Freestyle’s conventional system is dearly missed. Combine the Flex’s vintage arcade steering with a chassis that sometimes turns in with unexpected quickness, and confidence is not inspired.
The Chevy’s superior handling has a price: even with the 18-inch wheels it doesn’t ride as smoothly— heads get tossed on patchy pavement— or as quietly as the limo-like Flex. Thank the massive stabilizer bars and need to leave room for Buick.
The Traverse is more enjoyable to drive—but that’s not exactly a priority in this segment. The Ford’s advantages would probably make it the winner for non-enthusiasts who don’t need to seat three in the third— except Ford’s gamble with the Flex’s exterior isn’t paying off. Few people have been bothering to take one for a test drive, so the lovely seats, smooth ride and upscale interior ambiance haven’t been winning many sales.
It’s Pacifica redux. Even with three sibs to split the pie, the Chevrolet will sell in much greater volume. But, given those three sibs, it’s simply redundant. The quadruplets are clearly fraternal, and the Traverse has the sportiest look of the four. But if Chevrolet hadn’t squeezed into the fray, people would simply buy an Acadia, Enclave, or Outlook (in that order) judging from the list of most common comparisons. Plus business for Chevy dealers isn’t necessarily plus business for GM.
So, which vehicle is going to save the day for its maker? Neither.