When $28,990 starts to look like a bargain for a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle, you know that crossover SUVs with three rows of seats have become popular with American families.

Chevrolet dropped its eight-passenger minivan, the Uplander, in the 2008 model year and added the seven- to eight-passenger Traverse crossover sport utility vehicle for 2009. Crossovers give you a car-like ride and modern styling that’s more SUV-like than that on minivans.

The Uplander minivan’s starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, was $22,320, but the Traverse’s starting price is just under $29,000.

Still, it’s at least $2,600 less than that of the crossover SUVs that share the Traverse’s underpinnings — the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave.

The Traverse also is priced about the same as competing Japanese crossover SUVs. The 2009 Honda Pilot starts at $28,265, the 2009 Toyota Highlander at $28,245.

Shoppers will find the Traverse to be a rather sizable crossover with surprising capability.

When properly fitted with towing package, the Traverse can tow 5,200 pounds. In contrast, the maximum towing capacity for a 2009 Honda Pilot is 4,500 pounds.

At 205 inches long, from bumper to bumper, the new Traverse is nearly 17 inches longer than a Toyota Highlander and 14.1 inches longer than a Pilot. It’s 3.5 inches taller than a Highlander and more than an inch taller than a Pilot.

The Traverse also boasts more total cargo room inside — 116.4 cubic feet — than either Japanese competitor. For example, the maximum cargo space inside the 2009 Pilot, aft of the front-row seats, is 87 cubic feet.

Best of all, the federal government’s fuel economy rating for the bigger and heavier Traverse is nearly the same as that for the 2009 Pilot and Highlander, at 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway for a two-wheel drive model.

However, during the test drive, with 65 percent city driving, I managed just 16.1 mpg in the all-wheel drive Traverse.

The Traverse’s sole engine is a 3.6-liter, double overhead cam V-6 with variable valve timing. This powerplant also has direct injection, meaning gasoline is sprayed directly into the engine’s cylinders. It allows for a more efficient fuel burn, so less gas is needed to produce equivalent horsepower vis-à-vis a conventional port-injection engine.

The power was palpable in both city and highway travel as I could move quickly to pass another vehicle and enjoy easy highway cruising.

Horsepower peaks at 281 and torque at 253 foot-pounds at 5,500 rpm in lower-trim versions, which have a single exhaust system. In the top-level LTZ trim, the Traverse with the same engine produces 288 horses and 270 foot-pounds of torque at 6,300 rpm because the LTZ model is fitted with a dual exhaust system.

Still, the Traverse has more power than the 2009 Pilot with 250-horsepower V-6 and the 2009 Highlander with 270-horsepower V-6.

And all Traverse vehicles use a six-speed automatic transmission and require only unleaded regular gasoline.

I liked the steep first gear of the transmission in the test vehicle. It provided good get up and go. But I felt and noticed far too many shift points as I drove, so the transmission activity did not seem refined or as smooth as it could be.

Filling the 22-gallon gas tank cost an eyebrow-raising $75-plus.

And at 4,925 pounds, the test Traverse felt like the heavy vehicle it was. I noticed how the weight would shift from one side to another as I went around curves and turns.

Even while the Traverse — with standard traction control and electronic stability control — was gripping the pavement, passengers were feeling the vehicle lean to one side or another.

There also was a good amount of unsprung weight — in other words, a sense of unsettled mass at the four wheels as they rolled over road bumps.

Still, the steering response was noteworthy.

The interior of the test vehicle had well-arranged controls and good-sized buttons and knobs, just like those in its sister vehicles at GMC, Buick and Saturn. But in the Traverse, a couple pieces of the hard plastic trim weren’t quite aligned.

Front seats are especially wide, generous and provide good comfort for large-sized passengers.

The second row seat of the Traverse included a Smart Slide feature that helped clear the way for people who want to get to the third row. At 33.2 inches, legroom way back there is more than what’s in the Pilot and Highlander.

All safety items, including six air bags, are standard, and the Traverse earned a top, five-out-of-five-star safety rating from the federal government in frontal and side crash testing.

But I advise getting the rearview monitor because it’s difficult for a driver to see what’s going on at the back of the Traverse. This monitor does not substitute for a driver looking back there, but it provides extra help.



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